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See ‘The Settlers,’ an important documentary about the destruction of the two-state solution

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I went to see The Settlers two nights ago with low expectations: that it was yet another effort by liberal Zionists to save Israel by pinning blame on the settlers for Israel’s having lost its way. I left the Film Forum with the hope that many Americans will see Shimon Dotan’s documentary. It is a powerful film that could change the image of the Jewish state in the west.

The settlers are portrayed, by way of trustful interviews in Hebrew, as messianic and racist zealots who are threatening to blow up the conflict with extremism. The most chilling moments in the documentary come from their casual confessions. One older settler admits to orchestrating the attempted murders in 1980 of Palestinian mayors who were advocating national resistance. A young settler father holding his baby at the door of a trailer brags that he is a racist. When asked who torched a mosque in the neighboring Palestinian village, he smirks and says he doesn’t know.

The great strength of the film is that it does not claim that the settlers have hijacked Israeli society. It shows how settlers have acted with the complicity of the government from the beginning. Sometimes reluctant complicity; yet the government has gone along because of the popular support for the settlers. Labor leaders Levi Eshkol and Shimon Peres tried to stop settlements but didn’t try that hard. Then Menachem Begin won the prime ministership in 1977, and the settlers were off to the races.

The last image of the movie conveys the deep support. Settlers are holding a celebration deep in the West Bank. A government minister comes to address them (Naftali Bennett); and soldiers stand at the perimeter. The soldiers smile at children and play with them. This is one big happy Israeli family.

The film also offers no illusory assurances about the ability of Israeli society to evacuate the settlers. The removal of the Gaza settlers in 2005 is shown to be a gambit used by Ariel Sharon to play President George W. Bush, who was expressing misgivings about the settlements, and thereby solidify the colonization of the West Bank.

The documentary’s thrust is that Israel as a polity/society has gone very wrong in this program of religious colonial supremacy. Akiva Eldar and Raja Shehadeh are the most convincing of Dotan’s several narrators, leftists who are emphatic about the human rights abuses. While Dror Etkes formerly of Peace Now says, This is apartheid, anchored in decades of policy. (If only Americans for Peace Now would be so clear.) Palestinians are portrayed as innocent victims who have a right to resist. When we see them throwing rocks at the madmen who have taken their property, we want to cheer. The unspoken message of the film, conveyed by its tone and chapter titles/images, is that some form of biblical catastrophe awaits.

There are many conceptual problems with the film. It does not touch on the original sin of Israel, the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing that allowed the establishment of a “Jewish state” in the first place in 1948, as Ben Ehrenreich has pointed out. The settlers are persuasive when they say that they are only carrying out a project begun by the original Jewish settlers in Palestine (as I documented last year).

Shimon Dotan

The film doesn’t dare to mention the American Jewish community’s role in protecting Israel from any international consequences for its criminal conduct. The only American supporters in the movie are Christian Zionists– as if they had anything to do with the Democratic Party’s inability to take on the settlers. This is now a classic form of Jewish self-deception.

The documentary does not take on the ideology at the root of the problem: Zionism, the religious nationalist belief that Jews should have a state on other people’s land. Though when the film excerpts Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s condemnation of the 1994 massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, Baruch Goldstein’s greatest crime would seem to be discrediting Zionism. From that speech:

To him and to those like him we say… You are not partners in the Zionist enterprise… You are a shame on Zionism and an embarrassment to Judaism.

These objections are small issues in the experience of watching this movie. The galvanizing force of the settlers are youthful Jewish supremacists acting in accord with Israel’s foundational myths. Rabin’s assassination is shown as the work of a radical, but a radical with a huge following. Israel cannot be “saved” until this ideology is destroyed, root and branch (as so many other racist societies have discovered). And if the Jewish state is a casualty of that redemption; it would seem that the filmmakers are indifferent. There is no lipservice to the two-state solution. The claim that the settlers are motivated by economic factors, or by crazed Americans– favored dodges of those who argue that the settlers can be incentivized to leave just as they were incented to settle—is largely dispensed with.

