In offering the screening of the Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers to his synagogue, Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, Rabbi David Greenstein said he knew he risked stirring controversy.
Addressing the audience of around 60 people on Sunday, Dec. 15, he acknowledged his own struggles regarding the issues covered in the film, and their bearing on Israeli security and on basic Jewish values. He explained that he welcomed the opportunity to co-sponsor the screening with J Street, the American organization campaigning for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He said, “Let’s talk together and share our perspectives with respect, with a hearing heart and as well as hearing ears.”
First released in 2012, the documentary features six retired heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secretive internal security agency. As different as they are, the men all confess to the same change of heart — from coolly professional support for government efforts to squash Palestinian terrorism through spying, imprisonment, and assassinations to a belief that the only solution lies in the political solution of two lands for two peoples.
Audience members pointed out in the discussion that followed that the most dogged of the men in the film, Avraham Shalom, described by others as an intransigent bully, in the end insists the only hope lies in dialogue. The former Israeli security boss said, “We have to talk with them, even if they’re rude to us.”
The screening was part of the congregation’s monthly program of Israel-related movies. Leading the discussion were congregant Yechiel Felder of Montclair, who cochairs the film program, and Yuval Lion, an Israeli who lives in New York City and recently joined J Street’s group of Israeli ex-pat supporters.
Felder put to the audience that The Gatekeepers shows that it’s not just the issue of territory that fuels the Israel-Palestine conflict. Just as important, he suggested, is “respect for each other’s national aspirations.”
Lion, who grew up in England but returned to Israel and served in the army in the mid-1990s, stressed a different aspect. What perturbed him, he said, is the apathy with which the movie has been received in Israel — with most people too pessimistic about peace efforts to react strongly one way or the other.
On the other hand, Felder pointed out, the Israeli government helped finance the production. How many governments, he asked, would help finance a work like this that contains such criticism of its own policies?
About half the people present were Shomrei Emunah members; the others had come from across the region in response to outreach by J Street. Some described themselves as supporters of the organization; others said they were merely curious about the event.
Past congregation president Jay Sabin, who has cochaired the Israel film program, said that partnering with J Street for this event didn’t imply an endorsement of the group. “It’s just part of our effort to open up the discussion to all points of view,” he said.
Although J Street is not the first U.S.-based group to favor an aggressive American role in shaping a peace settlement or to promote the two-state solution, it has made enemies by portraying itself as an alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobby.
J Street’s New York regional field organizer, Amy Levin, urged audience members to support Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts in the region. “There’s tons you can do. Show your members of Congress that there is a constituency in the American-Jewish community that supports a two-state solution.”
One person in the audience dismissed the film’s call for dialogue. “How can you talk to people who want to wipe us off the face of the earth?” she asked.
But congregant Toby Stein of Montclair argued that talking is essential. She said, “You develop trust as time goes by.” She added that both sides have done terrible things, but they have to recognize that “we and they are human beings.”
As for those who dismiss critics of the government’s tactics as anti-Israel, another audience member said, “The people in this film adore their country. They’re critical because they love Israel.”
The rabbi had said at the start of the program that “courage would be needed going forward,” and the film did stir deep doubts. One man said, “It makes me think twice about picking up and going to live in Israel. Maybe we’re less good at having a homeland than we thought we’d be, and maybe what it shows is that the Diaspora is more important than ever.”