We seem to be entering a period of acute reflection from Israeli documentary makers, presumably prompted by their belated realisation that no Israeli leader is contemplating a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
So now along comes The Gatekeepers, trailing awards and in the running for an Oscar nomination. It interviews six former heads of Israel’s secret police, the Shin Bet. And they sound a pretty lefty bunch – at least by Israeli standards.
Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz warned in 1968, a year after Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza:
A country that controls a hostile population of a million foreigners will necessarily be a Shin Bet state, with everything that requires, with implications on education, freedom of speech and thought and on democratic governance. The corruption characterizing every colonial regime will also infect the State of Israel. The administration will on one hand have to deal with suppressing Arab rebel movements and on the other cultivate quislings, Arab traitors.
What does Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet until 2011, say to that? “I agree with every word.” Avraham Shalom (1980-86), meanwhile, calls the IDF a “cruel occupation army” and compares it to “the Germans during World War II.”
So how is it that the Shin Bet is so fearsome when it has been run for decades by a bunch of doves? Well, part of the reason is that they all seem to have reached these conclusions only after leaving the job. When their pay and pensions depended on it, they took a more hawkish view.
But the film also serves as a useful reminder that bad organisations are usually filled with normal people, often working with the best of intentions. The problem isn’t necessarily the character of the officials, it’s the way the organisations and institutions are structured, to serve power. Ordinary people do bad things when they feel they have no choice or believe they are working for a larger or higher purpose (think of the famous Milgram Experiment). We cannot improve our societies simply through changing the office-holders (Obama anyone?). We have to think in terms of restructuring our institutions so that they serve us all rather than a tiny elite.