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).
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.
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.