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Roger L. Simon

The Limits of Self-Criticism: Israel’s Oscar-Nominated The Gatekeepers

February 4th, 2013 - 12:00 am

That lack of context tarnished the film for me. Despite being putatively about terrorism, nowhere was the Palestinian terrorist in view (other than news footage). Everything was seen from an Israeli perspective, but a skewed one suffused with regrets for actions that were almost always unavoidable.

Because of this, my view of The Gatekeepers is probably one hundred and eighty degrees from what the filmmaker intended. What I saw in the movie were six incredible men — the Shin Bet directors — who grappled with impossible circumstances over several decades in pretty close to the most honorable way imaginable.  I saw some moments when they made inevitable mistakes, but I never saw them acting immorally.  Indeed, they bent over backwards to avoid collateral damage when they could. A documentary that was supposed to be critical, or at least questioning, of Israel was, for me, in the end wildly complimentary.

Israel should be proud. Not only is it unimaginable that Arab culture would produce six security leaders willing to speak honestly of their anguish in administering justice while saving lives — that’s obvious — but I don’t know of any Western country, American or European, where interviews like this would likely occur, at least with such frequency.  All six living Shin Bet directors appear in this film.  They reveal themselves to be truly extraordinary men. (I realize Israel has also produced a number of corrupt politicians. So it goes.)

When I was young, I remember talk about Israel being a “light unto the nations.”  That hasn’t happened — largely because that is impossible, but also because if it were, no one would listen. Indeed, such a laudable achievement would undoubtedly be hated.

Still Israel is an incredibly vibrant democracy, one of the world leaders in high tech and also now in the cinema.  It’s predictable that much of that cinema is self-critical. But self-criticism can only go so far.  Sometimes, as in this film, it may even turn upon itself.

I predict that reactions to The Gatekeepers will for the most part be a political Rorschach test.  Those who see Israel as the good guys, as I do, will love the ornery old Shin Bet guys and be glad to have spent time with them; those who see her as the enemy will look on them as hangmen.  Again, so it goes.

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