The film is special for rare footage. One of these moments is the most moving scene in the entire movie. A Palestinian woman in her 50s, with a basket on her head, encounters a group of settlers who are trying to take her land. She shakes her cane at them and hobbles off. Her face is filled with dignity, intelligence, rage, righteousness, helplessness, and beauty. The tragedy is that we know how the story will turn out.

This documentary has only bitter contempt for the miserable creatures who are taking this person’s land. The message is, They will reap the whirlwind. It is a good thing that American liberal Zionists are seeing this movie. I hope they are talking it up. It is an achievement of precision and wonder, and deserves a wide American audience.

Ben-Gurion movie being shown alongside The Settlers at the Film Forum

P.S. Let’s be clear about the power dynamics involved even in screening this film to a New York audience. The documentary was shown at the Film Forum alongside a movie called Ben-Gurion: Epilogue, a hagiography of the founder that the Film Forum describes in a flyer in this way: “The man’s intelligence, integrity, and candor… make one long for leadership of this caliber on today’s world stage.” The Ben-Gurion is obviously there to “balance” the grim news of the Settler doc. The Film Forum depends as so many liberal institutions do on wealthy donors; the Dotan documentary is sponsored by among others a foundation that promotes Israel. This is the real cultural/political context of speech that is critical of Israel in the U.S.

Thanks to Scott Roth for many insights in this post. 

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

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21 Responses

  1. John O on March 10, 2017, 11:52 am

    “The documentary was shown at the Film Forum alongside a movie called Ben-Gurion: Epilogue …”

    At times like this I am reminded of the fight against apartheid long ago. In 1974, “Last grave at Dimbaza”, a powerful documentary about life for black people in South Africa, was released to great acclaim. When it was shown on TV here in the UK, it was “balanced” by a film put together by the SA government about how white rule had “benefited” the many tribes of indigenous Africans. Over 40 years later, “Last grave” is regarded as a classic. I can’t even remember the name of the piece of tosh that supposedly answered it, and I suspect no one else does, either.

  2. Stephen Shenfield on March 10, 2017, 1:06 pm

    Insofar as I understand, there are two kinds of settlers — ideological (the ones the film is about) and economic. The economic settlers are attracted by economic benefits like housing subsidies and would presumably be willing to go back behind the Green Line if the incentives ran the other way.

    • Maghlawatan on March 12, 2017, 4:48 am

      Most settlers are lower class Israelis who couldn’t afford to buy houses in Israel . The economic system esp property prices is a huge part of the YESHA complex.

  3. JLewisDickerson on March 10, 2017, 5:18 pm

    The Settlers
    2017 NR Rated NR

    Bringing a human face to the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine, this documentary provides an inside look at the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, examining the people who live there and the geopolitical debate surrounding them.

    NETFLIX LISTING (not yet available) –

    The Settlers (2016)
    1h 47min | Documentary | 16 June 2016 (Israel)

    An intimate look at life inside the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
    Director: Shimon Dotan
    Writers: Oron Adar, Shimon Dotan
    LINK –

  4. Kathleen on March 10, 2017, 5:20 pm

    Thanks for this Phil.

  5. talknic on March 10, 2017, 6:40 pm

    “Zionist enterprise”” colonization project”

    It’s a pyramid scheme! Always has been

    The Zionist Colonial Enterprise requires more and more land and more and more specifically poor Jews who convinced by the sales pitch are loaned money at interest on condition they put themselves and their families on the front lines, where Israel the state does the Zionist Colonial Enterprise’s dirty work. Hiding behind poor Jewish civilians under the guise of defense. The enterprise has no conscience, it must feed, protect and hide its vile dark soul in order to exist

    • Jon66 on March 10, 2017, 7:41 pm

      Can you explain the mechanics of this particular pyramid scheme in a bit more detail?
      In a pyramid scheme each new recruit pays money to the top, but then receives payments from the recruits under them. Are you saying the current settlers are receiving payments from new settlers?
      In a pyramid scheme the new layers must be larger than the old. Are you saying that the amount of land being sold now is significantly greater than that of years past? In a pyramid scheme the growth is exponential which makes it unsustainable.
      From your description, the top of the pyramid is selling land an charging interest, but the old buyers do not receive any payments from the new settlers that they presumably recruit.

