For a brief shining moment towards the end of “The Settlers,” director Shimon Dotan gives us the chance to imagine what the Holy Land might look like, in a parallel, better universe. The speaker is 38-year-old Yossi Fruman, a young rabbi living in the settlement of Tekoa B’. “This land belongs to God, not to me,” he says, his blue-gray eyes mild and soft. “I’m just a guest here.”
Fruman continues, speaking slowly. “My neighbor from the Arab village nearby is God’s guest too, and that is why we might be able to get along with one another. Because we have one host… and He has room for us both.”
This land belongs to God, not to me. It is not only a poetic sentence, but also one that distinguishes clearly between the spiritual and the political, that tells us man can not claim a territory for religious reasons. Fruman (whom many Forward readers may recognize as the son of the late peacemaker Menachem Fruman), is an outlier, a lone voice in the wilderness. The rest of Dotan’s subjects speak in a more commonly heard language of political and religious entitlement — whether they be new residents of the non-sovereign land west of Tel Aviv, lured by cheap real estate and a chance for palatial bedrooms, or wide-eyed Tennessee Christians hoping for bit parts in an imagined Biblical Epic, or Gush Emunim founders now celebrating their great-grandchildren. For the most part, the men and women profiled in “The Settlers,” believe that either the State of Israel or the Bible itself has sanctioned their presence on the land — to the exclusion of all others. The fact that Palestinians have farmed much of the territory in question, and it does not belong to the sovereign nation of Israel, is for most of these settlers a moot point. They are here to stay.
Dotan, a committed Zionist and a former elite soldier, has built his career as a filmmaker in fiction, and he knows how to build narrative tension and suspense. Even if you already know the history, from the preaching of Rabbi Tzvi Kook before the 1967 war, to the incremental triumphs of the Gush Emunim movement, to the politically motivated assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and beyond, the story as Dotan orders it is as thrilling as it is frightening. It is full of long silences and striking desert vistas, which even today seem torn from the pages of Exodus or Genesis. But of course the history of the settlements and their growing power in Israeli politics is not fiction; it is true, urgent, and an ongoing obstacle to peace in the region. As Dotan warned the Forward several times over the phone from his office in Manhattan, the very future of Israel as a democratic nation is at stake.
It seems as if you had the absolute trust of your subjects. They were willing to say things to you about their beliefs that are quite damning. How were you able to gain their trust, especially when they could easily look your political opinions up online?
They did, actually. I started every interview by making it clear that I am in opposition to their standpoint and that I think they are detrimental to the State of Israel, but at the same time that I am very interested and curious to hear what they have to say. If somebody engages with you, and really shows curiosity, you will not only defend your actions but present them with pride.
And when they saw how you portrayed them, what was the response?
I had my first screening at the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv and I invited everybody. To my great and pleasant surprise probably 90 percent of the settlers showed up. The elders responded positively, because they recognized the way in which the film shows that the settler enterprise is an irreversible fact. Among the young ones, some felt that I took the more extreme comments, that I did not show their regular, daily lives.
You mean for example Pinhasi Bar-on, who told you proudly that he was a racist?
Yes. I spent a lot of time with him. He is contradictory in many ways, a wonderful father, a wonderful family man. For example on one occasion I filmed him and his family lighting Hanukkah candles. And after seeing the film he said, “Why didn’t you show me lighting the candles?”
He didn’t understand why lighting candles is less relevant than saying outright, as he did, that Arabs do not belong in Israel?
I tried to explain to him that it’s the nature of the beast. You shoot 100 hours and you bring to the screen one hour, or 1 hour and 40 minutes, and it has to follow a certain structure or logic.
Is there a reason you chose to focus on extreme people like him, rather than on 80 percent of Israelis “settlers” who as you point out, live in the territories for reasons that are much more economic?
Yes, and the reason is quite simple. My interest is in those who are driving the phenomenon, not those who are riding in the back seat. I’m focusing on the drivers, not the passengers.
