It’s one thing to watch a film like The Gatekeepers from the comfort of the diaspora. It’s another thing entirely to watch it in the heart of Israel. The people in the film were well known and part of the public sphere. The horrific events chronicled in the pictures of bombed buses and mangled corpses happened in the streets of Tel Aviv. The images of Israeli soldiers, patrolling in the occupied territories, fighting during the First Intifada, and arresting Palestinians were familiar, too. Some of those soldiers were now sitting and watching the film.
The audience experienced the film viscerally. After each segment, the audience breathed a deep collective sigh, as if it were in pain. One viewer near me remarked that he remembered blindfolding Palestinians and binding their hands during a military operation. When Avraham Shalom, head of the Shin Bet from 1981-86, grumbled that in war there are no morals and that if you’re concerned about morals look for them in the terrorists first, a woman behind me muttered that he sounded like an idiot. A different woman said he reminded her of the Nazis. And another said that she had waited for the film to end, not because it was bad but because it was so difficult and aching to watch. When the movie ended and the lights came on, the audience struggled to stand. The film had knocked the wind out of them.
For a Jew in Israel, the film is disturbing because it illuminates the vast apparatus of violence and oppression that I am part of. It shows the military mechanisms used to construct the reality in which I live. It describes the actions which I knew happened but did not want to know about. It points out the rifts in Israeli society that have influenced not only the public political discourse but also the language used by Jews all around the world in the way they relate to Israel.
It is frightening because it concludes with a prediction for the future – one of more death, oppression, and violence. It reminded me that at the end of the year, when I have the privilege of returning to study at college in the US, my friends from the mechina will be thrust into the vicious cycle of violence. Some of them will serve in combat units in the West Bank. Some will be in the intelligence units spoken about in the film. Some will be in the same air-force that carries out targeted assassinations. I can only understand the film from my subjective viewpoint. I can only attempt to imagine what a future like theirs might be like.
I know that what I say here is colored the temporary-ness of my presence in Israel. I’m a visitor, a cultural tourist. I have the option of tuning out, of leaving and, most of all, of taking a stance without having to deal with the consequences. I’m not going to be conscripted at the end of this year. I can unconditionally oppose the occupation and Israeli policies without worrying about what will happen when I enlist. I can’t ask my friends to refuse to enlist – not with the cost it comes with in Israeli society, not with the threat of jail time. But there are other gears and levers in the terrible machine of military occupation. There are other variables in the sinister equation that can be changed.
Complicity, culpability, and responsibility for the occupation do not end at Israel’s borders. In the diaspora, it is fashionable amongst self-described supporters of Israel to label even Jewish critics of Zionism and Israeli policy “anti-semitic” or “anti-Israel” for choosing Israel out of all the other terrible regimes in the Middle East for rebuke. And yet those self-described supporters of Israel completely fail to understand, and here I can only speak for myself, that criticism of Israel and its policies does not come from a place of hatred (or self-hatred) or naïveté. Instead, it comes from a deep concern for the Jewish people and its moral integrity. The occupation first and foremost deprives Palestinians of their most basic rights and freedoms. But it also threatens the ethical character of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. The occupation has turned Jews – and those in the diaspora are some of the greatest offenders – into a nation that exercises and justifies the military domination of another nation. It has turned Israel into a state concerned firstly with separation and violence rather than with justice and peace. It has warped the interpretation of Jewish scripture, which once brought Jews to march alongside Martin Luther King Jr., into a basis for chauvinistic and racist demagoguery.
When an injustice is sustained for so long, it begins to poison its sustainers. American Jewish supporters of Israel have turned into apologists for discrimination, legitimizers of occupation, and supporters of endless violence. For all its talk about social justice, the American Jewish community has done more than check its liberalism at Zionism’s door. It has put Jewish scripture in the service of jingoism, militarism, and racism. And in doing so it has disgraced not just the rich modern history of Jewish participation in the struggle for human rights but also the words of the prophets and the spirit of the mitzvoth.
Part of the film shows the apprehension of the violent Jewish Underground- the group of that attempted to blow up Palestinian buses and threatened to destroy the Dome of the Rock. And as I watched the despicable members of that organization flicker across the screen I felt a pang of guilt. That they wore kippot, just like I did. That they celebrated Shabbat, just like I did. That they considered themselves part of the same Jewish people as I did. They looked like my friends and family.
As Pesach approaches I cannot help but think that in the modern iteration of the story we have become the Egyptians, and that the protesters massing peacefully in Nabi Saleh, Sheikh Jarrah, Bil’in, Ni’lin, Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Susya, and Jerusalem are Bnei Yisrael desperately crying out for freedom. Amidst the smoke and the tear gas, they cry out “let my people go.” And we respond with rubber bullets and brutal beatings. It is as if, in a tragic reverse of fate, God has hardened our hearts towards the suffering of the people we control. To each protest we react with disdain, to each spasm of resistance we respond with contempt, and to each cry for help we reply with indifference. Just as we wish for at the end of the seder, Palestinians wish to spend next year in Jerusalem, too. To pray at their holy sites free from the gaze heavily armed soldiers. To travel without suffering abuse and humiliation at the checkpoints. To make the political decisions that affect their lives rather than have those decisions thrust upon them by an occupying force.
The Israeli scientist and philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz argued “Jewish uniqueness ‘is not a fact; it is an endeavor. The holiness of Israel is not a reality but a task.’ The Jewish people’s uniqueness rather consists in the demand laid on it. The people may or may not heed this demand, therefore its fate is not guaranteed.'” The Gatekeepers, loudly and clearly, announced that now, more than at anytime since the establishment of the state of Israel, the Jewish people’s fate is uncertain. We are failing in our endeavor towards holiness. We are failing to meet the demand. We are failing to fulfill the commandments that we are obligated to fulfill. We are failing to bring about redemption (גאולה). In the story of Pesach, the Jewish people are redeemed – from slavery to freedom. But that was only one kind of redemption – one stage in the redemptive process. In a world filled with injustice we must strive, again, for redemption. And the occupation is the greatest obstacle that stands in the way of the Jewish people’s modern redemptive quest.
The greatest threat to the future of Israel is not posed by Arabs or Leftists but by those who call themselves Zionists. Each day that goes by without a halt to settlement building makes the possibility of withdrawal from the West Bank less likely. And each day that the occupation continues makes it more difficult to achieve a lasting peace. What right-wing Israelis and AIPAC supporters alike fail to realize is that maintaining the status quo means surrendering forever the dream of a Jewish state. Israel must end the occupation or let Palestinians vote in general elections.
Even in a world of nuance, here there is no in-between. Maintaining the occupation means maintaining apartheid. It corrupts Judaism. It destroys the powerful emancipatory tradition of the Jewish people. We stand on the precipice of a catastrophe that will be the legacy of the religious-Zionist movement that wrongly insisted on the inherent holiness of the land. It will be the fault of an American Jewish community that sat idly by as it funded a tyrannical system of oppression and silenced any criticism from within. And it will be the second greatest tragedy in modern Jewish history.