Following the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel expanded its territory threefold into areas previously held by Jordan, Egypt and Syria, Jewish settlers began moving onto the newly claimed lands, from the Sinai Peninsula to the West Bank. These settlers often claimed a heritage connection to the land they occupied, arguing that the biblical borders of the Land of Israel extend from the Nile River nearly to Iraq, and neglected or intentionally denied the rights and realities of Palestinians and other residents of the Levant. In his new documentary The Settlers, Shimon Dotan chronicles the rise of the settler movement — and, more pressingly, what it looks like today.
At first, the film’s approach proves plodding and familiar: black-and-white newsreel, contemporary talking heads, maps with borders drawn and redrawn. Yet again, onscreen, we see Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish Israeli settler and its aftermath, the loss of hope for peace and security in Palestine and Israel. Of course the film plods; this story is exhausting, drawn-out, decades of fear and violence so familiar that they hardly even shock.
And yet we must keep watching, because what Dotan has to say — in arresting new footage — about today’s Hilltop Youth, a right-wing Jewish Israeli settler organization that unites and mobilizes young people to occupy territory in the West Bank, is crucial and, in the American context, frighteningly familiar. Both here and there, young white men enact violence on communities of color and then face little or no retribution. Campaign rhetoric about building walls and securing the borders mounts into action, and Trump and Netanyahu give a joint news conference dismissing the possibility of a Palestinian state.
In the most memorable and jarring scene, a young Jewish Israeli father who lives in a settlement talks to his children about beating up Arabs — they haven’t done it yet because they’re too little, he says, but they promise to get started when they’re older. In another moment, several young yeshiva students complain about being imprisoned and confined by the walls of their settlement, seemingly unaware of the ways in which their actions contribute to the conscription of Palestinian lives by border walls, checkpoints and Israeli military protection of some settlements. As the film closes, Talia Sasson, former Israeli Deputy State Attorney, speaks directly into the camera: “The problem isn’t just the physical borders, it’s the very essence of this country.” American viewers would do well to pay attention.
Directed by Shimon Dotan
Opens March 3, Film Forum