Skip to content

Framed Narrative

In a new film, Liberal Zionism finds its fall guy

It is hard these days for even Israel’s most diehard supporters to pretend that something has not gone seriously wrong. A case in point: the sentencing last month of Elor Azaria, a twenty-year-old Israeli army medic caught on video putting a bullet in the head of a wounded Palestinian, Abd al-Fattah al-Sharif, as he lay bleeding on the ground outside a military checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron. Azaria got eighteen months in prison.

The public outcry has been extraordinary—not against the leniency of Azaria’s sentence, but for the fact of his arrest. Israeli politicians lined up to praise the young soldier, who was widely declared a “hero” and “everyone’s child.” The Prime Minister himself phoned Azaria’s father to assure him that he “understood [his] pain.” Thousands of Israelis rallied, at times violently, to demand Azaria’s release, chanting calls for the assassination of the IDF chief of staff who had approved the prosecution. Bodyguards had to be assigned to the judges presiding over the trial.

Racism of the most overt and bloodthirsty sort is trampling over all other forms of civic identity. If this state of affairs is bad for Palestinians, it does not bode well for Israel either, and it is more difficult than ever to reconcile with the still pervasive vision of Israel as a brave, secular democracy.

The settlers-did-it narrative is now standard among liberal adherents of Zionism, who need it to make sense of realities that are otherwise too painful.

Still, a narrative has emerged in recent years to bridge the gap between this ideal and a harsher truth. It goes a bit like this: threatened by its enemies and forced into a defensive war, Israel in 1967 occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. (The Sinai and the Golan too, but never mind.) Before its leaders could decide what to do with these territories and their regrettably Arab inhabitants, a small band of religious extremists fooled the state into allowing them to take up residence in the newly conquered lands, which they regarded as their spiritual inheritance. Wily and ruthlessly determined, these clever zealots managed to establish settlement after settlement, dragging the institutions of the state into cementing an occupation that is now eating away at Israel’s liberal foundations and destroying its cosmopolitan soul. Some versions of this narrative also mention that the occupation has not been very nice for Palestinians.

Improbable as this account may seem, it is now standard among liberal adherents of Zionism, who need it to make sense of realities that are otherwise too painful to face. Consenting to some version of the settlers-did-it narrative is now an obligatory rite for Americans who wish to voice criticisms of Israel without being shunned for their dissent. Agree to it and you are safe from the slurs traditionally heaped on Israel’s critics: anti-Semite, apologist for terror, dupe for Muslim fanatics. Ignore it and you’re on your own. Besides, its great virtue is that it gets nearly everyone off the hook—everyone but those nutty settlers. Meanwhile, Zionism’s liberal heart is left unsullied, buried somewhere beneath the miles of concrete and razor wire. If only the settlers would let us dig it up.

Shimon Dotan’s documentary The Settlers, released in Israel last summer and screening at Film Forum this week, is an artful distillation of this narrative. Much of its archival footage—of settler leader Moshe Levinger rending his garments, for instance, or of settlers tossing Molotovs into Hebron’s crowded market—is memorable. Its aerial shots of the West Bank are consistently gorgeous. And Dotan gets settlers to say the damnedest things on camera. (Believe me, it’s not hard.) “Arabs don’t belong in our country,” says one radical “hilltop youth.” The Land of Israel stretches “virtually all the way to Iraq,” says another. “Ultimately the Arabs are right,” offers the white-bearded co-founder of the Bat Ayin settlement. “Zionism is the aggressor.”

Dotan, whose last documentary was 2007’s Hot House, about Palestinian prisoners in Israel’s jails, opens the narrative with a speech delivered just before the 1967 war by Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook, who would act as spiritual mentor to the settlement movement. No mention is made of the messianic Zionism articulated early in the century by Kook’s more famous father, the Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, without which Zvi Yehudah’s sacralized nationalism would have been unthinkable. But bringing the elder Kook into the story, and tying the settlement movement to pre-1967 strains of Zionism, would muddy a chronological divide that must at all costs remain sharp.

