Few films have captured the volatility of Israeli politics quite like filmmaker Shimon Dotan’s documentary The Settlers, which opens theatrically this week after screening as part of Hot Docs’ Doc Soup back in February. Veteran director Dotan looks at one of the largest, but least talked about threats to peace between Israelis and Palestinians: organized Zionists who insist on settling in areas already marked off by the government as settlements for displaced people. Citing fervent religious beliefs, these Jewish settlers want what they believe they’re entitled to by divine right, but in the process they only incite further anger and displacement among the already marginalized Muslim population.
The Settlers scrutinizes the fine lines between religious belief and entitlement. For over forty years now, radical Zionist organizations like the now “defunct” Gush Emunium created West Bank settlements outside of the Israeli government’s wishes in lands that were set aside for Palestinian people. Unhappy with the lands they had and claiming they should occupy more holy spaces throughout the region, these “settlers” took on a colonialist mentality. They say their presence in a region makes the land holier, and therefore wholesome and valuable. They were once described in terms delivered by former two time Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that made them sound like an unwanted virus, yet most Israeli governments turned a blind eye to these encroachments. They were neither condoned, nor stopped in any significant ways, and some government agencies and officials have clearly aided these settlers outside of an official capacity. Every act or peace accord that was passed on an international level only seemed to make them craftier or more defiant in their convictions. The government has been forced to create giant walls to protect these settlers, leading to a modern day form of racial segregation that would make Donald Trump salivate. These messianic nomads were once on the brink of extinction by their own government. Today, via some unlikely help, they’re thriving.
There are moments throughout The Settlers that paint Dotans’ subjects in a sympathetic light, particularly a heartbreaking story about a grieving mother stopped at a military checkpoint who insists on burying her dead infant in Hebron. For the most part, these moments are fleeting and always devoid of sectarianism. Dotan sticks rigidly to a sprawling look at the history of how these organizations, groups, and individuals have been able to thrive and multiply despite nearly universal efforts to curtail them. These groups would purposefully and strategically move into largely Palestinian areas because their very presence would put a kibosh on the founding of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state. Not all of the people profiled in The Settlers would admit to that, but the ones who do are proud of their pious subterfuge.
The title of the film serves as a derogatory, backhanded slap to the sort of entitlement shown by those Dotan interviews in his travels throughout the region. Dotan, himself an Israeli by birth, gets close to many unrepentant and proud racists who make no bones about their beliefs, past terrorist activities, or how they view their country. There’s a chilling calmness and rationality that Dotan witnesses but never quite gets to the heart of. It’s clearly a case of the filmmaker not understanding a certain mentality outside of academic terms, but that doesn’t damage the film on the whole. Even without these organizations, Israeli politics are so labyrinthine and inscrutable that it’s easy to get lost, especially in the early going here, but The Settlers does the best job it can to depict a messy situation made worse by a group of true believers.
The Settlers doesn’t so much lose the thread headed into its conclusion, but it does feel like it’s racing in order to wrap everything in an acceptable running time. Dotan tantalizes the viewer by showing how Zionists have uneasily aligned themselves with American evangelicals in recent years, and it’s terrifying now to think about that connection given the current American political climate. Although Dotan completed production on The Settlers towards the end of 2015, there might not be a more chilling look at a crisis borne from the same kind of fearful entitlement and protectionism that led to the Trump administration’s travel ban. And while I fear that situation in America will only grow worse over time before it gets better, the same could be said for Israel. It’s an eye opening documentary that certainly won’t make you feel better about the world around you, but it’s about an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed in totality before it’s too late.
The Settlers opens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, March 17.