The Critical Difference Between “The Gatekeepers” and “5 Broken Cameras”

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Emad Burnat with wife Soraya and son Gibreel at the Academy Awards

Like many Israel/Palestine activists, I was thrilled to see two thoughtful films on the subject nominated for Best Documentary Oscars – and if I was pulling for any movie at all last Sunday night, it was Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s “5 Broken Cameras.”   If you haven’t seen it yet, please do. It is, I believe, one of the most important films on Palestine and Palestinians you will ever see. It’s also brilliantly constructed and deeply, almost unbearably moving. It’s available for free on Netflix, so you won’t need to wait for it to come to a theater near you.

I knew, of course, that it was a long shot, but oh, what an incredible, incredible opportunity it would have been if Emad Burnat could have gotten up before 3 billion people and read the speech he had prepared:

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I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the differences between “Cameras” and the other nominated Israel/Palestine documentary, “The Gatekeepers.”  I’m particularly struck that the latter film, which features interviews with six ex-Shin Bet chiefs, is in many ways as characteristically Israeli as “Cameras” is Palestinian. For me, the most fundamental difference between the two films resides in their literal perspectives: In “Gatekeepers,” we largely view Palestinians from above – mostly through footage taken by the Israeli Air Forces as they surgically strike their targets from the skies. We never see anyone actually get killed  – they just seem to disappear in a sudden puff of smoke.

By contrast, “Cameras” was filmed on the ground in a Palestinian village. We see Palestinian non-violent protesters getting beaten and shot. In one particularly heartbreaking instance we witness the shooting death of Bassem (“Phil”) Abu-Rahma.  Indeed, the moral center of this movie resides in the way it places us firmly in the lives and reality of these Palestinians – we experience their humanity, their tragedies, their courage up close and personally.

For all of its depth and nuance, “The Gatekeepers,” is ultimately a film that presents us with the moral angst of a people who are, quite simply, on the side of the oppressor.  Many critics have have been struck by the level of ethical soul-searching evidenced by ex-Shin Bet chiefs who were, after all, the heads of Israel’s powerful security establishment – and I fully agree. It is a tribute to the genius of “Gatekeepers”  that it gives us a genuine glimpse into the humanity of men who typically occupy a position of invisibility in Israel’s massive national security apparatus.

For me, however,  this insight cuts both ways. While we can and should understand that there are real, living flesh and blood human beings with real, human concerns behind the Shin Bet, I believe their humanity is many ways subsumed by an inherently oppressive infrastructural reality. And this reality is much, much larger than these individuals, no matter how deeply they might engage in soul-searching over their actions.

This institutional soul-searching is, in fact, a time honored Israeli cultural enterprise – they even have a name for it: “Yorim U’vochim” (“Shoot and Cry”) –  a term that was coined in the wake of the Six Day War to describe this uniquely Israeli expression of angst. Indeed, Israelis have produced countless films, books, poetry and essays that struggle deeply over their treatment of Palestinians. But in the end, no amount of individual soul searching, no matter how heartfelt, can itself erase the collective guilt of what Israel has perpetrated – and continues to perpetrate – against Palestinians.

Take a look at the clip below: an interview with “Gatekeepers” director Dror Moreh on “Democracy Now.” Pay particular attention to Moreh’s comments at the 3:30 mark, where he expresses his discomfort with those who portray Israelis as the oppressors and the Palestinians as the poor innocent victims. In a (possibly) unguarded but telling moment, he says, “After, all, there is a reason why the Shin Bet is doing what it is doing.”  Moreh continues: this is not a black and white situation – we must see it in “shades of grey.”

I fully agree that this is a complicated situation. But I would add that there is nothing complicated about the institutional oppression that the Shin Bet inflicts on Palestinians. While the fears and pain and moral anguish of Israelis is indeed very real, I believe we must be willing to admit that these feelings are largely helpless in the face of a larger infrastructural reality that Israelis have created – and within which, in a very real way, they have become subsumed.

Critics who condemn those who stand in solidarity with Palestinians often fail to appreciate this point: it is not Israelis to whom we stand in opposition, but rather the oppressive institutions that they have constructed and which we believe threaten the well being and future of Israelis and Palestinians alike.  In watching “The Gatekeepers,” I was deeply touched by the humanity of men such as Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom and Carmi Gillon. But I never forgot for a second that the organization they led was and remains a profoundly oppressive, even criminal institution – and no amount of soul-searching, no matter how anguished or heartfelt can wash away this essential reality.

