erik lundegaard

The Gatekeepers

Twitter: @ErikLundegaard


The Gatekeepers (2012)


Has Dick Cheney seen this documentary? He should. Have you? You should, too.

“The Gatekeepers” documents the nearly 50 years of struggle, tension, and terrorism between Israel and Palestine since the Six Day War, as seen through the eyes of the six surviving directors of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency, whose motto is “Defender that shall not be seen.” Here, they are seen. Here, they talk.

Near the end, when documentarian Dror Moreh asks his subjects if they support speaking to the enemy, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the like, they all say yes. Every one of them. Even Avraham Shalom, who looks like your favorite Jewish uncle (checked shirt, red suspenders) but has something deeper and darker in him, even he says yes. “Anyone we can, even if they answer rudely,” Shalom says, adding, “It’s a trait of a professional intelligence operative to talk to everyone. Things get clarified.”

Things get clarified in “The Gatekeepers,” too, even if that clarification leads to no easy answers, or, really, any answers. But it clarifies in demonstrating a path that hasn’t worked. Which just happens to be the path we’re on.

What do you do?

It’s tough to imagine the work it took to get these guys to speak, but they do, and they do it with intelligence, thoughtfulness, and a surprising lack of bullshit. These men have seen things and done things and made decisions and taken lives. They’ve lived the dilemma most of us merely debate over.

The doc begins with one such dilemma, presented rhetorically by Yuval Diskin (director of Shin Bet, 2005-11), even as it becomes a real-world situation later in the film. A known terrorist is with two other people, and you don’t know whether they’re part of it, but you can’t take him out without taking them out, too. “What do you do?” Diskin asks Moreh, just off-camera. “Do you fire or not?” He says not doing anything seems easier but it’s actually harder. Then he says something fairly remarkable for the head of a national security agency. It’s a worldview we don’t get much in the U.S., where absolutism, if not outright chest-thumping, is the norm. It’s a measured response; it resides in the gray areas:

We all have our moments. On vacation, you say, “Okay, I made a decision and X number of people were killed. They were definitely about to launch a big attack. No one near them was hurt. It was as sterile as possible.” Yet you still say, “There’s something unnatural about it.” What’s unnatural is the power you have to take three people, terrorists, and take their lives in an instant.

Israel is more besieged than the U.S.—tiny rather than huge, surrounded on all sides by enemies rather than oceans—yet its heads of security present a more human face than ours. They seem smarter. “We took intensive courses in spoken and literary Arabic,” says Yaakov Peri (1988-94). “Anyone who took the Shin Bet’s Arabic program seriously, knows Arabic.” They have a sense of humor about dark matters. Avi Dichter (2000-2005), who looks like he could be Mel Brooks’ younger brother, talks about the dangers of bad Arabic as officials go door-to-door in occupied territories. Adding an accent to the H? It’s the difference between “We came to count you” and “We came to castrate you.”

What’s the dilemma? It’s occupation—of the West Bank and Gaza. How do you control what can’t be controlled? How do you sort the innocent from the dangerous without creating more of the dangerous? How much surveillance is enough to keep your group safe, and when is it OK to shoot to kill, and in the process what do we become? More: How do you fight an enemy whose notion of victory, as one Palestinian tells Ami Ayalon (1995-2000), is “seeing you suffer”? An enemy who thinks you don’t even have the right to exist?

One solution is an open hand—giving up the occupied territories, West Bank and Gaza—but of course the Oslo Accords were meant to do that and it led to fierce reaction and outcry from within Israel and to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the subsequent resignation of Shin Bet director Carmi Gillon (1994-96).

Another solution is the closed fist. But in 1984 that led to the Bus 300 Affair, in which two Palestinian hijackers were executed summarily by Shin Bet, which led to outcry, investigation, coverup. Yahya Ayyash, chief bombmaker for Hamas, was assassinated in 1996, but there was collateral damage, and outcry, and when a larger group could have been targeted, lesser bombs were used and terrorists survived. For which there was outcry.

Good and safe

We want to be safe but we want to be good. That’s the dilemma. Yet the more practical question is this: Is our method for making ourselves safe in the short-term making ourselves safe in the long-term? Are our methods sustainable? For these six men, whose positions and presence carry considerable weight, the answer is no, no, no, no, no and no.

Of all things, I kept being reminded of “The Wire,” David Simon’s superlative series about cops and drug dealers (and politicians and teachers and the media) in Baltimore. Tactically, it’s about tracking guys too smart to use cellphones. Politically, it’s about the numbers game. Here’s Shalom:

Peri kept showing us this chart. How many people were caught? How many informers were there? How many attacks were prevented? How many weren’t? The picture was always rosy but it was point-specific. There was no strategy, just tactics.

Moreh doesn’t get into the differences between the six Shin Bet directors/talking heads. Is Shalom, for example, talking about Yaakov Peri here? I assume so. Did he object to him? Does he blame him for the all tactics/no strategy policy? But wasn’t Shalom director of Shin Bet then? Could he do nothing?

Moreh doesn’t give us much on the history of Shin Bet, either: when it was formed, by whom, for what; how it differs from Mossad. We don’t get the background for people like me who know very little of the history of Israel. We have to search that out. Which isn’t a bad thing, just a thing.

Finally, beyond what they did with Shin Bet, we don’t learn much about these men. Who went on to politics and the Knesset? Who was born where and when? Shalom, it turns out, was born in Vienna in 1930. He was eight during the Anschluss. Apparently he barely knew he was Jewish, or what that meant, until the day after Kristallnacht when he was beaten up at school. None of that is in the doc, but it lends even more power to one of the doc’s more shocking moments: when Shalom, the former director of Shin Bet, the man with a darkness in his eyes, compares the Israeli army, his army, to the German army of World War II:

The future is bleak. It’s dark, the future. Where does it lead? To a change in the people’s character. Because if you put most of our young people in the army, they’ll see a paradox. They’ll see that it strives to be a people’s army, like the Nahal unit, involved in building up the country. On the other hand, it’s a brutal occupation force, similar to the Germans in World War II. [Pause] Similar, not identical. And I’m not talking about their behavior toward the Jews—that was exceptional, with its own particular characteristics. I mean how they acted to the Poles, the Belgians, the Dutch. To all of them... The Czechs. It’s a very negative trait that we acquired, to be ... I’m afraid to say it, so I won’t. [Longer pause] We’ve become cruel, to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population, using the excuse of the war against terror.

Moreh was inspired to do “The Gatekeepers” by Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War,” and he was able to get his first subject here, Ami Ayalon, who opened the gates as it were, because of “The Fog of War.” He told Ayalon he wanted to do something in that manner, and Ayalon nodded and said that Morris’ documentary should be required viewing in war school.

So should “The Gatekeepers.” Forget the modifier.

—August 7, 2013

© 2013 Erik Lundegaard