Recently, the BBC has broadcast the Israeli documentary ‘The Gatekeepers’, followed by half an hour of ‘Newsnight’ debate presented by Evan Davis.
Made in 2012 and nominated for a ‘best documentary’ Oscar, ‘The Gatekeepers’ has unfortunately become one more weapon in Israel-haters’ disreputable arsenal. ‘Electronic Intifada’, for instance, screams:
“Both The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras offer evidence of Israeli racism, albeit from different perspectives.”
Of course, out-of-context quotations can be used to ‘offer evidence’ not just of ‘Israeli racism’, but also of a Martian invasion. The documentary is made up of a series of interviews with six former heads of Israel’s Security Service, the Shin Bet. Throughout the circa 90 minutes of interviews (handpicked by left-leaning director Dror Moreh from among many hours of recordings), six bright individuals reminisce about their time in office, when they held great power and shoulder-crushing responsibility. To anyone unfamiliar with the Israeli culture of openness, self-scrutiny and blunt outspokenness, the film must feel surreal. Six 'supreme spooks' speak with extreme, incredible candour; they agonise over decisions made; they talk with mind-boggling frankness about mistakes; they turn a critical eye and an unforgiving tongue towards their former bosses, the country’s political leadership.
Sure, these six men are far from perfect. They each held the power to take a human life – and used it; they hired and fired, argued and fought their corner. They are sharp, smart individuals, but that does not make their assessments right or their opinions clairvoyant. They are, obviously, political animals, with ideological leanings, philosophical preconceptions, visceral likes and dislikes. They are certainly guilty of the all-too-human fault of blaming others (mostly their former political bosses) for not doing enough; while all-too-easily finding excuses for their own shortcomings.
But these Israelis who have seen their compatriots ripped to pieces by suicide bombers remain fundamentally concerned with – nay, are actually obsessed with – questions of ethics and morality of the use of force. That nightmarish job of ensuring the security of the most threatened nation on earth did not warp their souls: these men of war yearn for peace.
One can agree or disagree with them; one can criticise their decisions – while keeping in mind that they were made under very difficult circumstances; but no cogent, fair-minded person can accuse them of racism. Quite the opposite: from their words emanates a heart-warming, unequivocal recognition of the enemy’s humanity; even, it seems, when that enemy is a terrorist with innocent blood on his hands.
Far from constituting ‘evidence of racism’, the film is testimony of a healthy society – one that aspires to righteousness even when existentially threatened. That includes, as documented in the film, missing a rare opportunity of eliminating the entire Hamas leadership – individuals bent on destroying the State of Israel and killing as many Jews as possible – because of the risk of hitting too many innocent Palestinians.
Where else are heads of security agencies held to such high standards of behaviour? Where else are they capable of such harsh self-scrutiny? Where else does an entire society place such value on human life – even the lives of terrorists who held civilians at gunpoint? Where else would top-level security people speak so freely and where else would such a documentary be aired – to the delight of so many haters?
When threatened, people often tend to forget niceties such as ethics: it took one terrorist attack – albeit a horrific one – for the United States security leaders to resort to extra-territorial detention, water-boarding and ‘rendition’. It took one terrorist attack – although admittedly a severe one – for the British police to shoot without warning an innocent Brazilian man, mistaking him for an Arab terrorist. It is a matter of pride that – after being confronted for decades with murderous hatred, existential threats and inhuman terrorism – Israelis (both ‘ordinary people’ and security leaders) remain so obsessed with the morality of their own response.
Israel should wear ‘The Gatekeepers’ like a badge of honour. If others – not just Israelis – engaged in the same type of intense soul-searching exercise, the Middle East (and the entire world) would be a much better place.