Director of 'The Settlers': They're Good People Who Are Doing Bad Things

Shimon Dotan wanted to understand who are the people behind what he perceives as Israel's dark future. Talking to Haaretz, he explains why there are barely any Palestinians in his film and why he doesn't hate the settlers.

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Shimon Dotan.
Shimon Dotan.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Carolina Landsmann
Carolina Landsmann
Carolina Landsmann
Carolina Landsmann

“I’m curious about how events become mythology,” explains Shimon Dotan, whose new film “The Settlers” is an epic documentary that relates the story of 50 years of settlement in the occupied territories.

“Sarah Nachshon’s act in 1975 is directly responsible for the settlement of Jews in Hebron. Many people have been killed since then. Tensions between Jews and Arabs there are at their peak, all because of what she did. Her action is equivalent to big mythological events you read about in the Bible or in history books.”

In the winter of 1975 Sarah Nachshon, living in Kiryat Arba, gave birth to a baby boy. She named it Avraham Yedidya Nachshon and decided to hold the ritual circumcision at the Cave (or Tomb) of the Patriarchs in Hebron, one of the holiest sites for both Jews and Muslims. This time, she wouldn’t give up her dream, as she’d done two years earlier when Avraham’s older brother was born and she abided by the government’s prohibition on holding circumcision ceremonies there, “since drinking wine there will inflame the passions of Muslims in the cave.” This time she wouldn’t ask anyone and would just do it. In a secret operation the circumcision took place, and he became the first baby to be circumcised there since Jews returned to Hebron.

“We saw that nothing happened to any Arab after we brought in a small wine bottle and performed the ceremony,” giggles Sarah in front of Dotan’s camera.

Four months later Avraham died due to sudden infant death syndrome (crib death). His death did not daunt Sarah and she decided to bury her infant in Hebron. The Hebron Jewish community’s spokesman, Noam Arnon, recalls on screen how a funeral procession set out late at night from the Nachshon home, heading towards the old Jewish cemetery, which had not been in use since the riots of 1929.

“We reached a military checkpoint and the solders wouldn’t let her pass. The military governor stood there, telling her she couldn’t proceed. She then began walking forward with the dead child in her arms. The soldiers stood by, unable to stop her. They radioed for help, and their queries went all the way up to then-defense minister Shimon Peres. He told the soldiers to let her proceed. I don’t know if she realized at the time what was happening. No one did, but that child, Avraham Yedidya Nachshon, brought about the renewal of Jewish presence in Hebron,” says Arnon.

Now that there was a Jewish grave there, the army set up a few posts nearby to protect it from being desecrated. This gave settlers a sense of security as they walked through Hebron’s casbah. This pattern repeats itself throughout the movie. Ideologically-driven individuals determine policy on the ground, facing helpless governments that are dragged along behind them.

Blindness, resignation and political manipulation

Dotan, who is 66, treats the chapter of sovereign Jewish rule in Israel with biblical seriousness. He wants the viewers of his movie to also see the historical depth of reality. This is why he chose David Polonsky (who illustrated “Waltz with Bashir”) to illustrate the nine segments of his movie in the style of Gustave Doré, the 17th-century French artist made famous by his biblical illustrations and drawings.

“I thought these illustrations would evoke an association of a biblical story, giving things a biblical depth,” explains Dotan. “What happened here was no different. In 500 years people will read about contemporary events just as we today read the Bible. The question I try to answer is, What happens on the ground when one relates to the Bible as a political document?”

“The Settlers” which was supported by Yes Docu, the French-German TV network Arte and Radio Canada, is now being screened across Israel. It provides a survey, extraordinary in its scope, of the settlement movement, from its inception to the present. It blends photos of the current situation on the West Bank, with testimonials by its living heroes, along with archival footage. All the heroes of this saga, whether dead or alive, appear on screen. They’re not embarrassed to discuss future expansion, all the way to Iraq, based on the boundaries of the divine promise: from the Nile to the Euphrates.

