The Gatekeepers

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?

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I really hope "No" comes into my area. I believe Pinochet was the only dictator voted out of office.
I don't know if "Gateway" will ever make it here.

I read recently that a Rabbi, who was not ultra-orthodox, might be appointed as one of the two chief rabbis and faced fierce opposition from the Orthodox and the ultra-orthodox rabbis. Also political sentiment in Israel now favors ending lifetime support and military exemption for the ultra-orthodox students/rabbis. This is also opposed. The extreme religious right has dominated many decisions by the Israeli government for decades. Gee, I wonder if any other country has that problem.

Re Bibi

I think that former French President Sarkozy got it right when he was caught telling President Obama that, "I can't stand him (Bibi), he's such a liar". It should also be recalled that former Israeli Prime Minister Sharon once told Bibi to his face that he was born a liar.

Now Bibi got a slap in the face from the voters in the recent election, his party losing 10 seats in the Knesset. Hopefully, that may catch his attention and signal a more flexible policy. Hopefully, it will also cause him to cease and desist his subterranean campaign agains Obama where he all but came over here to campaign for Rmoney.

Bibi and Obama are going to be stuck with each other for the next 4 years so they better find a way to make the best of it.

Jim, I think the old strongman and former president of Malawi also got arrogant enough to think people would vote for him.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 10 Mar 2013 #permalink

I was so caught up in "Searching for Sugar Man", that I forgot about "The Gatekeepers." Thanks for reminding me, Jason. I'll make sure I see it one way or the other. BTW, let me know if you figure out what we moderates in America should do about this issue, if anything.

hmm...perhaps an odd parallel might put things in focus.

My take on the problem is that the violent instigators on the Palestinian side is the minority (I'd chalk up the Hamas electoral victories as the "anything please just make it be different" desperation stand), but the reaction isn't as "targeted" as the Israeli supporters claim.

That there are those that refuse to accept any compromise, I understand. I hate it, but then again, I detest the Tea Party in America for the very same reasons. But the counter-strikes in violence, infecting everybody with fear (even as they claim they are targeted to just the instigators), doesn't help - the fear remains. The fear grows the hate (yeah, one of the few times Yoda's warning in Phantom Menace applies). The hate grows the next generation of violence.

It is the more subtle means of suppression that I have a problem with - the closing of the beaches and ports in Gaza, the bombing and not rebuilding of the roads - it festers and fosters the very resentment that leads to the violence in the first place. They have nothing, and more importantly they have no means of having anything more than nothing. What is the point of living such a life - and as soon as you ask that, you MUST accept that some will reach the answer "none at all, so might as well take somebody with me".

The Israelis have created a concentration camp of *millions* that had nothing to do with the violence, and make their situation worse every time a tiny handful just can't take it anymore. Well what the hell do they expect?

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 10 Mar 2013 #permalink I typed, my original parallel I intended to say kinda got left out, but perhaps for the best. I think we're on the same page here - there are things Israel hasn't done right, and those things are eating at the Palestinians who increasingly are seeing no hope of anything ever changing. When people see no hope of change, they take change into their own hands.

Netanyahu is, yes, more a part of the problem than a solution at this point. I'm generally of the opinion that he considers them all 'terrorists' and militants, as if the 1.7 million in Gaza are all standing at the fence armed and ready to invade.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 10 Mar 2013 #permalink

JR, please check how Israel treats the Negev Bedouins. Many of them have served in the Israeli army; several are war heroes. They have been loyal citizens of Israel since 1948. Still they are treated worse nowadays than the native Americans in the USA.
Since I learned about their fate I have lost all sympathy for Israel. It does not mean that I sympathize with Hamas in any way. It means there are no good guys.

It looks like I have to see The Gatekeepers, because as far as I can see religion is a catalyst (condemning enough in itself) and not a cause. Possibly I'll have to change my view.

It's funny, the only difficulty I have with this stance is aesthetic/symbolic – as a gnu atheist, I'm always wary of anything that sounds like the golden mean fallacy (as in the arguments of sophisticated theists, or those of agnostics, or "teach both sides"). But actual bloodshed changes the equation significantly. It's perfectly valid to think a war is stupid without having to pick which side is being stupider.