**You interview one of these “80 percent,” and he speaks happily about the size of his bedroom, and his 7 minute commute to Tel Aviv, but not about the political implications of his presence on land that is not sovereign. Did you ask him who he thought the land ought to belong to?
He was very direct. He said “listen, don’t ask me this question. The government put me here, I’m here under the jurisdiction of the government of Israel. I’m not a politician.” Of course you can say that an individual needs to take responsibility as well, but that is still a genuine answer.
Did you ever feel the desire to argue with him — or especially with the more extremely religious people you spoke with?
I do not know how you experience the world, but in my view God does not write deeds for lands and for apartments. You cannot argue with someone who holds this position, it’s impossible. If it’s from God, then that’s the end of the discussion. Once you allow religion to infiltrate politics, that is the end of politics, and I would argue, the end of the religion as well. A religion is an issue between a man and his God, a woman and her God.
Here you sound a bit like Yossi Truman.
The Trumans — they are saints, I cannot tell you how much admiration I have for them. Yossi told me his deepest prayers were when he prayed together with Muslims. He is as anti-territorial as one can be. Of course he is only one person, but I do believe in the Power of One, and that is the reason he is in the film. That is religion as a personal or communal experience. The moment that you infect politics and politicians with religious tendency, you are on a sure path to catastrophe. And Israel — and I say this with great pain — allowed it to happen on an ongoing basis.
Were we doomed from the start because we are a Jewish nation? Doesn’t that preclude the separation you call for?
I would say no, because Zionism was founded for one and only one reason: To provide a safe haven for persecuted Jews. At no point in time, not with Herzl and not with his followers, was Zionism designed to fulfill biblical prophecies or the arrival of the Messiah. Religion you can believe it you can experience it, but this is not a political plan. The moment you deviate from the original purpose of Zionism you find yourself in a corner where you have to defend the indefensible.
So then what does it mean to be Jewish?
Are Jews a nation? Or are we a religion. The answer to that is already given, and it does not from the Jews. [Jews] were declared a nation, not by ourselves but by others, The answer comes from those who are trying to exterminate us. And I am afraid that this tendency is not over: anti-Semitism is here to stay, and our responsibility is to try to mitigate it as much as possible. We should always be on the watch because it could again go out of control and create terrible things. And I am a staunch Zionist: I would defend Israel with my life, (and I did when I was soldier). And at the same time I will fight for it not only to have might but also to be right. Once we cease being right we will lose our might. It’s as simple as that.
You did not include the current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Why not?
At first when I started working on the film I decided that I would deal mostly with the settlers, almost exclusively and I would touch politicians only to the extent that they were instrumental to the inception of the settlements, to the evolution of the settlements or to the destruction of the settlements. Netanyahu did not change any of the realities on the ground, and he was not responsible for creating many new settlements, when he came to power. Still, if I did the film today I would probably include him. The reality changed, the coalition in Israel changed, and he has moved to the right of the Settler’s movement. If you know Israeli politics, now he is trying to position himself as right of Bennett.
What you see Trump doing now in the US, he did not invent it. Trump’s lashing out against minorities, and the constant threat that something terrible is going to happen — this is what Netanyahu does, because he knows that for him the way to maintain power is to create a politics of fear, and play to the religious and settler’s bloc.
So now the settlers have succeeded: They have become pivotal players in Israeli politics, and they are not going to be forced to leave the territories. And it almost seems as if, at least until Sharon took office, this happened without the government actually approving of what they were doing.
To my knowledge there was no point after 1967 when an elected government conducted a strategic discussion and analysis and came to the conclusion that they were good for the state of Israel. Never. And this is key to understanding why, on the one hand, I see them as an existential threat and on the other hand, why they are still such a strong force. And that force is getting stronger. It’s extremely important and meaningful for us to address this issue. Do you know the Hebrew expression “Benaf Shenu?” When you write about the movie, tell this to your readers. Do not just show me lighting Hanukkah candles. Benaf shenu. We cannot afford to let Israel fail, it is not an option.
“The Settlers” opens in NYC at Film Forum on Friday, March 3.