Controversy continues regarding the hard-hitting Oscar-nominated documentary “The Gatekeepers,” because it is more misleading than illuminating. In interviewing the last six Israeli “Shin Bet” 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.
Despite today’s voyeuristic Facebook culture, which encourages publicizing every thought, silence in some jobs still should remain golden. Just as priests should resist broadcasting 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.
While democracy guarantees citizens the right to speak freely, it also entrusts certain citizens with special responsibilities. Intelligence officers 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 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 Yaakov 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 service.
By contrast, in the movie, Ayalon and company parlay their perspective as intelligence heads to preach and politic. 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 his agenda. 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 the retired Shin Bet heads’ attempted coup d’etat. 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.
Not surprisingly, 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 delegitimizers.
Thinking in American terms, imagine liberals’ indignation if the last six CIA Directors told inside stories painting Barack Obama as a terrorist-appeasing weakling, or conservatives’ fury if the last 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 last six CIA directors would dare abuse their positions – and the American public’s trust. 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’s reaction in the Jerusalem Cinemateque 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 suicide-bombing carnage. This imbalance reflected a great historical distortion. The speaking spooks’ cherrypicked excerpts tell a simplistic, black-and-white, one-sided story, so blaming Israel as to rob Palestinians of their responsibility, culpability, and dignity.
To emphasize Israel’s guilt, the Gatekeepers exaggerate 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, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, pursued the peace process. Oslo died when Yasir Arafat refused even to offer a counter-proposal at Camp David 2 in July, 2000, then supported Palestinians’ return to terrorism.
Ultimately, I 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 why Israeli tax dollars subsidized the film, and I wait. 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.
Gil Troy is Professor of History, 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!