As the saying goes, “Knowledge is power.” Dror Moreh‘s documentary The Gatekeepers shows that it’s nothing more than a saying. Knowledge is only power if you know how to use it, and if you’re allowed to use it properly. Moreh goes inside Israel’s intelligence service, the Shin Bet, and by talking with its former directors, the documentary uncovers the futility of intelligence in the face of terrorism, politics, and human nature. Moreh attempts to show how the agency has to keep shifting its identity and purpose but still manages to come up short when tasked with stopping the major attacks. However, in exploring the past, The Gatekeepers ultimately reveals nothing new about the present.
The documentary interviews six former heads of Shin Bet: Yuval Diskin, Avraham Shalom, Avi Dichtner, Yaavoc Peri, Carmi Gillon, and Ami Ayalon. Each ran Shin Bet at various points, and yet their stories are remarkably similar. The film opens as Diskin tells us that politicians want to see situations in black-and-white, but those missions are rare. More often than not, intelligence lives in the grey area. It is a grey area of purpose, morality, and identity. The agency constantly struggles with how to stop terrorism, but perversely needing terrorism to define its existence. An army can be reactive; an intelligence agency must be pro-active in trying to root out the next attack. Tragically, these attempts to predict the future often lead to a more chaotic present.
None of the former Shin Bet leaders speak with pride. There’s an air of defeat in their voices. Of course, how can you be victorious when you don’t even know what victory looks like? The overall mission is to protect the homeland, but there’s no clear way to do it. Moreh divides the movie into chapters, and each chapter heading is more depressing than the last: “No Strategy, Just Tactics”, “Forget about Morality”, “One Man’s Terrorist Is another Man’s Freedom Fighter”, “Our Own Flesh and Blood”, “Collateral Damage”, and “The Old Man at the End of the Corridor”. Every chapter heading is a quote from one of the interview subject. There is a chronology to events, but the director skillfully blends events and interviews to show how nothing fundamentally changes.
Moreh doesn’t seem like he’s showing us a world where the successes are private and the failures are public. Shin Bet surely has its victories, but intel is erratic and unreliable when needed most. It couldn’t stop the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the assassin wasn’t even on their radar despite having countless files and intel from numerous informants. Shin Bet was forced to deal with enemies both foreign and domestic, and the system creates a barrier against meaningful progress. As one former Shin Bet leader notes, by having a military where almost every citizen serves, Israel remains static. In the grey area, the fight can neither be won nor lost. The enemy is always unclear, the battlefield is everywhere, and as one former Shin Bet head points out, they can only clamp down on attacks; the attacks can’t be stopped. Peace isn’t elusive; it’s impossible.
Israel’s identity is forged by its purpose, and if the purpose is always to defend the homeland, then the homeland is always at war. Almost every citizen is a veteran whether they’ve seen battle or not. When I visited Israel a couple years ago, they took us to Masada, which is where they have the swearing-in ceremony of soldiers who have completed their IDF training. The lesson of Masada is that everyone fights to the last man. It is better die than to be taken captive. It is a lesson of fatalism instilled into the citizens of Israel. It is a dark and horrible lesson, but an understandable one. Forced to fight in a seemingly endless war, is it any wonder the former Shin Bet heads seem so melancholy?
And yet their lessons don’t cast a new light on the identity of Israel. These men have come to realize that the fundamentals of the war are wrong, and that communication is a far more powerful solution than a military one. Isn’t this obvious to outsiders? Israel doesn’t change its policies and continues to get the same results. The Shin Bet heads are somewhat apologetic, but they also point the finger at former Prime Ministers who are still looking for the binary decision. They want the birds-eye view that can see the terrorist vehicle and hit it with a missile. The politicians and the people want the clean, easy victory that ends in an explosion rather than seeing the target’s face. But those are the rare moments. More often, it’s the boots on the ground. It’s the night-vision raid and the confusion. It’s the fog of war, and while Moreh never cuts through the fog to offer a fresh perspective of Israel’s endless fight, he effectively and pointedly lets us get lost in the bleak and hopeless grey area.