Sometimes the best lessons are taught by examples completely removed from your own experiences. For example, Israel’s secret police, the Shin Bet, might help to explain a lot about comparable spy organizations in the US, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, or the Central Intelligence Agency. As it turns out, Shin Bet has a fascinating and scary story, not unlike its American counterparts.
It is counter-intuitive that key figures within a major, national spy agency would share its secrets. But, the directors of The Gatekeepers are able to procure interviews will every single living former head of Shin Bet. These men have the most immediate knowledge of Israel’s political history, especially the Israel-Palestine conflict. The film is mainly a collage of their interviews; they show themselves to be both pragmatic and philosophical, sometimes unapologetic and sometimes remorseful. But all seem haunted by their pasts. Curiously, although they all held this very powerful position, they all expressed having had feelings of powerlessness. Instead, they felt that they and their organization was being directed by external forces outside their control, especially Israeli prime ministers, Israeli settlers throughout the Palestinian Occupied Territories, terrorism, and the Israeli right-wing.
While there are many excellent films that show a realistic and non-propagandistic version of Palestinian history, The Gatekeepers accomplishes the task through the words of these highly informed and involved historical figures. Viewers are treated to a crash-course in recent Israel-Palestine history, including the 1967 war, the invasion of Lebanon, the first and second Palestinian Intifadas, the assassination of prime minister Rabin by a right-wing Israeli, and the Oslo Accords. We get the chance to see the ebb-and-flow of the Shin Bet’s power and influence. Although widely-respected, they came into conflict with other sectors of the Israeli elite when they arrested members of the Jewish Underground terrorist organization. The Knesset and prime minister undermine the ability of the Shin Bet to pursue and prosecute Jewish Underground individuals, releasing them as heroes as opposed to criminals. Then, after they fail to prevent Rabin’s assassination, they lose much of their capacity to function.
While all these Shin Bet heads are Israeli patriots, committed to Israel’s national security, each expresses doubt that their actions were universally beneficial to Israel’s long-term survival. To be a head of Shin Bet, one must clearly be a nationalist and skilled strategist, but the position itself, and the geo-political realities of a settler-state, seem to take their toll. At the end of the film, one head remarks, wisely: “after you retire, you become a leftist”.
For those wanting to learn more about the Israel-Palestine conflict, especially as seen by Israeli insiders and bureaucrats, this is an eye-opening film. It relates a very telling story about institutional inertia, cognitive dissonance, technocratic leadership and instrumental rationality, and the latent consequences of such organizations. The film also happens to artfully made, including amazing footage (that is honestly almost unbelievable). Perhaps since the film-makers interviewed the most powerful police in Israel, they were able to have numerous favors executed for them, including acquiring damning film stock that many Israeli politicians probably wish never existed. Additionally, there are graphical recreations of crucial moments in Shin Bet’s history, many which surely took a great deal of time to create. Altogether an important film.
Topics: political sociology, complex organizations, culture, religion (sort of), criminology