In 1975, a child was born to Sarah Nachshon. The child, Abraham, was one of the first to be born in Kiryat Arba, an Israeli settlement on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Hebron. When Abraham died of SIDS at six months, Nachshon led his funeral procession to the edge of Hebron, where they were stopped at a military checkpoint. Nachshon argued with the Israeli soldiers, telling them she intended to bury her son in the ancient Jewish cemetery within Hebron. When they refused her, she began to walk, with her dead child in her hands, past the soldiers, who were then so moved by the tableau of the grieving mother in the moonlight that they couldn't find it in themselves to stop her. The procession filled in behind her, and together they walked to the Jewish cemetery where the child was buried.
Award-winning documentarian Shimon Dotan's new film, The Settlers, explains the political significance of this moment for the settlement enterprise. Because Abraham's was a Jewish grave, the Israel military was sent to protect it from desecration. The increased military presence emboldened the settlers of Kiryat Arba to increase their presence in the Palestinian city, in violation of international law. Dotan shows the moment from the perspective of the settlers, who see Nachshon's act as a biblical event that further justifies their residence in the West Bank.
"I'm preoccupied with this question of when an individual becomes either a pebble in the stream of history or one who drives the turns of history," the 67-year-old Romanian-born, Israeli-raised director told me. "That act brought the settlements into Hebron. Sarah Nachshon was driven by personal devotion, by personal relation with her belief, but her actions changed history, and so the moment takes on biblical dimensions for some."
Dotan begins his film, now playing in New York, by asking his subjects if they are settlers. "That's what the leftists and the media want to call me," says one subject, while others decline to answer the question altogether; the most fervent of Dotan's subjects claim to be called to live on the land of their forefathers by divine decree. Politically, a "settler" is defined as a citizen of Israel living in violation of international law in occupied territories where local Palestinians are under Israeli rule. Today there are 400,000 such settlers living in 225 settlements and outposts in the midst of nearly 3 million Palestinians in these regions.
The Settlers weaves together the history of the settlements, the narrative of the religious ideology of the founders, and the disconnect between the political idea of the settlements and the reality of the current population, which, due to infrastructure funded by the Israeli government, is substantially made up of residents disconnected from the enterprise's origins.
"Every movement starts with ideologues, but they alone can never carry a mass movement," Dotan explained. "The government started to provide cheap housing that wasn't available in Israel proper and because of that, there was a migration of people from Israel just looking for a better quality of life. I do not condemn them, but I do keep everyone responsible for their actions. The ideologues are the skeleton, and the rest are the muscles that come upon it, and together they form one moving body."
While The Settlers clearly takes the perspective that the settlements are threats to peace in the region—in part by repeatedly visually representing the settlements as ugly intrusions on an otherwise beautiful landscape—Dotan wants the viewers to also feel the religious fervor that serves, for the settlers, as the justification for their the actions. The film presents the complexity of the settlement enterprise without reduction, allowing viewers, regardless of their familiarity or position on the issue, to come away from the film with a more nuanced understanding of the population.
"Having empathy is good when you're having a fight with someone," said Dotan. "It will allow you to get a sense of another's world and will equip you with more instruments to bring that person to your side. In the actual act of war, some say it is a necessity to demonize the other. But what we're doing here [with the documentary] is not an act of war. It's an act of understanding."
The seriousness with which Dotan presents this religious conviction illuminates how difficult the problem of the settlers has been to resolve. Dotan wants us to see that many of the settlers believe themselves to be fulfilling their ultimate religious duty one that will, as prophesied in 1967 in a famous speech by Rabbi Zvi Yehudi Kook, bring the messiah and bring redemption to all, including the Palestinians, who will, say some of the settlers quoted in the film, eventually be grateful to them.
For decades, the United States has favored the two-state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict and the halting of further settlement development. That may change thanks to Donald Trump's election, however. "Clinton, Bush, Obama, all had basically the same position, but Trump threw some promises out during his campaign, and, tragically, leaders in Israel on the right tried to take advantage and grab as much as they can, and that's wrong," said Dotan, referring to the Israeli Knesset's recent decision to legalize all West Bank outposts, despite the condemnation of the United Nations and Israel's own attorney general.
"[Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is the only leader in the world who embraces Trump like a savior. This is insane. Trump has no idea whatsoever what happens in the region, and he does not have a plan," the director said. While Trump has walked back some of his promises that he made, especially the incendiary pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he has not rescinded his nomination of David Friedman, a vocal supporter and prolific fundraiser for the Israeli settlements, as ambassador to Israel.
"Nationalism is the same everywhere. America, Israel, Europe," Dotan warned. "Right-wing movements tend to be the same and are fed by the same pattern of behavior. What we have in Israel is a religious nationalism, and the result is Israel maintaining its grip over the West Bank and the Israeli settlements. Once you allow religion to enter politics, that's the end of politics and that's the end of democracy and that's the end of anything that I would hold dear."
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The Settlers is playing now in select theaters.