No Place for Morality, by David Bax

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Plenty of thematic ground is covered in Dror Moreh’s new documentary, The Gatekeepers. Yet the main question to which I kept returning was that of ideology. The film illustrates how dominantly beliefs are formed by one’s immediate experiences but also wonders to what extent the necessities of duty supersede principles or excuse their abandonment.

Moreh interviews all of the surviving former heads of Israel’s clandestine domestic security agency, Shin Bet. Through them, he tracks the transformations of the Palestinian resistance – or terrorist movement, depending on whom you ask – as well as the Israeli responses to it.

It’s no secret that Israel has inflicted plenty of damage on Palestine in the past. The recent documentary Tears of Gaza made that shockingly, infuriatingly clear. Of course, it’s also plain that Israel’s actions are retaliations for damage inflicted by Palestinian bombers, often those of the suicidal variety. Moreh leaves it to his subjects to discuss whether Israel’s response is out of proportion and what of Israel’s soul is lost when they meet terrorists on their own level. This is of course the chief theme of Steven Spielberg’s great Munich, still as relevant today as 40 years ago. One of the quotes from The Gatekeepers to which I keep returning is the assessment by one former security head of how one changes once leaving the job. With the distance and the free time to consider all that you’ve seen and done, he says, you “become a liberal.”

Whether you find a liberal a good or a bad thing to be is up to each of you individually. What interests me is this: if the job has such a profound repercussion on a person’s belief system, why does it only take hold so far after the fact? Why were these people and the others who agree with them unable to reflect in the moment on how they felt about the violence around them?

If only it were that simple. The most intriguing and troubling interviewee is the oldest surviving Shin Bet head. He endorses a diplomatic approach to the conflict and even advocates for Palestinian statehood. Yet when confronted with specific and gut-churning acts that were perpetrated under his watch, he is defiantly remorseless. His assertion, both self-serving and coldly pragmatic, is that morality has no place in the job he was assigned. He feels for the Palestinians as a whole but treats the individual Palestinians with which he did battle as something less than human. More thought-provoking still, he seems contentedly willing to condemn as immoral the acts of some of his successors, such as targeting enemies with one-ton bombs that result in more than a dozen innocent bodies’ worth of “collateral damage.” The result is the nearly spirit-breaking reinforcement of the notion that there is no real, known solution to this conflict.

That The Gatekeepers even exists is commendable enough on its own. The access Moreh achieved to the notoriously secretive Shin Bet is no small feat. But the sticky, compelling and frustrating result is even more stunning.

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