Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank continues to stimulate conversation and condemnation around the world. A December UN Security Council resolution – asserting that Israel’s settlement activity has “no legal validity” – is one part of that fierce debate. Meanwhile, the new U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has espoused pro-settler views.
As a result, the timing could not be better for Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan. His new documentary, The Settlers, explores the rise of the settler movement in the West Bank.
The film, a co-production with Canada, opens March 17. Dotan tells The CJN that it would have been easier to make a one-sided film that harshly criticized the Israeli occupation. However, he was more interested in engaging with the figures on the ground that have driven this enterprise, including radical religious Jews whose views deviate sharply from the director’s.
“The reality on the ground and the way that the movement evolved is something I think is valuable to us… today to explore and to understand,” he says, adding that audiences should have a more informed history of this part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The documentary, running 107 minutes, packs in a lot of archival footage and contemporary interviews.
Dotan examines the rise of Jewish settlements as a reaction to a speech made by Zvi Yehuda Kook before the Six Day War. Kook eventually became a spiritual leader for Gush Emunim, a right-wing activist group that the film examines in detail.
Members of Gush Emunim hoped that settling in the territories would hasten the arrival of the Messiah. Some Israeli leaders, like Yitzhak Rabin, disagreed with their efforts, saying it would ruin the state’s democratic fabric.
Throughout The Settlers, Dotan asks his subjects to define what it means to be a settler. As one person says in the film, “A settler is a person who lives on land that doesn’t belong to him. An inhabitant is a person who lives on his forefathers’ land.”
Some of the responses Dotan receives from the citizens in the West Bank are shocking and racist. One man suggests that it is the Jewish prophecy for colonial expansion to continue into Jordan and Iraq.
Initially, it was a challenge for Dotan and his crew to arrange meetings with some of these community leaders.
As the documentary shows, some of the interviewed subjects seem suspicious of the filmmaker’s aims, and even explain their concern with voicing their opinions on camera. In one of these scenes, Israelis argue about whether it would be acceptable to invite a Palestinian into their settlement.
Even though it took six months from the start of filming before Dotan spoke with the settlers, the filmmaker says that the initial meeting was quite useful.
“After I met with one, I met with three. After I met with three, it [became] seven,” he tells The CJN. “I became more comfortable, and I was not intimidated by coming from outside, trying to penetrate their world.”
The documentary examines many turning points in the settler movement over the past 50 years. Although it contains footage of political leaders who aided this enterprise, such as Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, some viewers may be surprised by the absence of the current Israeli prime minister.
“In my attempt not to pay too much screen time to politicians, I did not include him,” Dotan explains. “[Benjamin Netanyahu] was not instrumental in any way, other than maintaining the status quo.”
Many of the early settlers that Dotan interviewed for the film see themselves as pioneers. Currently, around 400,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, amidst nearly 3 million Palestinians.
Nevertheless, many of the Israelis have access to water, electricity and other resources that their neighbours lack.
Some critics have noted that The Settlers contains only a few Palestinian voices. Dotan admits that while these views are important, they were not his primary focus.
“My interest is in those who are… the pilot of this airplane and less on the passengers in the cabin,” he says. “If you want to understand the [settler] movement, I think you should focus on those who are driving it.”
The Settlers opens March 17 at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema after successful runs in the United States and Israel. It opens the same day in Montreal at the Cinémathèque Québécoise.
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My Home, a documentary by Toronto filmmaker Igal Hecht is being screened at the BAYT Synagogue on Clark Street in Thornhill, Ont. on March 22 at 8 p.m. followed by a Q&A.
The film, about why Druze, Muslims, Christians and Bedouin call Israel “home” has picked up several international film awards since it was released last year, and was even involved in a Knesset discussion about incitement by Arab MKs.