I have now returned form my travels in Baltimore and Washington DC. The big Hopkins talk went well, I think. Then I moseyed on down to Washington DC to hang out. This past week was spring break around here, though you would never have known it from the weather.
While I was in DC, I took advantage of the excellent E Street Cinema to see some films I would not otherwise have had a chance to see (not in a theater, at any rate.) I first discovered this theater when I made a special trip to DC a while back to see Creation, a pretty good biopic about Charles Darwin. Little chance of that coming to my local theater!
This time around I saw a very good film from Chile called, simply, No. In 1988, bowing to international pressure to legitimize his regime, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet agreed to hold a vote on whether he should stay or go. Each side was given fifteen minutes of television time a day, for just under a month, to make its case. The film follows the young advertising executive who masterminded the successful, anti-Pinochet “No!” campaign. Against the advice of some of his friends, who wanted relentless denunciations of the regime, our hero relied primarily on an upbeat and humorous campaign. Well worth seeing, if the opportunity presents itself.
But the one I want to tell you about is The Gatekeepers, an Israeli documentary. The film consists of interviews with the six surviving heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency charged with addressing the threat of Palestinian terrorism and with protecting Israel’s leaders. They are a sort of cross between the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service. Though the film consists almost entirely of conversations with these men, the whole thing is riveting.
It also helped clarify for me my own thoughts about Israel. It is a subject I have been conflicted about for a while. On the one hand, it has been clear for some time that Netanyahu is a complete disaster for Israel. He craves power for its own sake, and has no vision at all for how Israel should coexist with its neighbors. He not only refuses to engage in any sort of meaningful negotiations with Israel’s enemies, but also has been actively sabotaging more moderate Palestinian forces in the West Bank.
But for all of that, I am equally disgusted by those who would rewrite the history of the region as one of relentless Israeli aggression against the largely blameless Palestinians. Yes, modern Israel has become radicalized, but only after decades of relentless wars, terrorism and intransigence from their enemies. Let us not forget, for example, that prior to the 1967 war, when Israel did not occupy the West Bank, that territory was routinely used as a staging ground for wars and attacks on Israel. It’s pretty hard to sympathize with those who lost their land as a result of wars they themselves started. Moreover, in recent years, Israel has withdrawn from settlements, both in Gaza and in part of the West Bank. The result was not peace, but renewed violence.
For some, it is beyond the pale whenever Israel takes any steps to tend to its own security. The response from some of the more self-righteous corners of the blogosphere to the war in Gaza brought that home to me. Hamas was relentlessly firing rockets into Southern Isreal, in a desperate attempt to kill anyone and destroy anything they could. No country either can, or would, tolerate that. But reading one blogger after another blather on about proportionality or just war theory made me appreciate just how ridiculous so many of Israel’s critics had made themselves. Incidentally, let us also recall that the most serious charges of war crimes against Israel in that war later had to be recanted.
So what to do? From the right we get the ludicrous attitude that any criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-semitism. Witness the appalling treatment of Chuck Hagel for incredibly mild criticisms of the Israeli government. From the left we get asinine calls for boycotts and divestment, as though Israel is uniquely evil in the world and does not face genuine security threats.
The recent kerfuffle at Brooklyn College likewise illustrates the difficulty of finding anyone who is speaking sensibly about Israel (the Eric Alterman column I just linked to being a notable exception). The college’s Political Science Department cosponsored an event in which two speakers who support the anti-Israel BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) were invited, unopposed. I have no respect at all for people who take this position, and the Political Science Department did itself no favors by claiming, preposterously, that their cosponsorship of the event did not indicate support for the position. A biology department cosponsoring an evening with a group of unopposed creationist speakers, or a sociology department doing likewise with representatives from the KKK, would look no less ridiculous.
But just when it seemed like a simple story of an academic department embarrassing itself in a moment of poor judgment, the politicians got involved. Suddenly Brooklyn College was being threatened with having its funding cut, simply for inviting speakers the politicians found unacceptable. What’s worse than people advocating for the end of Israel as a Jewish state (the ultimate goal of the BDS movement)? Politicians trying to censor them.
Those were the general thoughts I brought to the film. What impressed me about it was the clarity it brought to certain fundamental issues in the region. On the one hand, it makes no attempt to whitewash the hatred and intransigence Israel faces from the Palestinians. In one especially chilling moment, one of the interviewees quotes a Palestinian acquaintance saying, “After all these years you still don’t understand us. All we want is to see you suffer!” But for all of that, these are very pragmatic men. They had a job to do and did it grimly and with determination. When all of them say Israel’s current hardline tactics are ineffective and that Israel needs to start talking seriously with whomever will listen, their opinion has to be taken very seriously.
Netanyahu is barely mentioned in the film, but what mention there is, is uniformly negative. He is shown fanning the flames of hatred against the peace efforts of Yitzhak Rabin, and he is all but blamed for inciting Rabin’s assassination.
Which leads to another point. One thing that comes through loud and clear is that religion itself lies at the heart of the conflict. Perhaps you thought that was too obvious to call attention to, but there is no shortage of people who absurdly try to deny it. It is really all about land and resources and politics, they say. That is nonsense, as the film makes clear. If it really were just a political dispute, the Oslo accords of the early nineties would have solved the problem. Instead, the progress made in Oslo was undone by the religious extremists on both sides. When the PLO and Arafat seemed to be genuinely moderating, officially renouncing terrorism and recognizing Israel’s right to exist, Hamas and Islamic Jihad were all too happy to step into the breach. Meanwhile, the settler movement had the support of Israel’s religious right. Many of the orthodox rabbis in Israel have no interest at all in making peace, and just want to see Israel expand across the entire West Bank. As they see it, God has given them that land. Anytime it has seemed like progress might be made, the religious extremists on both sides have successfully managed to scuttle it. As one interviewee puts it, describing the end result of Oslo, “The Israelis wanted security, instead they got more terrorism. The Palestinians wanted a state, instead they got more settlers.”
The whole film is fascinating and engrossing. Definitely see it if you have the chance. It makes it clear just how difficult this issue is, and how the extremists on both sides don’t know what they are talking about. Israel has much to be proud of, but also much to be ashamed of.
Then again, what country cannot say the same?