      • talknic on March 11, 2017, 5:09 am

        You’re describing the style adopted by Bernard Madoff which depends on the greed and/or gullibility of the investors, requiring more recruits to invest more money in nothing.

        In this instance it depends on more and more gullible people and more and more non-Israeli territory. More and more building and defense contracts in non-Israeli territories, more land taxes etc,. More and more victims Palestinian and Jewish, all of which is attempting to illegally institute something the State of Israel has never been able to ethically, morally or financially afford

        If the debt Israel owes were to be called in I sincerely doubt many folk with dual citizenship would want to stay in a failed state

      • Jon66 on March 11, 2017, 9:19 am


        Both the pyramid scheme and the Ponzi scheme are financial fraud, but they differ. In the Ponzi scheme, like Madoff, the investors entrust money to a fraud with the intent that the fraud is putting that money to work to generate returns. In actuality the criminal is simply returning the investors and new investors money.

        In a pyramid scheme, the first level recruits several different levels below and each level has to buy-in and transfer the money to the levels above. No one believes that the money is being invested, but relies upon faith that there will always be someone below to buy-in before the scam runs out of suckers.

        In both types of scams the addition of a exponentially larger group of people or funds is the reason for the unsustainability. In your Israel example, Israel is adding more off everything, but the base is not growing and the older investor levels are not reaping benefits from the new investors directly. I don’t think what you describe fits the definition of either pyramid or Ponzi scheme. More “victims” isn’t a pyramid unless the base is exponentially enlarging and the higher levels receive direct benefits from the addition of the lower.

      • echinococcus on March 11, 2017, 11:18 pm

        Talknic, your daily repeated mantra that there are clearly delimited areas within Palestine, viz a pre-48 (and/or a pre-67) “legitimate Israel” state and a post-67-occupied non-Israel” area is still a figment of collective imagination created by gallons of ink and speakers’-years of empty talk.

        The only reality is that of one Palestine, entirely under the military control of the Zionist entity, unconditionally supported by the US and Europe with unlimited money, diplomatic commitment, armaments and hundreds of thousands of troops.

  6. RoHa on March 10, 2017, 7:28 pm

    “The message is, They will reap the whirlwind. They deserve whatever happens to them.”

    Assuming the “whatever” is something bad. The adult settlers certainly don’t deserve anything good, or even neutral.

    But the settlers have children. Those children have no choice but to be there. They, too, will suffer the “whatever”, even though they don’t deserve it.

    • Mooser on March 11, 2017, 1:41 pm

      “Those children have no choice but to be there. They, too, will suffer the “whatever”, even though they don’t deserve it”

      How is moving away from an illegal and dangerous situation, full of hate and paranoia, circumstances any child-health advocate would condemn, to “suffer”?

      • RoHa on March 11, 2017, 8:43 pm

        Moving away isn’t a particularly bad “whatever”.

  7. Eva Smagacz on March 11, 2017, 9:17 am

    RoHa, you said:

    “But the settlers have children. Those children have no choice but to be there. They, too, will suffer the “whatever”, even though they don’t deserve it. ” ”

    This is very true. This colonial enterprise creates dynamic for so much current and future suffering. Of course, current suffering, like that of Gaza, which population is 53% children, or West Bank is now and ongoing, and as yet unspecified future suffering of settler’s children can still be mitigated by right parental choices (like parents moving to Israel inside 1947 green line).

  8. rosross on March 11, 2017, 9:40 pm

    I remain curious as to how Israel thinks it can remove the Palestinians from their country given that it is now criss-crossed with Jew-only roads to Jew-only settlements and attacking the Palestinians without killing illegal Jewish settlers would be impossible.

