As everyone knows by now, The Gatekeepers is a 2012 Academy award-nominated documentary film made by the Israeli director Dror Moreh. Moreh succeeded in interviewing the last six heads of Israel’s General Security Services, better known by its Hebrew acronym Shin Bet. These gentlemen display considerable frankness about the nature of their past activities, their belated advocacy of a two-state solution to the Palestine issue and their negative views of successive Israeli governments.
It’s not my purpose here to write another review of this much talked-about but surprisingly uncontroversial film. Interesting articles, both of which discuss it in conjunction with the Israeli/Palestinian film 5 Broken Cameras, may be read here and here. Instead, I wish to reflect on some worrisome aspects of the film’s framing and reception in public discourse, and to suggest that its propagandistic effect is dependent on such framing.
First of all, the six subjects of this film tortured, murdered and criminally conspired on behalf of a rogue state. It is as if six capi di tutti capi, who had somehow escaped conviction, were to describe in gory detail their protection rackets, vendettas and other enormities, and then cheerfully opine (these Shin Bet men chuckle a lot) that the Mafia could probably have achieved its ends by other means.
It’s also likely that Shin Bet’s current Director, Yoram Cohen, is at present engaged in the torture and murder of Palestinians. When he retires, no doubt he too will “become a bit of a leftie” (Yaakov Peri, Director from 1988-1994) and criticise the government that employed him for its failure to pull out of the West Bank, a policy that he will have actively conspired to implement. He will then be succeeded by another tough guy, and thus the cycle will continue – until it ends.
Moreh’s only previous film was a 2008 TV documentary about the mass murderer Ariel Sharon that was reputedly something of a whitewash. This could have aroused suspicions that, in its own way, Gatekeepers might also have a propagandistic agenda.
Such niceties eluded the astounding Melanie Phillips who wrote in the Jewish Chronicle:
We don't know to what extent these six were unaware how they would be used in this film. But it is astounding to see former intelligence chiefs shooting their mouths off with opinions that can only hearten Israel's enemies. For any former director of MI5, such behaviour would be utterly unthinkable.
Alan Johnson of BICOM (Britain Israel Communications Research Centre), who is as right-wing as Phillips but rather more shrewd, hastily took her to task in his Daily Telegraph blog. She was “unwise” not to realise that “friends of Israel must not dismiss” the film:
… by humanising the former Shin Bet heads, Moreh humanises Israel itself, opening up its security dilemmas to a more nuanced understanding, in which the ground tone of tragedy is present while the nonsense about “imperialism” is absent.
Phillips, Johnson accurately diagnosed, was in danger of messing up this clever propaganda ploy by taking the film’s supposedly critical stance at face value. And of course “tragedy” is a word commonly used by Israel’s defenders to imply that Palestine’s woes result from some kind of fatality, and not from purposeful political decisions on the part, precisely, of imperialist politicians, generals, and Shin Bet Directors.
However, while this little contretemps on the right is amusing, the film’s reception among putative liberals with no overtly Zionist axe to grind is far more instructive.
Philip French in The Observer (in effect, the Sunday Guardian) is encouraged by “the manifest decency and reasonableness of these six honest, articulate men…”, a comment that some might find chilling given the atrocities these decent, reasonable fellows have perpetrated. He refers to “a seemingly hopeless conflict where the intransigence of both sides and the increasing pig-headedness of politicians have ensured that Israel may end up winning every battle but losing the war”, thus buying in to the standard liberal discourse that the Israel/Palestine issue is a “conflict” between two “intransigent” sides rather than a war of dispossession waged by a colonial regime, with full backing from the imperial West, against the practically defenceless Palestinian people. But then French also sees the “conflict” as “a war against terrorism”, so perhaps he’s not as liberal as all that.
Ian Dunt, editor of politics.co.uk and an undoubted supporter of Palestinian rights, refers to “the murder of two terrorists” by Shin Bet after the hi-jacking of an Israeli bus in 1984. Were they “terrorists”? They didn’t kill any of the passengers, and they released a pregnant woman who raised the alarm about the hi-jack. Or were they “freedom fighters”? However one defines these terms there’s no doubt that Dunt is adopting Israeli terminology. Of course throughout The Gatekeepers the term “terrorists” and “terror”, referring exclusively to Palestinians, are used repeatedly – with only Yuval Diskin (torturer-in-chief from 2005-2011) expressing some qualifications (“one man’s terrorist…”).
