17 April 2013

The Gatekeepers: A Documentary

A good friend of mine sent me an email to remind me that I should watch the Gatekeepers, the celebrated Israeli documentary that brought together six former Shin Bet directors to comment on the Palestinian issue.

I knew of the documentary, as it was shown last year in Israel in the Jerusalem Film Festival. This is the world wide release by Sony Pictures Classics. Interestingly, its release became a news media event: it was reported by all the major news outlets (to see more media links just Google it).

What is extraordinary about the film is the fact that these Shin Bet chiefs are incredibly outspoken in their criticism of the State of Israel and the control it exerts over its Palestinian population. One of them, Avraham Shalom tells the director, Dror Moreh, that Israel has become a brutal occupation army.

And this man is no shrinking violet. He once ordered the extrajudicial killing of two Palestinian bus hijackers (and had to be pardoned by his political masters). So when this man compares Israel to, well, Germany you are a little taken aback.  Even though I am not Jewish I admit I winced when I heard that.

He explained that he was not talking about the Holocaust but the occupation of Holland, Belgium, Poland and many other Eastern European countries. But still. And that is the point, apparently. To make you stop and think and take notice.

If you think this is blunt talk, take a look at this: towards the end of the film the director reads the following quote from Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz:
“A state ruling over a hostile population of one million people will necessarily become a Shin Bet state, with all that this implies for education, freedom of speech and thought and democracy. The corruption found in any colonial regime will affix itself to the State of Israel. The administration will have to suppress an uprising on the one hand and acquire Quislings, or Arab traitors, on the other.”
Professor Leibowitz made this pronouncement in 1968, one year after Israel occupied West Bank and Gaza.
The director asks Yuval Diskin, who was the Director of Shin Bet at the time, what he thought of this prescient quote.

He replies "I agree with every word of it."

When probed to expand, he shrugs as if the whole thing is really obvious and he could not see the need for further explanation. When pressed, he offers somewhat reluctantly that he is not entirely sure about a Shin Bet state but for the rest, he says, the quote reflects accurately the relations between Israel and Palestinians.

I cannot think of any other country in the world where the current or former director of a security agency could make such a pronouncement. It is simply extraordinary. And there is a reason for that.

There is a separation between Israeli and Jewish identities that most people cannot understand. That is partly because of the corrosive influence of pervasive antisemitic discourses. Many people, even the ones who do not think of themselves as antisemitic, espouse some of the most common prejudices about Jews. The gamut runs from "them being good with money" to "them supporting anything the State of Israel does."

This is rubbish. (And one of these days I intend to write about this in some detail but for now feel free to take my word for it)

Overwhelmingly, Jews in diaspora (a) are liberal (b) emphasize education over everything else, including money (c) support social equality and progressive causes and (d) are quite critical of the State of Israel.

Now, for this latter, they might not engage in such criticism in front of gentiles because they know that, for most of them, Jewish and Israeli are interchangeable and if they say something bad about Israel, next thing they know, their gentile friends will be using that comment to make frightening generalizations about Jews.

Israelis do not conform to that diaspora profile. They are tough, very direct and they are a product of a nation state. Every nation state has its its roots in violence. In Israel it is more so because of the circumstances surrounding its creation. In that sense, like there are many conservative French or Americans who advocate tougher policies, harsher penalties, stricter rules and unequal and discriminatory practices, there are many conservative Israelis who support these notions. That is because, like their French or American counterparts, they never found themselves at the other end of these equations.

This is known as the "empathy gap," a term coined by Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole and picked up by Glenn Greenwald.

Jews in diaspora, on the other hand, do not have that empathy gap, as they have been on the wrong end of that arrangement far too many times.

The Shin Bet directors in this documentary represent that point of view. They speak like Jews not Israelis. That is why Ami Ayalon says that if, according to von Clausewitz, "victory is the capacity to create a better political reality" then "we lost the war even though we won all the battles."

The worry is that if the next directors of Shin Bet have the Israeli perspective (instead of the Jewish one) they might redefine victory as suppressing and oppressing that large population under their control. That would be what a French or American national would do and that would be expected.

In the case of Israel, that would mean the end of the Jewish identity and that would be a very sad thing indeed.


I should finish here but I am tempted to add one last thing. When I started this blog two years ago, one of my hypotheses was the likelihood (or even the certainty) of an Israeli - Palestinian peace process.

I offered three arguments in my favor. One of them was the fact that 40 prominent Israelis and chief among them former directors of Mossad and Shin Bet prepared a peace plan and submitted to King Bibi.

That was on 25 May 2011.

The movie that was just released had started production around that time.

And it was released to a global audience right after the Israeli elections. Maybe it is just coincidence.

Or maybe, just maybe, it is Zeitgeist.

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