‘The Gatekeepers’ Review: Israel Through the Prism of Shin Bet

In engaging documentary, six former heads of Israel's secret service answer questions with more than questions

Last Updated: February 15, 2013 @ 4:57 PM

The  classic Jewish joke asks, “Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question?”

The answer: “Why not?”

There are lots of questions and more questions, along with some answers, in “The Gatekeepers,” a thought-provoking new Israeli documentary about Shin Bet, the nation’s secret service.

Director Dror Moreh (“Sharon”) convinced all six former heads of Shin Bet to appear on camera for solo interviews in which they discuss the agency’s role in the nation’s history and reflect on its, and their own, successes and failures.

What they have to say is, by turns, fascinating, provocative and sure to reverberate both in Israel and internationally, particularly when, by the end, almost all have endorsed the creation of an independent Palestinian state and called for an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the cessation of new Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

“Gatekeepers,” which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, has been nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar at the upcoming Academy Awards.

The movie provides a tour of Israel’s history, from its founding in 1948, the triumph of the 1967 War, the rise of the Palestinian freedom movement, and through to today, when issues involving a Palestinian solution remain stubbornly unresolved and a lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors seems no closer at hand than a half century ago.

Slowly and deliberately, Moreh takes each man through his years with Shin Bet, beginning with Avraham Shalom, who headed the agency from 1980 to 1986. (The others interviewed are Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Avalon, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin.) Shalom eventually resigned from his position after it became public that he had ordered the execution of two Arab terrorists after they had been captured alive following the hijacking an Israeli bus.

As each successive head of the agency is interviewed, it becomes apparent that over the years, a clear-cut sense of where the moral boundaries lay with spying, torture and killings became ever fuzzier within the agency. So did notions of who exactly was the enemy. In addition to facing an ever-changing cast of foes from among the ranks of Palestinians (the PLO, Hamas, etc.), Shin Bat also found itself investigating, spying on and tracking ultra-religious, right wing Jews in Israel who opposed peace efforts and plotted to blow up the Dome on the Rock shrine and Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites of Islam. (It was a Jewish extremist who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.)

The Shin Bat heads contend that they received scant help from the politicians in charge, who mostly struck poses rather than making hard decisions or tackling big issues. “It was tactics, not strategies,” Shalom says of efforts over the years to deal with the Palestinians.

Not since Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense during much of the Vietnam War, sat down with filmmaker Errol Morris for the Oscar-winning “The Fog of War” (2003), have major government figures so publicly reexamined their actions and consciences as the Shin Bat leaders do here.

It makes for compelling viewing no matter where you stand on the enduring and on-going crisis that is the Middle East.