Documentary as Propaganda: The Gatekeepers and Dishonesty
Dror Moreh’s documentary, The Gatekeepers, could have been a profound film.
Instead, Moreh uses his interviews with six former directors of Israel’s top security services to send a simplistic and deeply partisan political message: If Israel withdraws from the West Bank, terrorism will subside and peace will break out.
To promote this message, the documentary engages in intellectual dishonesty and omits critical context. While most Israelis know the wider context, the average viewer probably does not, and therefore is vulnerable to the filmmaker’s biased version of the facts.
Though the film tries to portray Israel’s antiterrorism policies as counterproductive and cruel, the interviews inadvertently tell a different story. The six directors are well-spoken, deeply thoughtful, and genuinely self-critical.
They exude gravitas as they describe wrestling with the moral quandaries they regularly faced.
They are not cruel men. They sincerely grappled with how to protect Israelis and Palestinian civilians alike. Their descriptions of the Shin Bet’s legal and ethical constraints are a testament to Israel’s high moral standards. Their comfort in speaking freely is a testament to Israel’s robust democracy.
However, the film repeatedly ignores history and context. It blames Israel for the Palestinian hostility and violence that occurred after 1967, when Israel began administering the West Bank.
The viewer never learns from the film that terrorism against Jews and Israelis was not a result of Israel’s administration but rather has been a regular feature of life since pre-state days.
Palestinian Arabs murdered over 1,000 Jews between 1920 and 1967, and they ethnically cleansed all Jewish communities from the areas they captured during the 1948 war, including the West Bank, Gaza and eastern Jerusalem. The pattern of terrorism simply continued after Israel’s victory in its 1967 defensive war. Yasser Arafat organized 61 Fatah military operations from the West Bank in the few months after the war, and 162 Israelis were killed by terrorists between 1968 and 1970.
Visually and verbally, the film portrays Israel as a heartless occupier. Audiences get no information about how harsh life was for Palestinians under Egyptian and Jordanian rule between 1948 and 1967, with rampant childhood diseases, economic stagnation and restricted civil and political rights. In addition, the documentary completely overlooks the big picture of positive Israeli-Palestinian relations after 1967.
Even as Israel sought to stop terrorists, it also instituted Palestinian municipal self-government and administration, introduced freedom of speech and association, and vastly modernized the Palestinian economy as well as Palestinian health, welfare and education, turning the West Bank and Gaza into the world’s fourth fastestgrowing economy in the 1970s and 1980s.
In line with his political agenda, Moreh tries to paint all religious Israelis, settlers and rightof- center parties as extremist and intransigent.
The film insinuates that just as many Palestinians are terrorists and incite hatred, so do many Jews. For proof, Moreh magnifies selected incidents, particularly the case of Jewish settlers from Hebron who formed the “Jewish Underground” in 1980.
The film would have audiences believe the Jewish Underground, which wounded two Palestinian mayors, murdered three Palestinians, and plotted to blow up four Palestinian buses and the Dome of the Rock, is fairly representative of most settlers. It is not. Save for the handful of members of the Jewish Underground, Israel does not have Jewish terrorist organizations.
While extremists exist in Israel as in any society, the overwhelming majority of settlers, both religious and secular, are law-abiding citizens.
The country as a whole condemns and marginalizes such extremism. The Shin Bet arrested the Jewish Underground leaders in 1984, and the Israeli government and the vast majority of Israelis, including other settlers, denounced the group, though some Israeli leaders at the time continued to express concerns about the lack of government protection for Hebron’s Jews.
Similarly, because the sentences meted out to the Jewish Underground’s leaders were commuted, the film implies that the Israeli government has been “soft” on Jewish extremists and uses double standards, treating Palestinian terrorists far more leniently than Jewish terrorists.
But these members were freed only after serving almost seven years, not because Israel was “soft” on Jewish terrorists but because Israel had released the very Palestinian prisoners who had perpetrated the attacks that drove the Jewish Underground to organize.
SUCH OMISSIONS of fact and context continue throughout the film. Moreh makes the Shin Bet’s actions seem immoral or counterproductive by minimizing the context of terrorism.
Moreh glosses over the impact of the second intifada (2000-2005), yet the horrors of its terrorism and the fanatical hatred that motivated suicide bombers decimated Israel’s peace camp, a critical fact that the film simply overlooks. The audience does not learn that almost 1,100 Israelis were murdered and thousands more maimed by terrorists during the second intifada.
More disappointingly, the film never alludes to the daunting challenge these Shin Bet directors faced. Israel is fighting terrorists who routinely hide among Palestinian civilians precisely to shield themselves from IDF attacks because they know the IDF tries to avoid harming innocent bystanders. Pressed by the interviewer to admit that the Shin Bet’s actions were immoral during his tenure (1981-1986), Avraham Shalom finally snaps back: “This isn’t about morality…. When the terrorists become moral, we’ll be moral.”
Nor does the film depict the nature of the enemy Israel faces. Hamas’ genocidal ideology never comes up in the interviews. Yet the goals of Hamas, clearly expressed in its charter and its leaders’ statements, call for the murder of Jews and the “obliteration” of Israel, and are suffused with anti-Semitism. The film ignores the relentless incitement to hate and kill Jews that pervades Palestinian society officially and unofficially.
The film never explores the significance of what one Shin Bet director heard from a PLO terrorist he interrogated: terrorists consider it a victory when they make Jews suffer.
More disturbingly, the viewer never learns that Israel has repeatedly tried to do precisely what Moreh advocates. The film never mentions Israel’s offers to trade land for peace in 1967, 1979, 2000 and 2008, or that Palestinian leaders systematically rejected these offers.
Moreh wants audiences to share his wishful thinking, that Israel can end the conflict simply by withdrawing from the West Bank. But recent history, omitted from the film, contradicts this expectation. Israel pulled out of its security zone in Lebanon in 2000 and removed every settlement and over 8,000 Israelis from Gaza in 2005. The results were escalating threats and terrorism from Iranian proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon and from Iranian client Hamas in Gaza, which fired over 13,000 rockets and mortars into Israel’s southern communities between 2005 and 2012.
The documentary should be credited for revealing how much Israelis have retained their humanity and their hopes for peaceful coexistence, as exemplified by the Shin Bet directors.
This is a tribute to the Israeli spirit and to Israel’s enduring search for peace, but it also underscores Israel’s tragic dilemma: Israelis want peace, but they cannot find partners for peace unless, like Moreh, they turn a blind eye to the ongoing hostility and threats against them.
Moreh’s effort to blame Israel and the Shin Bet’s actions for the ongoing hostility to the Jewish state is like blaming the victim who is defending himself instead of blaming the perpetrator.
The Gatekeepers’ material could have produced a profound film if it had not been sacrificed for a political message and if the film had been more intellectually honest and included the historical pattern of genocidal ideology, the ongoing violence, and the existential strategic challenges that Israel faces every day. It is these hard realities and that make the Shin Bet’s work so crucial and so heroic.
This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post. Roz Rothstein is the CEO and co-founder of StandWithUs. Roberta Seid, PhD, is the research and education director of StandWithUs.