Gatekeepers an unflinching look at Israels past and future

Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh embarked on “The Gatekeepers” with the intention of stirring things up. Now he has everyone’s attention, with his film playing to sellout audiences in Israel, opening across the U.S. on the buzz of an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature, and on the heels of winning the Cinema for Peace prize Feb. 9 at the Berlin International Film Festival — the first Israeli film to be so honored.

“The Gatekeepers” unflinchingly revisits historical Israeli responses to the Palestinian situation, and the rise and impact of right-wing Jewish violence, through the recollections and insights of six former chiefs of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency.

Avraham Shalom in the film photo/courtesy of sony pictures classics

“The heads of the Shin Bet are not center, are not left and are not right,” Moreh said in an interview last month in San Francisco. “They are pragmatists. They use power, they understand what it means to use power, they understand very, very thoroughly the limitation of [what] power can [get] you, and they are very, very worried.”

“Gatekeepers” opens Feb. 22 around the Bay Area.

Moreh, whose credits include the 2008 documentary “Sharon,” acknowledged that he had been looking for a way to influence Israelis — and American Jews — on the center-right. He realized that impeccable, respected establishment figures expressing their doubts and concerns would be heard without the usual resistance.

“If there is someone who understands the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if there is someone in the Israeli society who knows firsthand — and not only knows but was inside those rooms with the prime minister when those decisions [were] made through all the years — you better listen,” he said.

Through aerial surveillance footage, the documentary immediately thrusts us into a moral thicket: whether to kill a suspected terrorist remotely by missile or bomb and risk annihilating innocent civilians.

From a stand-alone decision such as this, to the concerted operation to recruit informers and undercover agents among the Palestinians, the Shin Bet heads consider how their emphases on immediate solutions had unintended consequences.

“The Gatekeepers” exposes the pitfalls of focusing on tactics at the expense of strategies, to the point where it becomes a recurring theme: Short-term successes do not add up to a long-term plan.

“This is the motor that goes throughout my film,” Moreh asserted. “Regrettably, to the heads of the Shin Bet most of the prime ministers of Israel were tacticians. Very good tacticians, but tacticians who looked 2 meters in front of their eyes,” Moreh said — excepting Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin from the list.

“I wish that Barack Obama would watch the film,” he added with a smile before quickly turning serious. “I think that he would understand a lot about the lack of leadership in Israel, what the history of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is and what those security guys are telling him.

“The problems that America is dealing with now are the same problems that the film deals with: How much physical pressure can you [apply] while torturing people? How much can an occupation succeed? Is targeted assassination a good technique or not a good technique? Will it lead where we want it to lead?”

The most chilling portion of “The Gatekeepers” for many U.S. Jews may be the section on the Jewish underground before and after the assassination of Rabin by a right-wing settler. Moreh, whose father is Orthodox and whose sister is a moderate who lives in a settlement, has more insight than one might suspect.

“At a certain point you reach a wall, and that wall is God,” he said, describing his experiences of talking with ultra-religious settlers. “[They believe] ‘God ordered that the land of Israel should not be divided, and everybody that gives [away] a piece of Israel is a traitor’ … In my view, the settlements are the biggest obstacle to peace.”

Coming from a man who exudes enthusiasm and energy, his perspective is sobering. “I’m very pessimistic,” said the Jaffa resident. “The main problem is the lack of leadership. I’m totally for what Abba Eban said once, ‘The Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.’ But this is true, also, for the Israelis.”


“The Gatekeepers” opens Feb. 22 at the Clay in San Francisco, Sequoia Twin in Mill Valley, Albany Twin in Albany, Century Five in Pleasant Hill, Camera 3 in San Jose and CineArts at Palo Alto Square. In Hebrew with English subtitles. (rated PG-13, 96 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.