A New Lens On Settler-Palestinian Relations


Harvey Stein speaks of the people in his documentaries almost as if they were characters in a feature film or play.

“They’re living people with motivations and conflicts and their relationship to the outside world,” says Stein, 49, a native of New Rochelle, who now makes his home in Jerusalem.

In the case of Stein’s latest film, “A Third Way: Settlers and Palestinians as Neighbors,” the main characters are a tiny group of people who coalesced several years ago around the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, chief rabbi of Tekoa, and became protégés or friends.

The title itself could be jarring to many audiences, especially those who regard Jewish settlers and Palestinians only as antagonists.

Think of relations between the two groups and what may come to mind are the tensions between settlers and Palestinians in Hebron, an area often described as a hotbed of radicalism on both sides. Or perhaps the subject might evoke memories of the three yeshiva students murdered last June after hitchhiking in the West Bank. Or “price tag” assaults by bands of settlers against Palestinian farmers.

One of the few points of contact between the two groups occurs at Israeli-owned supermarkets and factories in which Palestinians are employed, an arrangement often scorned as paternalistic on the Israeli left or dangerous on the Israeli right. Rarely does anyone hear of social gatherings attended by both groups, or of visits to each other’s homes.

But that’s precisely the area explored by Stein’s film, which includes scenes of various gatherings in Tekoa in the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements, a Palestinian village and a field owned by the family of a Palestinian activist. It also includes extensive interviews with Rabbi Froman, who died in 2013, and with four settlers and Palestinians who share his values. Finally, the camera also captures some lively conversations among members of the rabbi’s circle.

What drew Stein to the subject is the attraction he has to “people who are able to embrace contradictions,” he said in a recent phone interview from Jerusalem. “Here was a story about a rabbi who lived in a settlement and yet was longtime friends with [Palestinian leader Yassir] Arafat.”

In one of Stein’s interviews with the rabbi, the filmmaker asked him if he’d be happy as a Palestinian citizen, Stein recalled. In response, the rabbi smiled and said, “I’m a citizen of the state of God. It’s not so important who is the man, who is the government.” At another point in the film, one of Rabbi Froman’s Palestinian protégés, Ziad Sabatin, describes a meeting between the rabbi and Arafat at which the rabbi raised the question of Jews living in a Palestinian state. According to Sabatin, Arafat’s answer was: “I agree — this is a new plan — and you will be the minister responsible for Israelis living within Palestine.”

The rabbi’s views compelled him not only to develop his friendship with Arafat, a relationship more or less accepted in Israel after the Oslo agreement, but to make repeated visits to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a founder of Hamas — a move that drew fierce denunciations from other Israelis. Rabbi Froman’s meetings with Yassin, who was eventually assassinated by Israel in 2004, came while the Hamas leader was in jail and, later, before an audience of thousands of Hamas members in Gaza City.

“A Third Way” covers that sensitive subject by cutting repeatedly between separate interviews with Gershon Baskin, a peace activist who defends the rabbi’s meetings with Yassin, and the more centrist Yossi Klein Halevi, an author and journalist who criticizes those moves.

But other segments also stand out, including those like an interview with Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian whose brother was killed in the conflict, but who made the conscious decision to devote his life to peace, not hate. It’s Awwad who has created a center of sorts on land owned by his family — a center where settlers and Palestinians have come together, often with their families, to learn, socialize and create even tighter bonds.

Describing his relationship with settlers, Awwad said that, in general, settlers and Palestinians “are enemies. … On the other hand, because we know each other, it makes a big difference. It doesn’t mean that everything is perfect, by the way, but we have created our own small, safe place. From the small, safe place, we will grow.”

Awwad also appears in other scenes, including an exchange with Shaul Judelman, an American-born settler, during last summer’s Gaza conflict. Although the two express markedly different views, it’s clear from the exchange that both have a deep admiration for each other and that both are committed to a solution.

Stein, too, is invested in the region’s future, having married an Israeli woman and then making aliyah in 2006. He also has an 8-year-old son, born in Israel shortly after the couple moved there, said Stein, who lived for a while on the Upper West Side and in Astoria.

But although he has his views, his aim is to tell a story and hope that it challenges people “on both sides of the conflict,” Stein said. “Left and right doesn’t do it these days. Life is more complex.”

A playwright, actor and director before he began making promotional videos and, later, documentaries, Stein noted that both the settlers and the Palestinians face intense challenges within their own communities as they reach out to each other. But Rabbi Froman’s Jewish protégés risk disapproval at worst, while his Palestinian friends are courting danger, he said.

Many Palestinians harbor “great hatred” toward settlers and object to any contact between the two groups, Stein said. In fact, Sabatin, one of the Palestinians appearing in the film, has been interrogated and jailed repeatedly by the Palestinian Authority for associating with settlers.

It’s in part to protect the Palestinians in his film that Stein plans to initially screen “A Third Way” before private, invitation-only audiences in the late spring. He also hopes that many of those events will include panel discussions and that some will be co-sponsored by Jewish and Muslim organizations.

Meanwhile, Stein said, he’s made “the same journey” that he expects some of the film’s viewers to make. “Ten years ago,” he said, “I might have said that settlers are the obstacle to peace, and now I know that it’s not that simple.”