A final note: less than one week before the Academy Awards ceremony, the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet arrested a 30 year Palestinian named Arafat Jaradat, claiming that he threw stones at cars from a nearby settlement. Jaradat was taken first to the Jalameh Interrogation Center in the northern West Bank before being transferred to Megiddo Prison. Four days later, he was dead, tortured to death by the Shin Bet.

Jaradat was a student at Al Quds Open University, married with two children (Yara, 4 years old and Mohammad, 3 years old) and was expecting a third child with his wife Dalal.  His lawyer, Kamil Sabbagh, who defended him in a court hearing two days before he died, reported that Jaradat was terrified and complained of intense back pain when he saw him.

The Shin Bet claimed Jaradat died from cardiac arrest, despite the fact that an initial autopsy indicated he was in fine cardiac health. A subsequent autopsy determined that Jaradat had been beaten with repeated blows to his chest and body and had sustained a total of six broken bones in his spine, arms and legs; his lips lacerated; his face badly bruised.

I agree with Dror Moreh: there is a reason the Shin Bet is doing what it is doing. We just disagree what that reason actually is.  Their ultimate goal is not simply the security of Israelis, but the security of Israelis maintained through the subjugation of Palestinians.

And for all the Israeli soul-searching on this point, this oppression will only make Israel less secure in the long run.

22 thoughts on “The Critical Difference Between “The Gatekeepers” and “5 Broken Cameras”

  1. dear rabbi rosen thank you for your heartfelt and courageous commentary on these two films…may these two traumatized peoples who each long for nothing more than to have a home find a way to have rachamim for one another shalom judith schmidt phd new york

    • With all due respect, there is no equivalence whatsoever between the trauma of those who experience decades of dispossession and oppression and the experiences of those who continue to benefit as a result of that dispossession and oppression.

  2. The feelings you express about the Gatekeepers reminds me of my reaction to The Fog of War, in which an elderly Robert McNamara apologized, sort of, for the enormity of the damage the US had done to Vietnam. From the comfort of his lavish retirement from a lavish life’s work, he seemed only vaguely aware of how the billions of pounds of bombs dropped, and the billions of pounds of poisonous chemicals spread, and the billions of gallons of flesh-searing napalm dripped on people and villages and forests and crops, had affected his/our victims. So too do these Israeli “warriors” use distance and privilege to dodge the moral implications of their institution of control and so much worse worse.

  3. Good analysis, Brant. While I was very moved by 5 Broken Cameras: including feeling angry, inspired, and grateful, The Gatekeepers just made me profoundly sad. I see the Shin Bet guys, as you do, as completely stuck in their box — tragic, sad, trapped figures. At the most fundamental level, underneath their angst, soul-searching, confusion, feelings of betrayal and embattlement with the Israeli government, underneath all that is a simple, tragic and total inability to understand that this war they are involved in is of their own making. They just don’t get it — there is not a shred of evidence in the entire movie of any understanding that the ethnic nationalist, essentially racist enterprise to which they are committed has led inevitably to the enterprise of “self defense” and murder in which they are involved. That’s what made me so sad.

    Mark

  4. Jaradat was NOT “tortured to death” and , you as a Jewish leader, should not propagate such falsehoods. Al-Jazeera is not a reputable news outlet. Thhe SHABAK rules for interrogation are regulated by law and the “Leftist” political parties such as MERETZ, HADASH and the Arab parties are constantly monitoring the situation.

    • Interview with Dr. Selova Proval, the coroner who determined the cause of death:

      Barb Weir: Dr. Proval, how did you determine that cardiac arrest was the cause of death?

      Dr. Selova Proval: Because the subject’s heart was no longer beating when he was brought to me. If it had been, he would not have been dead.

      Barb Weir: He was a young man and apparently in good health. According to Palestinian medical examiners, there were signs of torture. Some are saying there was internal bleeding. Did you take this into consideration when determining the cause of death?

      Dr. Selova Proval: Never mind the bleeding, Ms. Weir, it was cardiac arrest. Torture has never been the cause of death of any prisoner. There have not even been any fatal accidents, only cardiac arrest and occasionally brain death.

