This was a film experience unlike any other I had experienced. Saturday afternoon when I approached the ticket office the SOLD OUT sign flickered up. When I returned on Monday I just squeezed in for one of the last seats. The film was a grim documentary. Since when do documentaries pack them in? I scanned the audience; something else was going on. Everyone was talking to one another, as if they had come together as one family; and during the preview for a comedy about a Jewish song they laughed and hummed along. Was I the only gentile in the room? “The Gatekeepers,” the Israeli documentary competing for the Academy Award, began and the silence fell.
The audience knew what they were there for. They had read the reviews and spread the word. The honor of Israel, as well as its political future, was on the table. For those who have been following the Israeli press and the few American publications like The Nation who are brave enough to speak honestly, Israel’s troubles were not all the fault of hostile neighbors. For those still committed to the Israel which Moses declared must prove that they were God’s chosen people by of the justice of their laws, the news was not good.
We are facing a fuzzy black and white satellite’s view of a Gaza neighborhood with the crosshairs in the center of the screen tracking a large vehicle moving slowly through the streets. Suddenly the car explodes in a burst of fire and smoke. Its passengers are incinerated. An enemy, a “terrorist,” was in the car. Who else? More terrorists? His family? We do not know.
Our hosts, most well built and wearing bright blue shirts, are six former directors of the Shin Bet, Israel’s rough equivalent of the C.I.A., who ran Shin Bet under eight prime ministers from 1980 to 2011, through Palestinian uprising on the West Bank and in Gaza, and the assassination by a Jew of Yitzhak Rabin, the one man close to making peace, in 1995.
In their treatment of prisoners these men were no better than their American counterparts; following the 1984 hijacking of an Israeli bus the army caught two terrorists and started beating them to death. While they were still alive a soldier checked with Shin Bet headquarters on what to do next. The word came down, “Hit them again and finish it.” So they took a rock and bashed their heads in. One blogger commenting on the film, Philip Weiss, writes, “Our informants are murderers. . . They may think they’ve redeemed themselves with this film. I don’t.” Later the historical footage shows a Palestinian old woman working feverishly to break rocks so the rioting young will have something to throw at the Israeli troops.
The film — and ironically Israel’s downfall — begins in 1967 with Israel’s unlawful continued occupation of the West Bank following the six-day war. These tough realistic men still love Israel and they are demonstrating their love by telling it and us the truth about its situation today. They make no excuses for their immoral behavior, other than to proclaim that to fight terrorism they concluded that that one must forget about morality. They share what they have learned. One quotes Clauswitz, the most-quoted philosopher of war, that victory is best described as achieving a “better political reality” than what preceded. Not the annihilation of the enemy. Furthermore, peace cannot be achieved by the military waging war, but only by rational discourse. In its struggle to control the Palestinians, to deny them their own homeland, Israel has won every battle and has lost the war. Worse, they have become like the Germans who occupied Western Europe in World Ware II. They have become cruel.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (2/5/13) draws an additional lesson applicable to the United States. He asks whether there is another country where “tough guys cite philosophers,” and “accuse their bosses of being weak unimaginative leaders.” What U.S. film crew will get the former directors of the C.I.A. to “admit that the war in Afghanistan is an unconscionable botch—a bloody, daily, slog without end or justification”?