In his powerful, exhaustive new documentary, “The Settlers,” writer and director Shimon Dotan traces the 50-year movement, begun by deeply religious Israelis after the Yom Kippur war, to fulfill Biblical prophecy by reclaiming/”redeeming” all of the land they believed was given to the Jews by God.
I’ve now seen Dotan’s great film twice. The first time, projected big at the Walter Reade, I found it (excuse the pun), deeply unsettling. The second, watching on my computer screen, terrifying: an apocalypse foretold, a nation barreling toward disaster.
Dotan, who narrates, effectively mixes interviews with the original settlers (rabbis and other leaders, all grown old but no less sure), academics, politicians, human rights leaders (Israeli and Palestinian) young (fanatical) settlers in illegal outposts in the West Bank, military officers, with archival footage, and elegant black and white drawings (resembling woodcuts) that become animation.
The history of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is peopled with a riveting cast of characters, beginning with Rabbi Kook, who, in 1967, prophesied that occupying the land would speed the return of the Messiah. The revered settlement leader, Rabbi Levinger was dangerously provocative in his life and since his 2015 death–he’s buried in Hebron, the only Palestinian city within which the Israelis have established a settlement (and where the first Intifada began in 1987). Sarah Nachshon, an early settler (with her Cheshire Cat husband), mother of 10, grandmother of 100, who gives new meaning to the word fierce, is one of only two women settlers profiled–it’s a man’s movement, ultra Orthodoxy sidelining women in the three Abrahamic religions. And in an outpost of sand and trailers, a very young, dead-eyed Hilltop Youth settler, with flowing payot, explains that Israel’s borders stretch from the Nile to the Tigris and Euphrates.
In October 1975, Yitzak Rabin, prime minister, called the settlements “like cancer to the democratic fabric of Israel.” He deplored that a “religious element,” was infiltrating politics, viewing government objections to Israelis building in the Occupied Territories as sin, not policy, and therefore, illegitimate. While Shimon Peres mostly agreed with Rabin, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon favored and encouraged settlements. In 1992, Rabin, prime minister again, two decades after his original term, froze settlement construction, and signed the Oslo Accords with Yasir Arafat in September 1993. With his assassination in November 1995 by an right-wing extremist, restraints on the settlers were ended.
While the word settler has long been fraught–euphemisms and excuses include occupant, and “I am on the land of my forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jakob”–today there are 400,000 Israeli settlers in 225 settlements (built between Palestinian villages and circling their cities), and additional outposts, in the midst of 2.7 million Palestinians who are living under Israeli occupation. The ultra Orthodox settlers have been joined by other Israelis who have moved to the Occupied Territories as a lifestyle choice, eager to have bigger residences at lower costs and community centers with pools.
Dotan reveals, without optimism, where the settlement movement is dragging Israel and the three political options: retreat to the pre-1967 borders to maintain a Jewish and a democratic state; a democratic state, no longer Jewish (demographics is destiny, and the Palestine population is rapidly overtaking the Jewish); or an apartheid Jewish state. A religious settler says, “Democracy didn’t exist 200 years ago, probably won’t exist 200 years in the future,” implying that God’s law is eternal, overriding any human political system.
The film ends with an elegant and effective graphic (it said “ameba concept” in the credits), outlining the many potential maps of Israel, superimposed on the ancient land.
“The Settlers” will open today at Film Forum for a 12-day run, and in Los Angeles on Friday, March 17, with other cities to follow. There will be Q&As at Film Forum with Shimon Dotan today at the 7:30 pm show, Saturday, March 4 at 7:15 pm, and Sunday, March 5 at 2:50 pm.