Beyond the Green Line

‘The Settlers’ looks at the past, present and future.

‘The Settlers’ (photo credit: PR)
‘The Settlers’
(photo credit: PR)
Everyone who cares about Israel should see Shimon Dotan’s The Settlers, a documentary that examines who the settlers are and where the settlement movement is going.
A great many people on both the right and the left of the political spectrum have strong feelings about the settlers, but I wonder how many of these people know the history of the settlement movement in depth.
The Settlers is an ambitious film, and Dotan manages to cover a great deal of ground during the film’s approximately 105-minute running time. Dotan, whose resume includes Hollywood action movies as well as documentaries, draws upon his background to tell the story with the intensity of a feature-film drama.
The director is open about being on the left, but he gives the settlers the opportunity to speak about how they define themselves and how they view their role in Israel.
The movie establishes that about 80 percent of the approximately 400,000 Jews living on the West Bank choose to do so because they can have a higher quality of life there. In one interview, a man talks in great detail about how much larger the square footage of his West Bank home is than what he could have bought for the same money within the Green Line.
But Dotan focuses the bulk of the film on the leaders of the settler movement today and those who pioneered it. Using a chapter format, each chapter of which opens with a biblical quote and a drawing (by David Polonsky, who worked on the animation in Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir) in the style of medieval biblical illustrations, Dotan examines the settlers’ own mythology, particularly their sense of continuing or being inspired by the biblical narrative. Each chapter mixes contemporary interviews with archival interviews and news clips.
Various luminaries of the early settler movement, among them the late rabbis Moshe Levinger and Hanan Porat, are shown in news footage. Those who are still active, among them Daniella Weiss, Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun and many others, tell what it was like to be there at the beginning. Bin Nun, for example, recalls an electrifying speech by Rabbi Kook just before the Six Day War, about reclaiming the holy sites still under Jordanian control. The war seemed to be the fulfillment of Kook’s prophecy for Bin Nun and many others. Sarah Nachshon emerges as a key figure, insisting that her son be circumcised in the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1975, and then, after the boy’s death in infancy, that he be buried near there.
It becomes clear that political leaders did little or nothing to stop the settlers, even when they numbered just a few dozen in the late 1960s.
The movie examines some of the most newsworthy historical chapters, such as the Jewish Underground’s plots to bomb the Temple Mount, murder mayors of Palestinian towns and plant bombs on east Jerusalem buses in the mid- 1980s. Among the interviewees is an unrepentant Yehuda Etzion, who served prison time for several of these crime. Baruch Goldstein’s attack on Palestinians in the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994, in which 29 were killed and 125 wounded, is also discussed, along with its influence on Yigal Amir, who assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Even among those who are strong supporters of the movement, there is agreement about how it began but not how it will end. The movie frames its narrative by asking its subjects “Are you a settler?” at the beginning (some embrace the term, while others question it) and, at the end, asking where the boundaries of Greater Israel should be. Several interviewees are utterly serious when they say that Israel should extend to the Nile.
Many viewers tend to avoid movies in which the director does not share their world view, even on subjects about which they care passionately. It would be a mistake for these viewers to stay away from this film, which gives a voice to people on both sides of the debate. Over the years, I have heard many people criticize movies they had not seen as being anti-Israel. If you are interested in a subject, it doesn’t make sense to express an opinion about a movie you haven’t seen.