Doc presents hard truths about Israel’s settlements

Over the course of nearly two hours, “The Settlers” provokes anger, pride, dismay, frustration and sadness. The only emotion it doesn’t engender is hope.

Shimon Dotan’s thoughtful and mostly even-handed documentary is a historical overview of the settlement movement since Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza in the Six-Day War in 1967.

Making its California premiere on Tuesday, July 26 at the CineArts at Palo Alto Square, “The Settlers” will screen three additional times in this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Regardless of where the viewer resides on the religious and political spectrums, the film is an important work in that it provides a short course on a force in Israeli society that presently numbers some 400,000 people in 225 settlements.

“The Settlers” presents a historical overview of the movement since Israel’s Six-Day War. photo/courtesy sfjff

The settlers’ influence on the Israeli economy is even greater when you tote up the shekels and resources expended over the decades on construction, infrastructure and security. For example, the film points out that 600 settlers live in Hebron surrounded by 200,000 Palestinians.

Although “The Settlers” primarily views the settlements as a divisive flashpoint among Israelis, the documentary also cites them as a catalyst for the first intifada and an impediment to past and future peace talks with the Palestinians.

In a calm, measured voice, Dotan interviews settlers of various backgrounds and orientations, from knowledgeable, strategic leaders of the 1970s messianic group Gush Emunim to contemporary young settlers whose Zionism is matched by their racism.

Dotan, who is scheduled to attend SFJFF screenings of his film July 30 in Berkeley and July 31 in San Francisco, uncovers archival footage that evokes the pivotal period after the Six-Day War when Israel was compelled to consider anew what kind of country it wanted to be.

Yet the defining visual motif of “The Settlers” — repeated dozens of times in dozens of locations — is a view of the landscape in which a hilltop settlement appears jarringly out of place. While some viewers will feel a sense of accomplishment at the aerial shots of snaking chains of lookalike houses with modern red roofs, it’s more likely that the filmmaker wants us to see the settlements (as well as the separation barrier, which makes a few appearances) as unnatural impositions on the land.

Although I recommend “The Settlers” as essential viewing for anyone interested in Israel, and with the fortitude for a hard-truths conversation afterward, I don’t envision the film having much influence or impact on debate or policy at home.

Religious beliefs — which the film suggests have inspired far more settlers to inhabit the West Bank than political goals or idealistic philosophies — generate their own justification and momentum.

The documentary’s brief passages on Baruch Goldstein, right-wing Rabbi Meir Kahane’s friend and follower who killed 29 Muslims worshipping at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994, and Yigal Amir, the extremist who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, are acutely depressing because they remind us that fanatics will not compromise or negotiate.

While many documentaries these days strive to leave the viewer in a state of cautious optimism, inspired by visionary activists or leaders committed to possible solutions, “The Settlers” barely makes a feint in that direction. Dotan appears to agree with the left-of-center academics he interviews —those who view the settlements as a fait accompli, as well as an existential threat to Israel’s identity and security.

Perhaps the best point of reference for “The Settlers” is “The Gatekeepers,” Dror Moreh’s sobering 2012 documentary in which a parade of former Shin Bet chiefs recounted, with 20-20 hindsight, the numerous mistakes and miscalculations they and elected leaders made vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Both films leave us with the unhappy realization that history cannot be undone. But if you subscribe to the impulse — or illusion — that human beings can learn from the past, they provide fleeting solace.

“The Settlers,” 3:50 p.m. July 26 at CineArts, Palo Alto; 4:15 p.m. July 30 at Roda Theatre, Berkeley; 12 p.m. July 31 at Castro Theatre, S.F.; 12 p.m. Aug. 7 at Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael. In English, Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles. (Not rated, 110 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.