Friday, March 1, 2013

Finally, Just Another Example of Israel Bashing: Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers

At first glance, Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, his seemingly probing interview documentary with the six living former heads of Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet (roughly akin to the FBI), all besides its current head Yoram Cohen, would seem to make for startling revelations as he goes behind the scenes of an agency few know much about. (The famed Mossad, Israel’s equivalent to the CIA, with its rescue of the Jewish hostages at Entebbe or the capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann and other such remarkable feats of derring-do usually gets all the international headlines.) But gradually, one begins to notice a sameness to all the interviewee’s political views and, more significantly, an agenda held by the filmmaker which ultimately holds his country up to the worst possible light. It’s not that Israel should be immune to criticism, even from its highest placed civil servants. It’s more that a look at the complexities and nuances of Israeli life and actions should reflect that complexity, instead of coming across as an excuse to beat up on the country to an unbalanced degree. But The Gatekeepers, which lost out to Searching for Sugar Man for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award, refuses to do that, preferring to place all the blame and onus on the Palestinian-Israeli impasse or the fraught relationship with Iran, among other issues, on one side instead of examining how we got here from there. That blinkered, myopic and highly biased point of view ultimately dooms The Gatekeepers to mere propaganda and polemic instead of its being crafted as the powerful, informative documentary it ought to have been.

I won’t distinguish who says what in the film since the six men are barely identified in the movie, making it hard to remember who’s uttering what and also since, as I indicated earlier, their views could easily be substituted one for the other so specific identification hardly matters. Suffice it to say that the men – Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, and Yuval Diskin (Shin Bet’s most recent ex-head) – are highly critical of their country’s political proclivities and by extension, though not all of them seem to realize it, are assailing their own agency in the process.

Some of that criticism is, of course, justified. The Shin Bet didn’t anticipate the extent of the two Palestinian intifadas, the so-called uprisings against Israeli occupation, which they should have considering they used Palestinian collaborators to feed them information on what was supposedly going on in the territories. (The six men do acknowledge the Palestinian responsibility for the terrorism and violence of the time but that's mere lip service. Like most critics of the Jewish state they can't bring themselves to admit that over the years Israel has always been the party more willing to compromise for peace.) And certainly the agency dropped the ball when it came to preventing and/or foiling the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin by a right wing religious Israeli zealot, though the Shin Bet heads do remind us that the intolerant and non-democratic anti-Rabin faction of Israel still exists. (The Gatekeepers avoids mentioning the significant fact that the Shin Bet reportedly had a double agent who had infiltrated the virulently anti-Rabin camp yet didn’t utilize him properly. Some have suggested that highly conservative elements within the agency didn’t want the assassination to be stopped.) And those segments remain fascinating, offering as they do a bird’s eye view of events that had major ramifications for not just Israel but the world. With Moreh’s minimal and deft use of effective dramatic recreations and music, those moments leave a visceral, memorable impact.

The Gatekeepers' director, Dror Moreh
Other parts of the movie are more annoying. Despite the fact that several of the Shin Bet heads are now in politics and one, Yaakov Peri (Jacob Perry) was just elected to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, one can’t help but wonder what they think they’re accomplishing with their incessant attacks on various aspects of Israelis society and their political bosses. Don’t they have to take some responsibility for what happened under their watch? Dror Moreh certainly doesn’t seem to think so, as he never asks that salient question.(Yuval Diskin, who left the Shin Bet in 2011, attacked Israel’s Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu for placing his own interests above that of the state and being more opportunistic than any other Israeli PM he had ever dealt with. No argument there, but as Diskin made those statements mere weeks before Israel’s 2013 elections, his words can clearly be seen as an attempt to sway the outcome.) And as The Jerusalem Report magazine pointed out in a story on The Gatekeepers in its Jan. 28 issue, the movie lets stand former Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom’s contentious statement that he had been ordered by then-Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir, his boss, to kill two Palestinian terrorists who had been captured alive after a bus hijacking in 1984. That act by Shin Bet agents was a major stain on the agency’s reputation for integrity and honesty. Though Israeli commissions of inquiry later accepted Shamir’s claim that he had not, in fact, ordered the murders and despite the fact that Shamir is not alive to defend himself against Shalom’s claim and was suffering from Alzheimer’s when the movie was being made, The Gatekeepers doesn’t ask the hard questions it should have about the matter.

But then Moreh is likely in agreement with pretty much anything any of the Shin Bet heads have to say about Israel, whether it’s comparing Israeli actions in the territories to those of the Nazis in the countries they governed in Occupied Europe – an odious argument in any context – to suggesting that Israel is basically “a cruel society.” By the time one of the Shin Bet heads advises Israel to negotiate with Iran – you know the country whose leaders, while working on creating a nuclear bomb, routinely fulminate about destroying Israel, thus killing another six million Jews – and another quotes Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the late controversial Israeli intellectual who coined the noxious term "Judeo-Nazi" to describe the Israeli mentality, you can’t help but gnash your teeth in frustration. I suspect this particular line of argument comes as much from Moreh, who in interviews has opined that he has an even "bleaker" vision of Israel’s future than his interview subjects but either way it all adds up to one thing: blaming the Jewish state for pretty much everything bad occurring in the region. Despite some valuable elements, The Gatekeepers, ultimately, is just another facile, simplistic example of Israel bashing.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute. His current course, What Makes a Movie Great?, began on Feb. 8.

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