Putting The Settlers In Context


Less than two weeks ago, the settler umbrella group Yesha Council announced that there are now 421,000 Israelis living in the West Bank. There are half again as many in east Jerusalem. In his joint press conference with President Donald Trump last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that the settlements did not represent “a major sticking point” in peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine; his critics, of course, would see the claim as disingenuous.

On the whole it’s a propitious time for the New York theatrical opening of Shimon Dotan’s acclaimed documentary “The Settlers,” although the New York-based filmmaker would probably be willing to forego the chaos and potential for violence on the ground in a trade for a little peace.

Dotan, who teaches at NYU’s journalism school and at The New School admits that he periodically feels “an uncontrollable urge to be part of the dialogue in [Israel].”

Romanian-born, Dotan came to Israel as a 10-year-old in 1959 and grew up on Moshav Arugot, an agricultural collective. He felt almost instantly wedded to his new homeland. “It was clear to me that my path was to participate in any possible way in the construction of the State of Israel.” He became a navy commando and an officer. Film took him to Montreal and then to New York.

And it brought him back to Israel again as a documentarian, the first time for “Hot House,” a startlingly candid portrait of a prison for Palestinian activists, and then for “The Settlers.” Film seems to be the best way for Dotan to get his dose of the roiling stew that is Israel’s political life.

“In Israel they are socially and politically and culturally engaged,” he says, chuckling. “I find it easier to [re-]connect when I identify an issue and jump right into the topic. That’s when the process starts, and the film is the process.”

His thinking, he continues, clarifies itself as he makes a film.

“For ‘The Settlers’ I thought I’d be there for one summer, but I ended up with two and a half years of very extensive work,” he admits.

Dotan started with a detailed script that was devoid of the historical and external elements that dominate the final result and give it structure, texture and context.

Context, he notes, is “essential in order to evaluate how this enterprise evolved. The conclusion is not a shiny one; it does not present much cause for rejoicing.”

Elsewhere, Dotan has stated his conclusion bluntly — that the settlers are themselves “good people who are doing bad things.”

In truth, that conclusion is not all that far from his initial reaction. Given the fact that he received nearly complete cooperation from the settlers, getting every interview he had wanted, even getting some of the participants to talk about criminal activities on camera with total candor, there is something deeply disheartening about the dark souls he has exposed; these settlers clearly feel neither hesitation nor remorse.

Dotan presents an unflinching picture of a highly organized movement whose public face of determined passion belies its brilliant manipulation of the Israeli political system. Repeatedly, the competing settler groups work their opponents and allies alike in a complex dance of passive aggression, albeit with the emphasis on aggression. But that portrait of street-savvy pols takes a more sinister turn: “foxy grandpa” types like Yehuda Etzion talk playfully of terrorist acts committed against Palestinian civilians; when Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir crawl out of the movement’s gothic woodwork, absolutely nothing is funny or admirable about their vocal supporters and enablers. By comparison, the acne-bearing adolescents of the “Hilltop Youth” would seem almost comical, were it not for the deadly results of their lethal pranks.

In the time since the film was made, much has happened; but as Dotan recalls his friend David Grossman saying about his book “Yellow Wind,” first published in 1987, “so much has happened but so little has changed.” The biggest changes, Dotan says, have occurred in the exclusively political sphere, with Netanyahu trying to neutralize Naftali Bennett by moving to the upstart’s right on settler issues.

“Until a few years ago, [Netanyahu] was the king of the status quo,” Dotan says. “His main desire is to stay in power. He’s just a cynical politician with the skill to consolidate power within a mediocre political class, but now he’s becoming a big enabler of the settler movement.”

Despite that, Dotan says he is optimistic.

“I cannot afford not to be,” he says with a rueful laugh. “I am a Zionist and an Israeli and always will be. Israel never started out as a messianic biblical enterprise; it was the opposite, a safe haven for Jews. The moment that changes we lose both the safe haven and the religious home.” ✿

“The Settlers” will be playing at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) March 3-14, filmforum.org.