An Interview with Shimon Dotan

| March 5, 2017

In the book of Genesis, chapter 17 verse 8, the text reads, “And I will give unto thee and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the Land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

The complexities of heritage and homeland are the subject of director Shimon Dotan’s new documentary The Settlers, a compelling look at Israel’s controversial settlement movement. When it declared independence in 1948 Israel was a secular, semi-socialist state, its founders envisioning a Jewish nation that would serve as a beacon for liberal ideals. But in May of 1967 Rabbi Zvi Yehunda Kook, head of the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, delivered a speech in which he expressed regret over Israel accepting the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, and longed for the Jewish holy sites in the West Bank.

One month later Israel declared victory in the Six-Day War, and took possession of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank from Jordan. Students of Rabbi Kook saw his speech as prophetic, thus igniting a messianic fervor that fueled a campaign to settle in the heart of the West Bank. Today it is home to about 400,000 Jewish settlers, a population that is growing at three times the rate of the rest of Israel.

These settlements are seen as the primary impediment to peace, and Israel is being forced to decide whether it will be a democracy with a Jewish majority, or whether it should abandon democracy to maintain control of the historic homeland with its overwhelming Palestinian majority.

Dotan, whose 2006 documentary Hot House won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, does not simply point fingers and condemn the controversial settlements, but rather uses the settler movement in examining the intricate history and possible future of Israeli society as a whole. Dotan wants to understand who these settlers are, and through intimate interviews presents a portrait of humanity that is fresh and thought-provoking. Survival is the essential objective of any entity, and the means humans will go to preserve their existence, even beyond death, can be both astounding and horrifying. This is the element that Dotan is particularly excited by, and he handles the examination with tremendous skill and intelligence.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Dotan about the production, and his views on the current state of the settler movement.

MV: Something that surprised me quite a bit was how diverse and complex the settler demographic is; everyone from religious extremists to western-style hippies are calling the West Bank their home. Was this something you were aware of going into the project?

SD: I was aware of it, but I did learn quite a number of new things while working on the film, and feel many Israelis did too. What’s happening in the West Bank is a reality that reflects the society of Israel at large. You have religious extremists, secular individuals and people out there for economic reasons who couldn’t find decent housing in Israel proper. You can find cheaper, better housing in the West Bank, and many of those construction projects are supported by the Israeli government.

MV: It’s interesting that the government is allowing half a million people to complicate a Middle East peace resolution. Not only that, but the extraordinary cost in building separate roads and tunnels and other elements of infrastructure to support this movement.

Could you talk a little more about reasons that have been given for maintaining these settlements despite the extraordinary financial and security burdens on the state?

SD: I wish I had an easy answer, but it’s complicated. In 1993 the Oslo Accords were signed in Washington. Yitzhak Rabin was Prime Minister and Israel committed within this agreement not to build any new settlements. However, two things happened. First, Israel continued to expand existing settlements, and as they were not allowed to build additional settlements permitted new communities to emerge called outposts. Today, we have more than 100 outposts all over the West Bank, which is similar  in number to settlements that exist there. Now those outposts were and still are illegal, not only according to international law but Israeli law as well.

Second, when Ariel Sharon was Prime Minister, George W. Bush was very upset because he saw the population in the West Bank expanding, and that’s not what the Oslo Accords were calling for. Because of that, Sharon asked Talia Sasson, the Deputy State Attorney at the time to conduct a survey about the outposts. What she discovered was that all the outposts were in fact supported by various branches of the Israeli government. The outposts would receive housing, infrastructure, military protection, anything you can think of that typically belongs to a civic society. But the fact was this was a massive illegal enterprise that was fully funded and supported by various government branches. In the conclusion of her report, she ends with a sentence saying this is an unlawful action on the government’s side, and you Mr. Prime Minister have the power to stop it. Shortly after that, Sharon proceeded with the evacuation of 21 settlements from Gaza, and 4 from Northern West Bank.

You see, there is constant conflict with the ruling right wing Likud government that is strongly influenced by the HaBayit HaYehudi, a party formed by the settlers to take action against any possible resolution with the Palestinians. Too often mediocre, uninspiring politicians fall into the stronger voting blocks in order to secure their position of power, and in turn it becomes harmful to the population at large. That’s what we’re experiencing in Israel today.

MV: It was interesting also to see this growing extremism within the settler communities, especially with groups like The Hilltop Youth. When you were entering these communities, did you feel you were in danger at all? I understand that when word got out about the film the internet was abuzz with stories of a deep leftist who was coming to upend the settlement enterprise. What were some of the major hurdles to the production?

