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One of the first things to strike you in The Settlers, Shimon Dotan’s compelling, strongly articulated documentary portrait of Israelis and others living adjacent to the state of Israel on the occupied West Bank, is the quality of the light. Just about the last thing that Dotan shows is a scene of the gathering darkness.
The Settlers (Ha Mitnakhalim), which had had its premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, is the filmmaker’s second documentary. His first, Hot House (televised by Cinemax in 2007) was a revelatory series of interview with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The Settlers, which largely gives voice to Israelis, is concerned with another sort of revelation—one seemingly intrinsic to a landscape that has inspired several world religions.
Richly metaphoric, The Settlers has a deliberate biblical quality. (The movie could have taken its title from V.S. Naipaul’s “Islamic journey” Among the Believers.) Each of The Settlers’ nine chapters is preceded by a quote from the Tanakh and an illustration by David Polonsky, the art designer on Waltz With Bashir. Sometimes executed in the style of a Gustave Doré engraving, Polonsky’s drawing serves to further illuminate a particular religious drama.
Dotan opens on an existential note by asking a number of settlers if they consider themselves to be “settlers” (that is, citizens of Israel living on occupied land). He receives a variety of answers, but none of his subjects questions absolute right to be where they are. Dotan, who is clearly sympathetic to the Israeli left, doesn’t argue with them. Rather, he allows his subjects to hold forth, occasionally annotating their statements with the opinions of secular thinkers (both Israeli and Palestinian) while providing a sort of chronology, drawing on archival footage, from the 1967 Six-Day War to the present.
Flush with victory, the earliest settlers did not seek government approval but simply went ahead, lighting out into the territories captured from Jordan that they called Judea and Samaria. After the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Labor government saw these West Bank settlements as establishing a new line of defense; the vast expansion of the settlements that began under Likud some four years later have more or less continued through the Oslo accords (which left the fate of the settlements and Palestinian recognition of Israel for the end of the peace process).
Dotan does not minimize the political aspect of settling the West Bank but he is more interested in placing it in the light of religious history. The key events are not just the atrocity committed by the self-appointed malakh ha-mavet Baruch Goldstein or the “righteous” assassination of the “traitor” Yitzhak Rabin but lesser-known occurrences in the Book of Settlements.
Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook’s May 1967 denunciation of the 1947 partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states appears in retrospect as biblical prophecy, and the war that followed his jeremiad by a month a divine miracle. Sarah Nachsman carried her dead infant, struck down by SIDS, past an Israeli military checkpoint and refusing an army command to halt, buried him in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Hebron, a deed that, for some, places her among her biblical namesake and the other matriarchs of Israel. Her act ensured that the IDF would have to protect a Jewish grave and that, guarded by a thousand soldiers, 600 Jews might settle in Hebron amid 200,000 Palestinians.
It’s estimated that three-quarters or more of the 400,000 settlers moved to the West Bank to improve their quality of life. Dotan has little interest in these suburban colonists (although he does allow one to show off his capacious new home), many of whom were Russian immigrants placed by the Israeli government. His fascination is with the messianic faithful, the 80,000 God-intoxicated believers, out-front Jewish nationalists, self-identified racists, and youthful daredevils (as well as the sprinkling of American evangelicals) who, living among some 2.5 million Palestinians, are the foot-soldiers and vanguard of the settler movement. It is they, not the suburbanites or refugees, who have transformed the West Bank into a—or the—Holy Land.
In a way, Dotan presents the territory through their eyes. There are no walls or checkpoints to control the Palestinian population. There are only the modern tunnels and elevated highways that connect the settlements to Israel proper—as well as the olive groves which Palestinians continue to tend (if only for the moment, as one settler puts it) albeit insisting, as one furious elderly woman does, that God gave this land to them.
The last group of settlers whom Dotan documents are the so-called Hilltop Youth, hippies and mystics who, more nationalist than religious, seem closer in their fanatical joy to 19th-century Russian nihilists than to the tzaddikim of the Russian Pale. For me, a glimpse of the retired school buses and crude Quonset huts in which they live, squatting in illegal outposts, provided a flashback to the acid-fueled “revolutionary” communes of the early 1970s—except that, unlike the dropouts of rural Colorado or deepest New Mexico, their intimations of apocalypse are real.
The ethicist and Maimonides scholar Moshe Halbertal suggests the Hilltop Youth have “Shahid envy.” They are without political power “but they can ignite a fire on the other side so that it will prevent resolution of the conflict.” Some have their own vision of an ISIS Caliphate —namely the dream of Jewish dominion expanding from the Nile to the Euphrates.