Dunt opines that the sextet “have clear scars on their conscience and clearly resent the insane, self-defeating hawkishness of Israel's political class”. But if the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe is correct and Israel is “a mukhabarat state” (the mukhabarat are the secret police in Arab countries), “run by an all-pervasive bureaucracy and ruled by military and security apparatuses”, then our six interviewees themselves belong to “Israel’s political class” and have done their considerable bit to perpetuate the hawkishness in question.
Here in Ireland, the programme booklet of the Irish Film Institute (IFI) refers to the six ex-Directors as “wily old warriors” who are “humanised by a recognition of the psychological and emotional toll of knowing you’ve killed innocent people along with terrorist targets.”
It was Alan Johnson who claimed that “by humanising the former Shin Bet heads, Moreh humanises Israel itself”. Thus the impeccably liberal, even lefty IFI nods in agreement with the British ultra-Zionist rightist. This “humanisation” entails commiserating with the pain of the murderer who knows he has “killed innocent people”, while in reality the “guilt” or “innocence” of Israel’s Palestinian victims is largely defined at the discretion of these same “wily old warriors”.
Would similar interviews with my hypothetical six Mafiosi not also have humanised them, and by extension the Mafia itself? Or is it only Israeli torturers whose humanisation somehow absolves both themselves and the rogue state they serve? The Western political unconscious, rightly uneasy because of Europe’s past persecution of its Jews, is always seeking alibis for Israel. That this leads merely to another form of exceptionalism brings it under the category of philo-Semitism philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who loves Jews).
Paul Whittington in the Irish Independent writes a remarkably subdued revue by the rabid standards of that paper’s commentariat. Nonetheless, his language is also far from neutral or objective. He refers slavishly to “Shin Bet and the Israeli army… taking out terrorists from the air.” Note that “taking out resistance fighters from the air” has a rather more unsavoury ring to it.
For Whittington the Shin Bet operatives’ willingness to kill and torture Palestinians in the pursuit of expansionist Zionism is translated into “their absolutely unflinching commitment to defend their country by all means necessary”, a phrase that could have been dictated by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Shin Bet’s – and the Israeli army’s – true responsibility is to inflict a reign of terror on the Palestinians to ensure that, in the immortal words of General Moshe Dayan, they “will live like dogs and those who will leave, will leave.”
Donald Clarke in the Irish Times cites a quotation once attributed to Orwell – “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf” – and concludes that “the misquote gets at horrible truths about the modern state and its enemies.” In this reading Israel, instead of being a rogue state that serially violates international law, stands in for “the modern state”, while the Palestinians represent “its enemies”. Ireland is also a “modern state” (after all, our army is also designated IDF), so presumably the Palestinians must be our enemies too.
“The six men”, he continues, “deserve more enthusiastic congratulations for telling their grim stories.” Presumably, then, if Pinochet had given us a bloodcurdling personal account of the crimes committed under his dictatorship he would have “deserv[ed]… enthusiastic congratulations”? Surely the stories in question are not merely “grim” but “criminal”? Once again it appears that the Irish Times regards Israeli criminality as something not deserving our opprobrium.
For the IFI and the reviewers, therefore, Israel is simply a normal state that has had to resort to harsh measures in order to subdue its enemies, not a rogue military state founded in the dispossession of the Palestinians and committed by fair means or foul to completing that process. The Gatekeepers, far from being an indictment of that dispossession and the persecution it entails, is a homage to the humanity of “the wily warriors” of the Shin Bet who defend the “modern state” – of Israel, but somehow also of the whole civilised world – and by extension a homage to the humanity of Israel itself and consequently the inhumanity of its victims.
A viewer who knew nothing about “the conflict” would probably be persuaded by The Gatekeepers that Israel is a criminal state that, in its present form, needs to be disbanded. The film can only succeed as propaganda because its perspective has already become the common currency of our liberal media and cultural institutions.