SD: Well, we were actually attacked twice during the production. The first was when we were in an olive grove around the settlement of Yitzhar, which is known as one of the most violent settlements in the West Bank. Now I was out of the country at the time, but had asked my crew to film there because we had heard about some disturbances caused by settlers. Apparently they were preventing  villagers from the nearby town of Burin from harvesting their olives. As the crew filmed they were attacked by a group of masked settlers. Our cinematographer was hit with an iron rod and all of our equipment was stolen. We filed a complaint with the police in Ariel, which is a city-settlement in the heart of the West Bank, but nothing came of it. More than a month later we called the police and asked what happened to our claim, and they said the case was closed for lack of evidence. You see, that’s typical. Ninety nine percent of violent action from the settler side towards the Palestinians ends without a resolution.

The second attack happened when we were in Hebron. I was filming  in an area off the main road when suddenly I saw a commotion near my car. I thought there must be something exciting to film there, but as I ran up the hill I saw that the windows of the car were all smashed out.

But saying all that, actions like these are exceptions. The vast majority of settlers are normal people that would condemn such acts. At the same time though, about 20% of the settlers driving this enterprise obey a higher order, not the order of the state. This creates a situation that in my view is terribly harmful and threatening to Israel. When you allow religion to infiltrate politics, nothing good can come out of it.

MV: Can you talk a little bit about how the project developed, and what got you interested in it?

SD: You’ve heard it many times but it doesn’t make it less true, the best security tactic that Israel can aspire to is peaceful relations with all its neighbors. Now, the settlement enterprise is the main reason that keeps Israel in the West Bank. Period. There is no other reason for them to be there. Because of the settlements, Israel maintains a strong military presence in the West Bank, and imposes military governance over the Palestinians. This situation in my view is very harmful to Israel. I think Israelis got to a point where the settler enterprise lost its immediacy, and for many citizens became a sort of toothache you learn to live with. Because of this I became interested in examining the perspective of the settlers themselves, and thought I would do a little film where I shoot over one summer meeting them and hearing their voices.

As I started  the project though, I came to the conclusion I needed to provide greater context and incorporate historic elements. Once you go there of course you can’t just make it a part-time project, so I did a thorough exploration of the settlements in order to present a better idea of their potential future. Ultimately the film is comprised of three major components: the history of the settlements from their inception until today, the religious and ideological forces driving them and the reality in the settlements at present.

MV: I’m curious what the current attitude is of most Israelis towards the settlements?

SD: There is a very strong opposition to the settlements on the center left of the political spectrum. However, there are conflicting numbers. You can find many statistics that will say more than 50 percent of Israelis would accept any resolution that would call for the removal of the settlements. You can find the same statistics for the other side. But nevertheless, there is a dramatic divide in Israel between those who are in favor of the settlements and those opposing them. In my view what is lacking is a wide-spread education effort that will enable people to see how the lack of a political resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem is an essential component to the state of Israel. This education goal should be a national effort. A government that cares to resolve it should engage with this education. Because as it stands now, Israel is so deeply divided that I cannot see how anything can come about in the immediate future.

MV: When you’re coming up with a project, is there a particular type of subject matter that you tend to be drawn to?

SD: Yes of course, and that’s one of the hardest and most exciting moments in the life of a filmmaker, or really any creative person. It’s to find a match with a project that excites you, and every moment along the process you try to remember what took you there in the first place. You try to be inventive and take yourself and the viewer out of a comfort zone. I remember trying to figure out how I could express the notion that many individuals in the film see themselves as biblical figures. There’s a moment in the film when Daniella Weiss speaks about talking to the mayor of a village and asking the citizens to stop throwing stones. I thought, she sees herself as a prophet and I will show her as such. So I created this illustration inspired by the work of Gustave Doré where Daniella is dressed in black and standing between two oak trees on the horizon. Something like that brought me back to the initial excitement of the project. But it’s not one image that will make or break a project. It’s an accumulation that hopefully will create a sense of something that goes beyond the facts being depicted.

MV: Maybe this is an impossible question to answer, but I’m wondering if you have a sense of what the future of the settlement movement could be?

SD: The beginning of your question is the answer. I would not try to predict, but the present conditions in the West Bank, if not treated, will explode. It’s the rules of nature. You don’t have to be a prophet to recognize that. There are 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank. They’re not going anywhere. There are around 400,000 settlers, and I’m afraid they’re not going anywhere either. The present reality, where you have two ethnic groups on the same territory, with two different sets of laws and two dramatically different economic strengths, is explosive by definition. Because of that I believe something will change. The question is if it will change without too much bloodshed until a resolution comes along.

The Settlers is now playing in New York.

About the Author:

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Berlin’s Sand Literary Journal, The University Of Wyoming’s Owen Wister Review, Chicago Literati and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in New York City.
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