'Settlers' Documentary Turns a Blind Eye to the Horror of West Bank Life

With its mistaken point of departure, over-cautiousness and absence of realistic portrayals of Palestinian life, the new documentary by Shimon Dotan disappoints.

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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A still from “The Settlers,” which premiered Jan. 22 at the Sundance Film Festival.
A still from “The Settlers,” which premiered Jan. 22 at the Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Philippe Bellaiche
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

Who is the target audience for “The Settlers,” Shimon Dotan’s new documentary, which was released in Israel over the weekend?

Is it for those who grew up in this country, live in it, are aware of its past and of the place of the settlement enterprise in its history since 1967 and its implications for the situation in which the country finds itself?

Or is the film for those who grew up in this country, live in it, but see the entire issue of the settlements as being far away from their everyday life? Or perhaps for a non-Israeli audience that is aware of the problem of the settlements and the fact that they are an obstacle to peace, but isn’t familiar with their history?

For the first group, the film doesn’t present anything new. Already in 2005 Haim Yavin created a five-part television documentary series, “The Land of the Settlers,” whose approach to what is happening beyond the Green Line was far more thorough, demanding and upsetting.

Dotan’s attitude toward the settlement enterprise is clear. He sees it as a danger to the future and the survival of the country, but his way of presenting this existential danger reflects problematic ideological views, which are translated into problematic cinematic-documentary choices.

Therefore, if there is a target audience for Dotan’s film in Israel itself, it’s the second group I mentioned, because even if the filmmaker’s political viewpoint is clear from his movie – in which his interviewees say shocking things like redemption should be expedited at the Temple Mount, or the country should expand “all the way to Iraq” – this is a film that seems to have been made out of moderation, perhaps even caution, which contains nothing that will offend the extras too much, in light of the filmmaker’s political viewpoint. Even the outspoken settlement activist Daniella Weiss looks less frightening than she usually seems, in this movie.

We can identify the origin of the unease aroused by the film by Dotan – who in 2007 directed a far better and more incisive documentary, “HotHouse,” which included interviews with security prisoners and described life behind bars – in an interview he gave to Carolina Landsmann last weekend in Haaretz's Hebrew edition.

One of the Polonsky illustrations, in the style of Gustave Dore, that appear in the film.Credit: Philippe Bellaiche

“I’m curious to know how events become mythology,” he said in the interview, explaining why he chose to have the illustrations introducing each of the nine episodes that compose the film drawn by David Polonsky in the style of 19th-century artist Gustave Doré, known for his biblical paintings.

“I thought the illustrations would give rise to an association with the biblical story and would give a sense of historical depth,” Dotan added. “Because what’s happening here is no different. The events taking place now will be read 100 or 500 years from now in a manner similar to the way in which we read the Bible today.”

Although such an approach is likely to be appreciated by a large proportion of the public in Israel and in some quarters abroad, I am deterred by it. It attests to a mistaken ideological starting point that activates the film and leads to its most glaring omission – a description of the everyday life of the settlers and of the Palestinians in the territories. Only four Palestinians appear in the film as characters with any presence. The checkpoints aren’t seen (“I didn’t get permission,” said Dotan in the interview), and the entire issue of the separation barriers and the fences that encroach on the lives of the Palestinians is mentioned only incidentally.

The horror is not present in the film. It has only one powerful scene, in which a Palestinian woman complains with impressive belligerence about what the settlers are doing to her orchards. The film focuses on the hard-core, even bizarre, “ideological” settlers – from the hilltop youth to elderly immigrants in a center named after American evangelist John Hagee. Dotan totally ignores what he describes as the 80 percent of the settlers who live in the territories for the sake of convenience and comfort.

More than researching the history of this ideological core group – how many more times must we hear the settlers and the leaders repeating the same things? – the filmmaker points an accusing finger at successive Israeli governments and their responsibility for the settlement enterprise.

Although the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said that Gush Emunim, the original settlers’ movement, was like a cancer in the social-democratic fabric of the State of Israel, there is no government that emerges looking good from this film, which doesn’t even mention the name of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

There is justification for this accusation against the governments, of course, and it provides a certain degree of complexity to the film, but it also diverts the discussion from movements that arose as a result of the failures of those governments and the individuals who arrived in the territories as government emissaries.

Until now I have chosen to ignore Dotan’s disturbing declaration in the Haaretz interview that the settlers are “good people who do bad things,” but there’s a limit to how much I can ignore. Did a film with such a starting point even have a chance?

Watching “The Settlers” left me feeling that I have no idea what to do with it. On the one hand, from my political viewpoint, I can’t say that the film is not worth watching. On the other hand, it’s disappointing because it is evident that only one eye is directed at us and the other at the non-Israeli audience, which will probably see it as a comprehensive work that makes a daring statement.

I appreciate the fact that the film is being screened in local movie theaters, but I’m not sure that the decision to distribute it doesn’t stem from its limitations. It says harsh things, but it’s comfortable to watch – and our situation is not comfortable at all.

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