By: Paul Michaels and Adir Krafman
The Settlers is a full-length (90-minute) documentary on the history and controversy surrounding the approximately 400,000 settlers in the West Bank.
Written and directed by award-winning Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan (currently at NYU), The Settlers, scheduled for limited release in North America, has already attracted attention.
Anti-Israel activists have latched onto the film as proof of the most negative things they’ve long promoted: that Israel is “stolen” land, in violation of “international law,” and racist against Palestinians.
While Dotan is avowedly opposed to the settlement enterprise, calling it an “existential” threat to Israel and Zionism, he is by no means anti-Zionist. Indeed, during a February interview with Michael Enright on CBC’s Sunday Edition, Dotan emphasized that “Israel is a necessity for the Jewish people.” In his view, Zionism was conceived as a secular, non-messianic movement, while the settlement project was mostly driven by a dominant religious vision.
And, far from a hatchet job on the settlements, Dotan’s approach to his subject is in-depth and serious. He features archival footage, especially from the period following the 1967 War when, both for security and national-religious reasons, the establishment of West Bank settlements was either permitted or encouraged by the Israeli government. Dotan allows settlement founders and leaders to speak at length about their commitment and attachment to the land where Jews historically lived. Importantly, he does not set them up for mockery and instead allows them to express their motivations.
Thus it would be wrong to dismiss this film as just another in a long line of anti-Israel propaganda. If anything, it fits into the valid, ongoing debate in Israel (and beyond) about settlements and the future of the Jewish State.
In May, Dotan appeared with Daniel Gordis, author of Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn (this year’s National Jewish Book Award-winner), on the U.S. show, Charlie Rose. Guest-hosted by Dan Senor, co-author of Start-Up Nation, Dotan and Gordis’ 23-minute exchange about how to understand the issue of settlements, including broader regional issues (instability, violent upheaval, historical Palestinian and Arab rejectionism going back to pre-Israel state days), is vital.
When Senor asked why this documentary now, Dotan admitted that the settlements are “constantly at the centre of discussion when anyone talks about Israel and the region [but] in many cases the conversation is misinformed.” So Dotan thought he’d set the record straight by focusing on “the history of the settlements, the ideological and religious elements that brought them, and the reality on the ground today.” He hopes “the documentary you see on the screen does a proper presentation of this reality.”
It’s upon that he should be judged.
A major concern with the film is that Dotan’s critical view plays into the dominant Western notion that settlements are the principal impediment to peace – an erroneous narrative built on the assumption that, were it not for the settlements, peace (via a two-state solution) would be at hand. This assumption unfortunately remains unchallenged. So, if Dotan is to be faulted, it’s more for what he’s omitted than included. But, almost by definition, documentaries are “point-of-view,” and Dotan’s certainly is.
What viewers need – but will have to find elsewhere – is missing historical and diplomatic context. Early on, when Dotan mentions the UN’s 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine, he neglects to make clear that the Jewish leadership accepted it while the Arab states and Palestinian leadership rejected it – violently. When he mentions the 1967 War, Dotan touches on Egyptian President Abdel Nasser’s threats against Israel and Israel’s “pre-emptive” strike that resulted in Israel “seizing” great swaths of territory. Yet viewers are left not understanding that, having urged Jordan to stay out of the conflict, Israel was pushed into a necessary war of self-defence; that even after Israel justifiably held West Bank land, all subsequent peace overtures were initially rejected by the Arab states. Without any explanation of the existential threats facing Israel at the time, and with more footage of Israeli Phantom jets than of Arab hostilities, viewers cannot be faulted for feeling ambiguity about who was the aggressor.
Similarly, and with a special focus on the role of the religious-nationalist camp in settlement expansion, Dotan virtually ignores all of Israel’s efforts to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians and find a solution to the settlement issue. When Dotan says that (in 2000) the second intifada “broke out,” he fails even to mention Arafat’s rejection of Palestinian statehood offered at Camp David. We get a lopsided tally of Palestinians and Israelis “killed” without understanding why. Nor is any mention made of Abbas’ rejection of Olmert’s 2008 offer of Palestinian statehood, even more generous and compromising including on the settlement issue than Barak’s proposal eight years earlier.
True, Dotan’s film is not about the failure of the peace process. Yet the vexing subject of settlements must also be understood in that context. Otherwise, viewers can only conclude that without settlements, simply, there would be peace.
It’s not until just after the one-hour mark that viewers learn that fully 80 percent of the (now) approximately 400,000 settlers in the West Bank are there for economic, not ideological, reasons. Dotan has explained that he focused most of his film on the minority since it is their ideology and energy that have driven the settlement enterprise from the beginning, challenging successive Israeli governments with little push-back. On this score, it must be said that Dotan paints a fair picture by allowing settlement leaders – and even some “hilltop” extremists – to speak for themselves.