The Controversial Film Giving Israeli Zealots a Voice

Director Shimon Dotan’s ‘The Settlers’ has attracted a firestorm of criticism for humanizing the West Bank’s Israeli settlers. But as he sees it, there is value in showing zealotry in its natural state.

The Settlers, director Shimon Dotan’s latest documentary, is the type of film you could opine on, or merely attempt to synopsize, for hours. Of course, this richness comes with the territory—specifically, the West Bank territories in which Israeli settlers stake out dubious claims amidst Palestinian fields and villages. Dotan hones in on some of the most explosive players in this lightning rod debate: the half-million or so settlers who, his film seems to argue, have put their bodies directly in the path of peace in the Middle East.

Biblical both in its aesthetic and its references, the film borrows language from the Tanakh and deals in arresting images of light and darkness. Through timelines and explainers, it gives the basic historical and political context necessary to even begin to comprehend the conflict. But the real strength of the film is its ability to reveal the hearts and minds of the settlers, zealots who have so insistently denied territorial boundaries and, arguably, managed to transcend them.

In a cozy office in downtown Manhattan, Dotan, an Israeli who has lived in New York for years, minces no words: “I find the settlement enterprise the most threatening element to the well-being, to the existence of the state of Israel,” he tells me. He calls the issue a “skeleton in the closet” for Israelis, one that has haunted him for years. He turned to it in earnest while making his last award-winning documentary, Hot House, a project that required frequent forays into the West Bank. It was during one such expedition that Dotan encountered soldiers attempting to put up a roadblock, to prevent Israeli settlers from driving into a Palestinian village and “creating havoc.” He recalls a group of settlers throwing themselves under the concrete block to stop its construction, an image the filmmaker found “quite shocking.”

“This level of zealotry and fanaticism against Israeli institutions was very new to me,” he says. Confident that many more Israelis were similarly in the dark about these settlers’ actions and ideologies, Dotan undertook the ambitious project that would become The Settlers.

As the film explains, prior to 1967 virtually no Jews lived in Judea and Samaria, areas generally referred to as the West Bank. But in the decades since that year’s Six Day War, around 400,000 Jewish settlers have inhabited this controversial stretch of land. While Dotan notes that around 80 percent of the settlers are motivated by economic concerns, his focus is on the ideologically-inclined minority that is the “engine” of the settler movement.

“Of course, extremists are more sexy on the screen, no doubt about it,” he says. “And that is their lure, and their power, and we can see now here in America, extremism has some attractive power to it. One of the things that I tried to get in the film is this allure. And it’s not accidental that I made an effort to film the land and the people in their ‘glory,’ because that’s not only how they see themselves, but how many who are attracted to it see them.”

Through interviews with these settlers, Dotan provides a window into a religious extremism that all too often condones anti-Palestinian violence and illegal expansion. One settler describes himself, unapologetically, as racist, while others appear to be confessing crimes committed against Palestinians. Dotan does not attempt to reason with settlers who, say, believe that expanding Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates will hasten the coming of the messiah. Instead, he simply provides space for these subjects to hold forth, offering a stunning glimpse of a religious fervor so resolute that it threatens the existence of the Jewish state itself.

Dotan was born in Romania and moved to Israel in 1959, at the age of nine. “I became, overnight, a devout Zionist,” he recalls. “Israel was a socialist country at the time…a society in formation with genuine, real ideas. And it was a society that absorbed hundreds of thousands of immigrants from all over the world, and there was a common good that was seen and that was pursued.” After 1967, he says, a “terrible break” came in the pursuit of that common good. “The essence of [this break] is the infiltration of religion into politics,” he explains. “Once religion takes hold of politics, terrible things happen. And what we’re experiencing today is the manifestation of that. You justify every act in the name of God.”

Criticizing the government of Israel is not merely a right, but a duty, Dotan says. He sees cause for concern not just in the continuation of the settler enterprise, but also in the worldwide ramifications of Trumpism—specifically, in how some Israelis and Prime Minister Netanyahu have been emboldened by Trump’s campaign and the early days of his presidency.

“In line with [Trumpism], the Israeli parliament passed a terrible law that allows the state to confiscate Palestinian private property in order to allow settlement,” he says. “How can the parliament pass such a law, which is not only illegal, but immoral? They did it in good part because of the backwind that Trump gave them.” Citing Trump’s talent for “creating chaos,” as well as the impression that he’s “completely divorced from reality,” Dotan acknowledges there’s no predicting how the president will fall on any one issue, Israel included. Still, he adds, “The responsibility isn’t upon Trump, it’s upon us, the Israelis, the government of Israel. We should do what we think is right, not take advantage of a misguided president.”

On the topic of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the alleged harbinger of peace in the Middle East, Dotan can’t help but chuckle. “I wish he would!” he exclaims. “It’s like if you ask somebody if they know how to play the piano—and he says I don’t know, I’ve never tried, maybe! It’s the same argument.”

Unsurprisingly, The Settlers has faced criticism from a wide-ranging political spectrum. Dotan’s clear anti-settlement stance threatened his project from day one. “Early on, one of the settlers issued an email that spread like fire all over the settlements,” he recalls, “that Shimon Dotan is making a film about the settlements, don’t talk to him, he’s a deep leftist. And this email was sent in big, bold, red letters.” For months, he faced difficulty in getting settlers to speak with him. “I don’t know what a deep leftist is, or if I am one, but I do not hide my views,” he adds.

