What if “Gatekeepers” Wins An Oscar?

Tonight the Academy Awards will be presented. Among the films competing for the title of “Best Documentary” is the Israeli film “Gatekeepers” (Shomrei Hasaf”). I am not a film critic, and I have not seen the competing entries. Therefore, I certainly cannot say whether the Israeli entry deserves to win the Oscar. However, as I was leaving the movie theatre a few weeks ago after seeing “Gatekeepers”, two things were clear. First, it was evident that “Gatekeepers” is an exceptionally powerful film. Second, as I gazed at a group of soldiers from the Army Spokesman’s office leaving the theatre, it was indisputable that they are not going to have an easy time explaining this film. Sure enough, a number of friends from abroad have been in touch asking whether or not this film is true. The simple answer is that none of the former heads of the Shin Bet have come out and attacked the film for misrepresenting what they said.


For those who have not yet seen “Gatekeepers”, the film is composed of a series of interviews with each of the living former heads of the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security services.) The interviews are interspersed with historic images of the events that took place. The film tells three main stories: 1) the moral dilemmas of occupation; 2) the rise of messianic right; and 3) the lack of thought and planning on the part of the Israeli government.


The first storyline (chronicling the moral dilemmas of occupation) should come as no surprise to any Israeli who spent time doing reserve duty in the territories. After spending part of the summer of 1980 in Gaza, I knew that staying there, occupying another people was morally corrupting. That experience has affected my political views ever since. One of the former heads of the Shin Bet compared our current situation to that of the Nazi occupation of much of Europe. He did, however, take pains to distinguish how the Nazis acted to the Jews–– as compared to the general occupation, to which he was referring. Nevertheless, from my experience, (albeit very limited) that is certainly how it felt. For the first few years we could say that occupation was benign. However, after 46 years it is very difficult to maintain that position.


Regarding the issue of the rise of the messianic right, I will leave to greater experts to discuss.


For me, the third part of the film was the most disturbing. The storyline of the third segment can be summarized by the titles of the first and last sections of the film, respectively– “All tactics and no strategy” and  “the old man at the end of the corridor is not there”. The first section examined the period immediately following the 1967 war. It dealt with our plans for administering the West Bank. The interviews laid out the sad fact that no one had any real plan for what to do with that area– there was no organized strategy. The leadership just reacted to events on a day-to-day basis. “No strategy, only tactics” regrettably rings true to much of the government’s decisions here– on a whole long list of items.


The final section was narrated, primarily, by Avi Dichter. He spoke about how as a young boy he always imagined the Prime Minister’s office as a special place located at the end of a long corridor, where a very smart old man sat making important decisions and guiding the country. Dichter states, when he got older, and reached positions of power where he needed to visit the Prime Minister’s office he was disillusioned to learn that there was no such man.


If the “Gatekeepers” wins tonight, official Israel will be faced with a dilemma– i.e. how to embrace what would be a major accomplishment of the Israeli film making industry, while not necessarily agreeing with its story line. I humbly suggest an approach that might even help overcome our dilemma of lack of strategy. I believe we must embrace the film. Agree that occupation is a morally hazardous situation. State clearly that Israel has no interest in occupying anyone.


At the same time, we must remind the world that despite the fact that we do not want to be there (to be an occupying force), none of our alternative strategies have worked out well. We pulled out of Lebanon, and received Hezbollah kidnappings and rocket fire in return. We pulled out of Gaza and received the same. We once relied on the U.N. to provide us with safety guarantees. However, for those old enough to remember May 1967, we discovered that UN troops can disappear in an instant. While we should not dwell on the Holocaust, we must remind everyone that our history makes us wary. State, officially, that we share in the film’s premise that occupation is morally corrupting, and even if we did not have a strategy before, we now have one– put an end to the morally corrupting status of occupation. Now we just need the tactics detailing how to make that happen, while not endangering ourselves. For that to come to pass, we need the world’s help in devising the plan since we have failed to find a workable solution to our unbearable dilemma.


Whether the film wins or loses the “Gatekeepers” is an important movie that every Israeli should see. First, because it is true. Second, because no other group of former heads of security services– in the world– would discuss their moral dilemmas so candidly. Finally, this film can be used to move us to a better place. If we better understand our own dilemmas– (how to be true to our deep sense of morality in the face of the constant existential threat posed by our enemies), we may improve our position in the eyes of the world, and hopefully move our own internal discussions forward on this critical issue.

About the Author
Marc Schulman is the editor of Historycentral.com -- the largest history web site. He is the author a series of Multimedia History Apps as well as a recent biography of JFK. He holds a BA and MA from Columbia University, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek authoring the Tel Aviv Diary. He is the publisher of an economic news App about Israel called DigitOne