      Barb Weir: That’s an amazing record, Dr. Proval. Not even cancer or strokes?

      Dr. Selova Proval: We’ve had cases of all sorts of illnesses and conditions amongst the prisoners, but the only fatalities have been due cardiac arrest. In all cases, if the subject’s heart had continued beating, death would not have occurred, the only exception being brain death, and in that case cardiac arrest occurs when we pull the plug.

      Barb Weir: Perhaps I’m asking the wrong question, Dr. Proval. What caused the cardiac arrest?

      Dr. Selova Proval: Ms. Weir, you’re asking me to speculate. Many things can contribute to cardiac arrest. No heart can function for long without a blood supply, but there was plenty of blood still inside Mr. Jaradat’s body. Excessive electricity running through the body can cause the heart to stop, but I found no unusual electricity in the body when it was brought to me.

      Barb Weir: I think I understand. You’re using the term “cardiac arrest” in a very limited and literal sense.

      Dr. Selova Proval: How else should I use it, Ms. Weir?

      Barb Weir: Never mind. But I can see the potential.

      • Except that Barb Weir is the nom de plume (say it out loud, and you’ll understand that it’s not a real name) of a long-time Is/Pal activist writing SATIRE! But don’t feel bad about falling for his writing; I didn’t twig that his recent piece about Monsanto wanting to patent a baby who had been “conceived on company time” until I got to the final paragraph.

  5. Your point is well taken but I would simplify your analysis to this: compare the pain and injury a victim sustains when shot compared to the feelings of the shooter. The injury and suffering that can follow for years are quite different from the possible regret the shooter may feel. The former can never be put aside, the latter can be finessed into any rationalization.

    Michael Blum quite properly mentions McNamara and must we not also put Barack Obama in the same shoes as the Shin Bet men when it comes to killing? What of the head of the CIA? Being separated by an immense bureaucracy from killing is a wonderful buffer from the real events. The head of the organization is handling the Big Picture, while the victim is handling a shattered face, a missing limb. It’s a luxury to be able to ponder one’s situation in comfort and ease…was I really responsible…I sure am sorry…I carry so much of a burden of responsibility…I really am a good person and am I not possibly a great one for this that I do in anguish? At the same time, the mighty are surrounded by those who are eager to help assuage any guilt.

    If those who actually torture can go on with their lives, how much more so can those who, far from the torture chamber give the orders to do it? Will George W. Bush and Dick Cheney die old men as McNamara did? I think we can count on it. So much for the anguish of power.

  6. Dear Brant,

    I was born into a secular Christian family, my husband was born into a semi-secular Jewish family, and we met within the heart and home of a Sufi teacher, who has been our father and our guiding light for the 38 years since.

    My husband chuckles now when I tell him about the latest posting from “my Rabbi”. But it’s true, Rabbi Brant, you are my Rabbi, and if I lived in Evanston (where, interestingly, my mother was raised), I would join your congregation. Thank you for your unwavering courage, honesty and clarity.

  7. People like Rabbi Rosen proves again and again that the problem is not in the religion, it is in taking the spirituality out of the religion and replacing it with materialistic values for personal gains.

  8. Israelis’ shoot and cry schtick is the ultimate in self-indulgence, and frankly it leaves me not only cold, but more than an little nauseated. Their angst over the crimes they commit against Palestinians is a purely self-inflicted wound, and then they demand compassion for it.

    The ultimate and most deeply sickening expression of Yorim U’vochim is Golda Meir’s jaw-dropping statement that “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”

    • Hardly surprising that a critique that labels the Palestinian film “a relentless battering of Israel that reeks of familiar Palestinian victimhood” and in typical Israeli self-congratulatory manner describes the latest Israeli “shoot and cry” film as “a credit to everything that is best about the Jewish state — a testament to Israeli decency and introspection in the face of a sometimes heartless enemy.”