    Equally impossible would be removing the fanatical settlers before attacking the Palestinians.

    Even the Gaza concentration camp could hardly be razed easily and how Israel and its supporters think they can get away with murdering nearly six million Palestinians, or driving them out, is beyond reason.

    • echinococcus on March 11, 2017, 11:03 pm

      Ros Ross,

      You already said that but offered no evidence or reasoning to support your assertion.
      Germany in 1941 or Turkey in 1915 were settled with little or no geographical/physical boundaries –the Meistervolk and the designated victims were much more intimately enmeshed with each other, much less differentiated or marked than in today’s Palestine. There were no “fanatical settlers” there (as if the “fanatical settlers” were the only problem in Palestine instead of the general Zionist population.) Look what happened anyway.

      As for Gaza, even asking your question is absurd. As if you had no idea of the periodic demonstrations by the Zionists of how exactly they do it under our very eyes. And they got away with it without any major problem. Heck, we are even paying them more for it.

    • Maghlawatan on March 12, 2017, 4:50 am

      General Petraeus used to ask “tell me how this ends”. Israel cannot answer this question.

  9. iResistDe4iAm on March 12, 2017, 6:41 am

    Israel is the only country in the world that still uses civilian colonists (aka Jewish settlers) as human shields by deliberately placing them in subsidised settlements on stolen land deep inside occupied enemy territories (territories with which it is still technically at war).

    According to Ed Koch (former mayor of New York City), the Jewish settlers will “provide a defense bulwark” against “the Islamist armies” of five nations…

    “You ask Israel to cease building settlements on the West Bank, which are intended not only to house Israelis, but to provide a defense bulwark when the Islamist armies of the surrounding states, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria – Assad or his opponents – and Iraq, again try militarily to crush Israel” ~ Ed Koch, 2013

  10. peterfeld on March 12, 2017, 4:21 pm

    In the summer of 1980 I had a job at the Berkeley Hillel doing light maintenance in exchange for housing. One night I had to close up after Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was giving a performance to a small audience. I waited my turn to talk to him, then told him, “I heard you played a benefit for the JDL last month at Madison Square Garden.” “Yes, were you there? It was beautiful!” I asked, “So how did you feel when you heard about the attacks on Palestinian mayors on the West Bank?” For a moment he looked shocked at my question, then said, “I felt terrible, but do you know what I think? They do it to themselves to make us look bad, that’s how they are!”

    • Mivasair on March 12, 2017, 10:44 pm

      Peter, I appreciate you sharing that experience you had with Shlomo Carlebach. Thank you for challenging him with your honest question as you did back then. And, thank you again for challenging any of us who still romanticize Shlomo Carlebach and refuse to recognize that he had this side as well.

      As a young person, I was swept away by his emotive singing and stories. I sang them dreamily for years and listened to and retold his stories over and over again. Even today, I still like to sing his niggunim.

      However, as I grew and learned, I saw how Shlomo’s single-minded devotion to the Jewish people led him to disregard the very people whose existence became threatened by the State of Israel, which he glorified. He told stories about loving everyone. I have images — whether real or imagined — of him possibly hugging a Palestinian or extending his hand in greeting. I certainly never heard him say anything directly disparaging about Palestinians in public. But, Shlomo never, ever would admit to the Palestinian people as a people — as the Jews are a people — having national rights or a collective existence which needs to be honored.

      Later still, I saw his music being used constantly as fight songs by aggressive, violent, self-centered settlers and their supporters with no tolerance for any universalist or humanistic openness to the people who they are dedicated to dispossessing and displacing.

      I appreciate knowing about your direct personal experience with Shlomo in 1980. It helps fill in some of the picture for me.

    • diasp0ra on March 13, 2017, 7:15 am

      @Peter Feld

      Those dastardly Palestinians, making their own lives difficult and shooting themselves. I bet the Nakba was an inside job.

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