Zero Dark Thirty is not the only Academy Award–nominated film that raises profound moral questions about how democracies can strike back at terrorism without abandoning their own liberal values. Also up for an award this year is The Gatekeepers, a searing documentary in Hebrew with English subtitles, featuring revealing interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, who testify about the methods they used in combating Palestinian terrorism.
Civil libertarians and some liberal politicians have excoriated Zero Dark Thirty’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, and screenwriter, Mark Boal, for purportedly justifying torture of captured al-Qaida operatives as a means of extracting leads that might have led to finding Osama bin Laden’s safe house in Pakistan. Because the movie seems to suggest that “torture works,” says Senator Dianne Feinstein, it “has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner.” (Michael Totten has written a vigorous defense of Bigelow.)
The Gatekeepers, on the other hand, has won praise from liberal critics, here and in Israel, for arguing that Israel is in danger of “losing its soul,” and its democracy, because it employs similar brutal methods against Palestinian terrorists. The film’s director, Dror Moreh, is a 40-something Jerusalemite who previously made a well-received documentary about former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw the Israeli army and uproot Jewish settlements from Gaza. For The Gatekeepers, Moreh was able to convince the six Shin Bet chiefs to spill their guts about the measures they authorized to combat Palestinian suicide terrorism. They’re also asked whether these operations contributed to a solution of the conflict. Their collective answer, in one word, is no.
It may seem astonishing to non-Israelis that former spy chiefs in that security-obsessed country would be willing, or even allowed, to reveal undercover operations they directed and to criticize government policies publicly. In fact, such outspoken criticism from Israeli security officials is hardly unprecedented. In 2003, four of the same ex–Shin Bet chiefs publicly warned Sharon’s government that its harsh policies in the Palestinian territories were leading the country to “near-catastrophe.” Partly because of their warning, Sharon eventually decided to withdraw troops from Gaza.
When I interviewed Moreh recently, he told me that he was inspired by The Fog of War, Errol Morris’s iconic 2003 documentary about the Vietnam War featuring the candid reminiscences and recantations of former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara. The Fog of War won the 2004 Academy Award for documentaries. The Gatekeepers has a decent chance to win the 2013 documentary Oscar—a much better chance than Zero Dark Thirty has to win best picture—because its politics are more congenial to the Academy. While it’s politically incorrect in Hollywood to celebrate unapologetically the American men and women who occasionally used dirty methods to strike back at the perpetrators of 9/11—Bigelow didn’t even get a director’s nomination—it’s apparently kosher to compare, as one of the former Shin Bet chiefs does, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank to the Nazis’ rule over countries like Czechoslovakia and France during World War II.
The Gatekeepers is a well-designed movie and, in some respects, an extraordinary work of contemporary journalism. It’s filled with numerous scoops about the brutal 40-year clandestine war pitting Israel’s security forces against Palestinian jihadist brigades of all ideological persuasions. Moreh told me that he accumulated a treasure trove of over 50 hours of taped interviews with the ex–Shin Bet chiefs, from which he selected only 2 percent for use in the film. The Israeli director follows Morris’s cinematic technique of dividing the narrative into thematic chapters and giving context to the words of his interviewees with dramatic archival footage. One of the movie’s most chilling sections describes the Shin Bet’s techniques for “persuading” Palestinians—both those involved in terrorist cells themselves and others who might have information—to provide leads about terrorists intent on attacking Jewish civilian targets.
Mapping out virtually every street and residence in the towns and villages of the West Bank, the Shin Bet created a ruthlessly effective intelligence-gathering operation. “Some nights we arrested hundreds of people,” declares Yuval Diskin, chief of the Shin Bet from 2006 to 2011. “We gathered hundreds of men in the village square and used an identifier technique to pick out likely suspects.” As Diskin and other former Shin Bet chiefs describe the surveillance network, Moreh uses file footage to show dozens of terrified young Palestinian men tied to one another and paraded past a truck in which a hidden informant points out those who may be members of terrorist cells. Several of the Shin Bet chiefs also graphically describe the methods used in the dank interrogation centers to break terrorist suspects and make them give up their comrades. As far as is known, Israel didn’t employ waterboarding techniques, but Moreh’s interlocutors acknowledge using other forms of “enhanced interrogation,” such as violent shaking and sleep deprivation. Diskin calmly describes the process: “We figured out who we wanted to recruit [as an informer] and then made that person do things he never believed he would.”
Zero Dark Thirty’s virtue, Michael Totten writes, is that it “doesn’t tell anyone what to think. Its shows us what we should think about.” If Moreh had shown the awful methods that the Shin Bet used to protect Israeli citizens—including the brutal interrogations, the targeted assassinations, the network of informers in every Palestinian town and village—yet let viewers use their own judgment about whether these measures undermined Israel’s democracy, he would have produced a work every bit as powerful as Bigelow’s film. But Moreh wants us to reach the same judgment that he has already made. He clearly went into this project to prove that Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian territories is a moral disaster and makes it impossible for Israel to maintain itself as a democratic Jewish state. I have no doubt that this is a sincerely held conviction. It’s certainly a point of view shared by many other thoughtful Israelis. But Moreh’s problem as a filmmaker is that he tries to impose that political view (a minority one in Israel) on his cinematic material.
This comes through most clearly in Moreh’s interrogations of Diskin, a particularly bitter critic of the Netanyahu government under which he served. After Diskin describes some of the counterproductive security policies that the government favored in the Palestinian territories, Moreh reads him a prediction about the Israeli occupation made four decades ago by the dissident Orthodox Jewish philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz: “The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime will also prevail in the State of Israel,” wrote Professor Leibowitz, “and it will turn into a Shin Bet state.” Diskin’s response: “I agree with every word that Leibowitz said.”
This exchange sounds particularly dramatic. As I learned from Moreh, however, throwing that old Leibowitz quote into the conversation was a set-up. Moreh and Diskin took courses in Jewish philosophy from Professor Leibowitz at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and had previously expressed admiration for his “prophetic” views. But the “prophecy” is transparently false: If Israel had turned into a “Shin Bet state,” Moreh’s film could not have been made there and widely praised by the nation’s media—and it would not have received government financial support, as many Israeli films do. If Israel were a “Shin Bet” state, Moreh could not have published a separate interview with Diskin in the anti-Netanyahu newspaper, Yediot Achronot, two weeks before the recent Israeli elections. In that front-page interview, Diskin blasted Netanyahu personally for his handling of Israel’s security challenges.
The Gatekeepers is filled with many such gratuitous, clichéd, or outright false statements: Israel uses “Nazi methods” to control the Palestinians; “one man’s ‘terrorist’ is another man’s freedom fighter”; the Palestinians allegedly use terrorism because “they are desperate” and see no peaceful solution. Just because former Shin Bet chiefs are offering such assessments doesn’t make them true—or even relevant to understanding the underlying causes of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Meantime, what’s missing from the film is any serious discussion of the Palestinian leadership’s intentions toward Israel and the Jews. The film does not acknowledge that, when the Sharon government took the Shin Bet chiefs’ advice to disengage from Gaza, the result was not peace, but thousands of missiles fired from Gaza at Israel’s civilians.
Moreh’s approach mars what otherwise might have been an excellent film about the complexities of fighting Islamist terrorism in our time—one that also might have been as deserving as Zero Dark Thirty of the film industry’s highest honor.