Opposing them and their hundreds of thousands of supporters appears possibly the only real adversary of the settlers since their movement was founded, standing alone to face their unbounded messianic energies: Yitzhak Rabin. “Rabin’s murder definitively ushered this movement into a new reality,” claims Dotan.

Several times in the course of viewing this film one gets the sensation that something in the land of Judea and Samaria attracts unhinged people from across the world. There are big differences among the ideological spokesmen. The young ones tend to be more racist and to dream aloud about expansion from religious motives, to unabashedly talk of violence, using language that invites comparisons between dreams of a “Jewish state” within the promised borders and the idea of an Islamic caliphate, espoused by the Islamic state.

Many of the older people use colonial terminology, stating that redemption will also benefit the Arabs, since they will bask in the light that Judaism shines unto the nations of the world.

Accusing all previous governments

It’s not only the story of Avraham and his mother, Sarah Nachshon, which is composed of mythological elements. Nearly all the events that make up the plot presented by Dotan are overburdened by history. He explains that the most significant discovery he made during his work was the depth of responsibility carried by all Israeli governments, in their acts or failures to act, for the settlement enterprise.

“The settlements are the core of the problem not because of the settlers but because of successive governments, with their blindness, resignation and their short-sighted political manipulations, as well as their inability to truly detach themselves from mythological biblical symbols. The government is the only agency that can in practice change the course we are following. I met many settlers and for me they’re not the enemy. They are good people who are doing bad things,” he says.

When asked why he didn’t give expression to the settlers mainstream, he replied that “80 percent of them live there out of convenience. I focused on the ideological core. I’m interested in the ones driving the process.”

Dotan identifies the upheaval of 1977, with Menachem Begin and the Likud assuming power, as the turning point after which the government was no longer dragged along passively by messianic extremists. It was now swept up in an unbridled construction frenzy (supervised by Ariel Sharon, who admits on screen that “the settlements are a lever for foiling any territorial compromise”). This occurred as Israel continued to refrain from annexing these territories.

Journalist Shaul Arieli explains in the film that Sharon’s plan was one of containment, meant to hold the hills overlooking the coastal plain. However, the settlers dragged Sharon into building along the top of the ridges. The Gush Emunim movement always pulled governments deeper into the territories.

No pretense of neutrality

The film reflects Dotan’s political views, adopting a seminal metaphor coined by Rabin: “Gush Emunim is like a cancer in the social-democratic fabric of Israel.” The film follows the metastasis of this cancer. When asked who the afflicted body is in this metaphor Dotan replies: “We, the State of Israel.”

Dotan was born in Romania in 1948 and came to Israel with his family at age 6. After studying film he directed several movies in Israel. Since 1987 he has been living in the United States with his wife Netaya and their three children. She has edited many of his films and was an editing consultant in the making of “The Settlers.” He continued making movies in America before moving for a few years to Montreal, where he directed some dramas and action movies. Since 1995 he’s been living with his family in New York, teaching film at New York University. In 2007 he made his first documentary, about security prisoners in Israel.

As an Israeli living in New York, what do you think of the American role in the occupation?

“The Americans have the ability to impose an agreement on both sides. The question is whether they want to and how much political capital they are willing to invest in imposing an agreement. It often appears that their forgiving attitude towards the settlements, which is inversely proportional to their declarations, is identical to the attitude of Israeli governments.”

What are you most worried about today?

“The biggest threat we face is not Iran or ISIS, but internal disintegration. It’s not by chance that the film ends with an image of the changing borders of this land over history. This expresses the fact that we live in one point along an axis of constant change and all we are left with in such a reality is to strive to be just. Israeli kingdoms never lasted for long. The Jewish experience is composed of an element that keeps repeating itself – exile and redemption. It happened once. Then it happened again. Now we’re in the phase of redemption in a third cycle. I hope the pattern doesn’t repeat itself again.”

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