It's always telling where you pick your starting point. I generally choose as post WWII as my starting point. The Jews took much land from Palestinians during this time without compensation, and terrorism was rampant. It seems odd to speak of peace while that debt is still outstanding. I will be the first to say I'm not an expert on this - but starting he clock AFTER Israel seized land seems unfair.

Re Phaedrus

As usual, Israel bashers like Mr. Phaedrus neglect to cite the land stolen from Jews in Arab countries like Iraq who were expelled after the 1948 War. But of course, to the Phaedrus of the world, those folks don't count.

That's silly, how does being thrown out of Iraq justify taking Palestinian land? I'm sure there are many parts of this I'm not aware of - as I stated - but the one you picked seems to have very little bearing on Israeli/Palestinian relations.
And the gratuitous "if you say something bad about Israel you're an anti Semite" is a nice touch. Asshat.

Re Phaedrus

That’s silly, how does being thrown out of Iraq justify taking Palestinian land? I’m sure there are many parts of this I’m not aware of – as I stated – but the one you picked seems to have very little bearing on Israeli/Palestinian relations.

Since most of those Jews expelled from Arab countries ended up in Israel, I would say that it ha a definite bearing on Israel/Palestinian relations and that Mr. Phaedrus doesn't know his posterior orifice from a hole in the ground. The difference is that Israel resettled them, the Arab countries locked them up in refugee camps and have been using them as an excuse to maintain oppressive governments in those countries ever since.

And by the way, the number each way are about the same.

In closing, I would repeat something that was published in the Ynetnews few months ago. Arab Knesset member Janin Zoabi was was appealing to the Israel supreme court against some actions that that were taken against her. She claimed that she was being oppressed. One of the talkbacks came from someone in Syria how suggested that she relocate to Syria where she would find out whathat oppression is.

Let me try to unpack this -

Iraq expelled Jews after WWII. Therefore, it is OK for Israel to take Palestinian land without restitution.

and following that :

Bad actions by Israel are ok because other countries are worse and SHUT UP, THAT"S WHY!

I find your logic deeply flawed.

Re Phaedrus @ #14

Excuse me, not only did Iraq expel almost all the Jews living there after 1948, most of whom had been there a hell of a lot longer then the Palestinians had been in Palestine, but they also stole their property. And Iraq also contributed troops on the Arab side in the 1948 war so it was directly involved. The point which moron Phaedrus fails to get through his thick head is that there was mutual expelation of populations and nattering on about what Israel did and ignoring what Iraq and other Arab countries did, which is what left wingers like Phaedrus do, is unproductive

I don't know where Mr. Phaedrus resides but if its in the Western Hemisphere, then he's throwing rocks from a glass house with very thin walls. See the genocide committed against Native Americans by Caucasian European settlers. We might also add the crimes committed against the Aborigines of Australia by European Settlers.

Your reactions to "The Gatekeepers" was as its Israeli producers anticipated. Palestinians can be labeled "terrorists" without any due process, without evidence presented publicly, and without irony. How do "we" know they are terrorists? Because the people trying to kill them say so. Once labeled "terrorist," the question becomes only how best to exterminate. It is almost banal to call this Orwellian.

The original terror occurred in the years leading up to the Nabka in 1947-48, with a religious "nation" build on land already occupied by other people. Those people were violently killed and expelled, their villages obliterated and renamed, their fields overturned, their histories literally wiped off the map. All of this was done in the name of "religion," with the Bible as a real estate guide. What people would endure such atrocity, such horror, without some kind of fight back? Indiscriminate violence is unacceptable on any side, but war itself is the greatest terrorism, and the State of Israel initiated that war.

As to the ridiculous comments about Jews being expelled from Iraq (and one might also add Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, and other countries), learn some history. Learn about what the Mossad and the Haganah, and chiefly Ben-Gurion himself, did to foster anti-semitism in Iraq through terror bombings and killings to create the crisis of Iraqi judaism. Check out "Ben-Gurion's Scandals" by Naelm Giladi, an Iraqi Jew.

Re PF @ #16

Mr. PF repeats the same old propaganda put out by the Arabs, namely that their minds were clean and their hearts were pure when it comes to the expelling of Jews from the Arab countries. Let's see, by this argument, the man responsible for the Holocaust was not Adolf Frankenberger but David Lloyd George. The man responsible for the massacre of Native Americans wasn't General Phil, "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" Sheridan but Sitting Bull.

The new Israeli government coalition that was just formed is the first to not include any unorthodox parties.

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