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Were he to turn the camera around, Dotan’s efforts would make a fascinating film in and of itself. In a press release for The Settlers, he writes about a group of settlers attacking the crew while they were filming in a Palestinian village; the attackers “beat our cinematographer with an iron rod, and stole all of our cameras and sound equipment.” While Dotan and his colleagues quickly filed a police report, they were “politely informed” a month later that the case had been closed.

Other critics of Dotan’s work have been non-violent but similarly heated. In 2016, The Settlers was invited and then disinvited to screen at a Syracuse University conference titled “The Place of Religion in Film.” The professor who rescinded the invitation, M. Gail Hamner of the Department of Religion, wrote to Dotan to explain: “I now am embarrassed to share that my SU colleagues, on hearing about my attempt to secure your presentation, have warned me that the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant for you and for me if you come.”

At the time, Dotan was disturbed that his work had been rejected based not on its content—Hamner confessed that she had not gotten a chance to watch the documentary—but rather in anticipation of backlash from BDS, a Palestinian-led campaign that attempts to put pressure on the Israeli government by promoting boycotts, divestment, and international sanctions.

Now, Dotan has only words of encouragement for campus activists. “I think American Jews that have any criticism of the government of Israel should make sure not to be persuaded by [that government’s] rhetoric when they proclaim that whoever criticizes [them] criticizes the state of Israel,” he insists. “It’s completely out of line, it’s pure incitement, and it’s a classic pattern of mediocre people in positions of power that are trying to silence critics.”

“We do not need to go too far for examples,” he points out. “Our new president in America declared recently that all media is the enemy of the American people. That’s the same rhetoric that is coming from the government of Israel. I would suggest that the responsibility of every American Jew, or every Jew for that matter, is if he has a criticism, he should express it.”

Dotan is not afraid to critique the Israeli government in his own work, or to present fellow Israelis in an unflattering light. In one particularly memorable interview from The Settlers, a settler openly identifies as racist. When asked if these portrayals could fuel anti-Semitism, Dotan points out that prejudice has “a life of its own.” Reflecting on recent anti-Semitic threats and attacks in America, he notes that, “The role of civilized societies is to keep [anti-Semitism] at bay as much as possible, and we see what happens when it is not kept at bay. So I see it as the responsibility of the world, not of the Jews, to keep anti-Semitism as small a flame as possible—I don’t think we can ever put it out.”

He continues, “The argument that showing a certain side of Israeli settlers or the Israeli government will incite anti-Semitism, I don’t think it’s fair. It is the responsibility of the Israeli government to make sure that the Israeli cause, that the Jewish cause, will be not only mighty but also right. I think that being right is to react in a humane and enlightened way to a reality, to separate between religion and state. And as long as the government does not do that, it has to be called out for it.”

The Settlers has also attracted criticism for its tight focus—a cinematic virtue that could be perceived as politically problematic. By honing in on the settlers, Dotan sacrifices the stories of Palestinian lives interrupted. One particularly arresting scene shows a Palestinian woman berating settlers for intruding on her orchard, but this is an isolated moment in the documentary. The daily lives of Palestinians, including the controversial checkpoints, fall outside of The Settlers’ scope.

Dotan is proud to call his film one of the first works to focus almost exclusively on the settlers, and hopes that this perspective can add something important to the larger conversation. “I decided that it’s the most untold story,” he explains. “I have deep compassion to the other side, but that was not this film. If we’re trying to understand the phenomenon of the settlers, I believe that it’s more valuable to focus on the perpetrators than on the victims.”

Telling the stories of “the perpetrators” enters him into ethically murky waters. As much as The Settlers aims to act as “an alarm call for action” with a clear critique of the settlement phenomenon, it also humanizes its subjects. The question of the political ramifications of humanely portraying an ideological enemy is one that, for Dotan, “goes to the heart of the process of representation.”

“When I sit in front of someone who I am in complete disagreement with, I ask myself, what am I doing here?” He considers. “Am I here to confront him, or am I here to bring him into my film as he is…Hopefully if I am successfully doing that, it will be in a way that allows the audience to have a direct dialogue with him, without me filtering the dialogue. Furthermore, as a methodology, I’m generally curious to hear what he has to say. And that probably creates some sort of a comfort zone that allows people to speak openly.”

“I am not there to judge them, that’s not my point,” he adds. “I’m there to bring voices onto the screen. Of course, I create context that is judgmental, and I don’t believe that there is an unbiased film—it is biased, and everyone is welcome to look at it for what it is.”

Of course, now that his interviews with the settlers are long past, Dotan is free to judge. He specifically points to “the terrible manipulation of the Holocaust in the Gaza evacuation,” with Israelis coopting the language of the Holocaust to bemoan the destruction of settlements and forced removal of Israeli families. “My mother wore a yellow star in Romania,” he begins, but quickly changes course: “It’s not just personal, that’s not the point. When you have a group of fanatic individuals that are trying to make their point and kidnapping the Holocaust to strengthen the cause, it’s deplorable…I hope that this manipulation will come across as it is, but it’s possible that some people will see it as something that’s real. But it’s the opposite of real.”

By showing zealotry in its natural state, Dotan is trusting that his viewers will see the settlements as he sees them. “The film is not a program for how to fight the settlement enterprise,” he explains. “It’s a call for action, for everyone who sees it as a negative trajectory of the state of Israel, to join forces to prevent this tragedy from happening. It’s not easy, it’s not going to happen in a day…I do hope that people will watch the film and take it upon themselves to do something positive.”

He pauses, deliberating over his final point: “The state of Israel was founded with one purpose, to provide safe haven to persecuted Jews. It was never designed to fulfill Biblical prophecies, or to hasten the arrival of the messiah. That’s God’s business. Our business is to make it a good, humane place to live.”