  9. This “shoot and cry” nonsense is a product of a Jewish inferiority complex and a desire to look “nice” in front of “progressive” world opinion which too many Jews feel is important. Jews and Israelis are under NO OBLIGATION to be “better” than anyone else. We don’t hear Americans saying they “shoot and cry” in their wars, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Obama hasn’t said he cries when he order drone attacks on people that may cause collateral damage. I haven’t heard the two sides in the Syria civil war that are slaughtering each other say they feel any guilt over what they are doing.
    The only sillier idea is the one I hear all the time (recently repeated by a Liberal Democrat MP in Britain) is that “how can people who have suffered so much [supposedly] cause suffering to others?”. That is such a preposterous notiion I don’t even know where to begin in refuting it…..how about “how can the blacks in South Africa who suffered under apartheid cause so much violence there now”? “How can Christians who were thrown to the lions in Roman times cause suffering since then”” How can the Arabs who say they suffered under Western colonialism cause so much suffering to their own people [Syria, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq civil wars”? It is time these nonsensicle notions be revealed for the empty slogans they are.

    • Hi Ike:

      I would like you to answer the following question.

      Most American politicians claim that America has “special relationship” with Israel. This “special relationship” results in the USA giving Israel a great deal of diplomatic and military aid. What justifies this level of support and this “special relationship”? We Americans are told that Israel is a morally superior nation with morally superior values which deserve our support.

      However you seem to be saying that this is not the case. You seem to be arguing that if the other nations of the world do not live up to higher moral standards then why should Israel?

      If this is the case then what is the basis of this “special relationship”? After all there are about 200 countries in the world. Why do we single out Israel to have a “special relationship” with if it is not special?

  10. Dan-
    American support for Zionism and the idea of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel long predates the creation of the state of Israel. It goes back as far as the first half of the NINETEENTH century. Already President Abraham Lincoln expressed support for the creation of a Jewish state and he wasn’t the first. I believe even John Adams came out for it. Where did this support come from? Many sources, not all of them positive. Early American thinking was heavily influenced by the Bible (look how many place names in the US come from the Bible) and the Exodus of the Children of Israel to live in freedom was a major inspiration, as it was to the Abolitionist movement as well. Many early Americans were concerned about human rights and were appalled by the prevalent European antisemitism and thought giving the Jews a refuge was the right thing to do. To be honest, there was also an idea of some supporters that said “better they should go there than come to the US!”.

    From this we see that this support for the Jewish state predates any concept of Israel being a “morally superior” state. Of course Israel is a functioning democracy, unlike any of its neighbors which no doubt affects how many Americans view the Arab-Israeli conflict. I am not saying Israel should not have any moral constraints…not at all. However Israel has no obligation to be bound to moral constraints that other civilized countries DON’T feel they are bound by. Also, I believe Israel must live up to its own moral code as expressed in the Torah (which incidentally served as a very important base for the values Western civilization holds by) but I will leave it to others to decided whether this is a “superior” values system to others. Post-modernist thinking which seems to be the rage today in the US and Europe rejects the idea that anyone’s values are “superior” to anyone elses, so this should make the job of judging Israel’s behavior easier for everyone.

    • Ike, your historical analysis, to put it kindly, is shoddy. I’ve heard the silly claim that Abraham Lincoln and John Adams were proto-Zionists – but there is not one shred of real historical evidence to back this up. I notice you didn’t cite any sources – and for good reason. These ridiculous historical claims have long been thrown around by contemporary Jewish and Christian Zionists to cook up historical justification for the Zionist enterprise.

      In fact, even as late as the 20th century, American support for political Zionism was not a forgone conclusion. In 1945, FDR was entering into relationships with Arab states to procure oil contracts – and was far less of a Zionist supporter than Truman (whose support was largely based on domestic political concerns – not a belief that the Jewish people deserved a homeland of their own). Eisenhower certainly did not have high regard for the state of Israel or its leaders (and did not contain his anger at them in 1956 when Israel colluded with the French and British to invade the Sinai behind the back of the US.) In terms of US support, the most notable indication of the beginning of any “special relationship” can be traced back to the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, after which American aid to Israel rose dramatically (again for politically strategic reasons).

      In the end, anyone who understands politics knows that no country – particularly a superpower like the US – bases its policy on “moral reasons.” The US does what it does because it will strategically benefit the US. If Israel ever stopped being a strategic ally to the US (and given the historically fluctuating nature of international diplomacy and alliances, such a suggestion is certainly not a stretch), you would almost certainly see the “special relationship” evaporate into thin air.

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