One fundamentalism conjures an opposing one into existence. If Palestinian zealots reject the existence of a Jewish state, Jewish zealots dismiss that same state as a Golem. Democracy is supplanted by theocracy and redemption is yoked to apartheid. The Settlers concludes with a fervent song that heralds the coming of the Messiah, which is not to say that the movie ends on an optimistic note.
“There is Zionism of the state and Zionism of the land,” Shimon Dotan explained when I interviewed him in an empty classroom at NYU where he teaches political cinema in the school of journalism. “They [the settlers] call for the destruction of the state.” What’s more, that state itself exists in a state of contradiction. Practically speaking, “Israel today does not have borders,” Dotan says.
The filmmaker is an old-school Israeli with a cosmopolitan perspective. Not a sabra, he was born in Romania and made aliyah as a 10-year-old with his family in 1959. He grew up on an agricultural cooperative, Moshav Arugot, in the Negev, and served as a Navy seal for five years before attending film school in Tel Aviv. Since 1987 he has lived in the United States.
The Settlers has been criticized for emphasizing Jewish settlers rather than their Palestinian neighbors although, as Dotan points out, his film is called The Settlers. “I took it upon myself to show them. I was genuinely curious to hear about their world”—and they evidently were happy to oblige. Dotan’s subjects realized that the filmmaker did not share their views, which may account for the defiant smiles with which some address the camera. Others are simply serene in their certainty.
Does The Settlers focus too much on a radical fringe? “The phenomenon is driven by the extremes,” Dotan says. “I am more interested in the guy who sits in the engineer car than the passenger.” Does the film, as a critique published last year in The Forward suggested, ignore those settlers who might wish to reach some accommodation with the Palestinians? “This is nonsense that they want peace,” Dotan told me.
The filmmaker is impatient with the criticism that The Settlers has little to say about contemporary Israeli politicians, notably Benjamin Netanyahu. “Netanyahu never did anything but maintain the status quo,” he says. “The film presents an irreversible reality.” He is also annoyed by views stated in the Israeli daily Haaretz, that his subject matter was overfamiliar. “I’m not claiming to be the first one to cross the green line with a camera, and I hope I’m not the last one.” In any case, The Settlers is not entirely dealing with the generally known. Dotan discovered the remarkable tale of Sarah Nachshon’s civil disobedient (as well as epochal) act in a small settler publication.
Dotan expresses a measure of sympathy for the settlers. “This is heartbreaking,” he told me. “They are good people engaged in bad things.” Be that as it may, his crew was assaulted and robbed of its equipment while attempting to film an attack by residents of the settlement Yitzhar on Palestinian olive harvesters from the neighboring town of Burin. This material was not used in The Settlers, according to Dotan, because he “didn’t want the film itself to become a player.” He does, however, include archival footage from 1996 of when a TV cameraman covering a violent confrontation outside the West Bank settlement Shilo was beaten by two settlers. For them, Dotan says, “media is the enemy.”
The Settlers was well-received in Israel. It had a theatrical release (unusual for a political documentary), ran for four months before being telecast and was, Dotan told me, widely covered in the press. “A substantial body of the [political] right was willing to look at the film,” he said. The overwhelming majority of his interviewees crossed “all the red lines” to attend the film’s premiere at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The screening was “tense,” with people verbally responding to the movie throughout. The settlers were generally pleased with the film’s representation of their beliefs, although, according to Dotan, some of the Hilltop Youth were upset that he didn’t use the footage he shot of them lighting Hanukkah candles.
The Settlers has been shown at a number of European film festivals. In the United States, it was invited to and then uninvited from a conference at Syracuse University on religion and film. A panicked professor cited a warning from her colleagues that “the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant” for Dotan and herself if he attended. Since she herself had not seen the movie, she added, she would further “lose credibility with a number of film and woman/gender studies colleagues.”
After the story broke in The Atlantic, the university administration (and campus BDS supporters) disavowed the movie’s unilateral disinvitation. Bottom line: The Settlers will be shown at Syracuse, although not part of the film and religion conference, which is precisely a context in which it might be usefully discussed.
The Settlers has its theatrical premiere at the Film Forum in New York (March 3-14) along with Yariv Mozer’s documentary feature Ben-Gurion: Epilogue (separate admission), based on a recently discovered 1968 interview with Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
J. Hoberman, the former longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet Magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.