Controversy continues regarding the hard-hitting Oscar-nominated documentary The
Gatekeepers, because it is more misleading than illuminating. In interviewing
the past six Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) intelligence chiefs, the film
showcases Israel’s democratic vitality while seeking to undermine it. Democratic
Israel should be debating the complex Palestinian question and responding to the
movie’s challenge that Israel’s approach remains tactical, not strategic. But it
is also democratically legitimate to criticize the movie’s distortions, while
challenging the six spooks for speaking so candidly on camera.
today’s voyeuristic Facebook culture, which encourages publicizing every
thought, silence in some cases still remains golden. Just as priests should
resist the urge to broadcast their most lurid confessions, spooks should not
speak, be they active or retired. This restraint should be self-imposed, not
government- dictated; this is a moral, not legal imperative.
democracy guarantees citizens the right to speak freely, it also entrusts
certain citizens with special responsibilities.
become political monks, taking an exceptional vow of service and silence.
Entrusted by the people and their leaders with state secrets and an unique
vantage point, they should be camera-shy patriots, microphone-averse and
allergic to memoir-writing – despite the big advances to earn or major political
points to score.
Former CIA director George H.W. Bush was free to run for
president and former Shin Bet directors Ami Ayalon and Ya’akov Peri legitimately
entered politics. Bush rarely mentioned his CIA career, although he obviously
benefitted from that resume line.
Similarly, Ayalon uses his previous job
to build his credibility, but his activism goes beyond his once-secret
By contrast, in the movie, Ayalon and company parlay their
perspective as intelligence heads into preaching and politics. Ayalon, who
dominates the end of the movie, in a film-making sleight-of-hand that makes his
leftist views appear to be the sextet’s consensus position, was blatant about
The Forward’s J.J. Goldberg asked, “Wouldn’t the film have
been better if it concentrated on moral dilemmas and avoided politics?” Ayalon
replied: “If it had, there would have been no point to the film.... Many
Israelis and American Jews want to deny it, but this is our professional
opinion. We’re at the edge of an abyss, and if Israeli-Palestinian peace doesn’t
progress, it’s the end of Zionism.”
This blurring of their “professional”
and “political” opinions feels like an attempted coup d’etat by the retired Shin
Bet heads. Wrapping their political conclusions – and those of the director Dror
Moreh – in the mantle of credibility they earned while serving the nation in
this sensitive position bypasses the political process.
the movie has been embraced by anti- Israel activists worldwide, most of whom
ignore the moral complexity and Palestinian hostility these “gatekeepers”
acknowledge. These six ex-spooks are not stupid; they cannot claim to be
surprised that their cinematic exposé is encouraging Israel’s
Thinking in American terms, imagine liberals’ indignation
if the past six CIA directors told inside stories painting President Barack
Obama as a terrorist-appeasing weakling, or conservatives’ fury if the past six
CIA directors gathered before 2008 to tell tales out-of-school depicting George
W. Bush as a civil-liberties-trampling fascist.
Actually, I doubt the
past six CIA directors would dare so abuse their positions – and the American
When General Stanley McChrystal scorned administration
officials in a 2010 Rolling Stone interview, President Obama correctly demanded
his resignation, saying such conduct “undermines the civilian control of the
military that is at the core of our democratic system.”
An outrage gap
continues to distort Middle East discourse.
Hamas can indoctrinate Gazan
teenagers to fulfill its charter envisioning Israel’s destruction, the
Palestinian Authority can subvert democracy by keeping its president in office
long after his term expires, yet Israel remains cast as the heavy. A recent
audience reaction in the Jerusalem Cinematheque showed how the film reinforced
this broken moral compass.
My 16-year-old son noticed that the audience
reacted viscerally to descriptions of the beating deaths of two Palestinian
terrorists during the horrific Bus 300 scandal, but seemed blasé about photos of
This imbalance reflected a great historical
The speaking spooks’ cherry-picked excerpts tell a simplistic,
black-and-white, one-sided story, blaming Israel and robbing Palestinians of
their responsibility, culpability and dignity.
To emphasize Israel’s
guilt, The Gatekeepers exaggerates the impact of Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995
assassination. Rabin’s assassin did not “murder hope” – Hamas and Islamic Jihad
did. In Israel: A History, the historian Anita Shapira correctly observes that
“after Rabin’s murder the Israeli public leaned toward the left, and Peres’s
victory seemed assured” in the 1996 elections, until Palestinian terrorism
intruded. Even then, the next two prime ministers, from two opposing parties,
Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, pursued the peace process. Oslo died when
Yasser Arafat refused even to offer a counter-proposal at Camp David II in July,
2000, then supported Palestinians’ return to terrorism.
honor these six spooks and their service. I am proud these thoughtful, tough but
human and sensitive heroes helped Israel navigate the agonizing questions the
country faces in defending itself from toxic terrorists, weighing the morality
of bombing bombers lurking in crowded neighborhoods, wondering how to defend
Israel without oppressing Palestinians.
I am dismayed that the discourse
is so one-sided, in the movie and in reality – I know of no Palestinian movies
agonizing about similar dilemmas.
Nevertheless, I abhor the speaking
spooks’ collective indiscretion, mourn the death of an important democratic code
of dignified silence, regret they did not choose other vehicles for expressing
their views, am mystified as to why Israeli tax dollars subsidized the
When enough leading Palestinians are similarly anguished, equally
ready to shift from killing to conversing, then the peace so many of us yearn
for will be attainable.
Until then, I want my intelligence agents
discrete, deliberative, and deadly.
The author is professor of history at
McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in
Jerusalem. His latest book, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism
as Racism, was just published by Oxford University Press.
Watch the new
Moynihan’s Moment video! www.giltroy.com