When settlers establish settlements, in other words, they are crafty; when the state does it, it is invariably intoxicated, distracted, or duped.

Without this baggage, the film moves along. A voiceover mentions that Levi Eshkol, Israel’s prime minister during the 1967 war, approved the establishment of the first West Bank settlement, Kfar Etzion, over the objections of his advisers, who counseled that it would violate the Geneva Convention’s provision forbidding an occupying power from transferring “parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Dotan hastily writes off Eshkol’s decision as a symptom of the giddiness that enveloped the nation in those heady days of victory. When settlers establish settlements, in other words, they are crafty; when the state does it, it is invariably intoxicated, distracted, or duped. The documentary does pause to acknowledge Labor Minister Yigal Allon’s plan to secure the new eastern border, introduced weeks after the war’s end, which resulted in the establishment of twenty-one settlements throughout the Jordan Valley. But those settlements were built by Labor governments—Israel’s political left—and get short shrift here.

The Settlers sticks instead to the canonical narrative: the secular and democratic institutions of the Israeli state were hijacked by a right-wing religious movement. The film jumps to Hebron, where in 1968 Zvi Yehudah Kook’s student Moshe Levinger convinced the army to let him and his followers rent hotel rooms so that they might stage a seder in the city of the Patriarchs. Passover came and went and Levinger’s crew refused to leave—they’re still there. This settlers’ ruse functions as the occupation’s original sin in microcosm, a deception that would be repeated again and again, leaving the organs of state abashed but otherwise innocent. Curiously, Dotan’s camera turns twice to the journalist Akiva Eldar, but he neglects to ask about one of the more interesting findings of the book Eldar co-wrote about the settlement movement, that the Israeli military and the civilian government were forewarned of Levinger’s plans and allowed him to go ahead. Most other evidence of Labor’s complicity in the settlement enterprise will be similarly neglected.

Next comes the founding of Gush Emunim, the settler movement that Yitzhak Rabin famously called “a cancer” in Israel’s democratic fabric. Dotan interviews one of the founders of Ofra, a hardline settlement near Nablus. Yet he passes up the chance to ask him about the support Gush Emunim enjoyed from Shimon Peres—then Rabin’s defense minister and only later re-branded as Israel’s peacemaker. Peres played a crucial role in establishing Ofra and one other key Nablus-area settlement, but the film jumps instead to the ascendance of the right after the 1977 election of Menachem Begin, when agriculture minister Ariel Sharon was let loose to build settlements with unmatched efficiency and zeal.

The film’s greatest elision is its almost complete erasure of the role of the Israeli state, and particularly the army, in every step, small and large, of the settlement enterprise. However complicated and at times antagonistic the settlers’ relationship to the state may have been, without the army’s protection—its willingness to unleash deadly violence on Palestinians, who objected to the systematic confiscation of their land—not a single settlement could have been constructed or maintained. The army, though, and the many thousands of deaths it has inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, is largely absent from Dotan’s story. This omission, for a film that documents a military occupation, is quite a feat. We see settlers beating Palestinians but never, as is far more common, soldiers shooting them. Dotan did not film a single checkpoint, and for all those lovely aerial shots, the wall, which has snatched up to ten percent of the West Bank’s land mass and wraps the Jerusalem-area settlements like a concrete skin, barely makes an appearance. Except for a few quick words about the covert diversion of public funds to illegal West Bank outposts, the vast and quite overt infrastructure of state support for the settlements—subsidies for settler housing, infrastructure, education, agriculture, industry, and transportation—does not merit even a nod.

Nor does the fact that much of the land on which the settlements now sit was confiscated from its Palestinian owners by the army, often under the pretext of “security,” using methods honed inside Israel in the decades preceding the 1967 war. Israel’s Palestinian population, after all, lived under military rule until November 1966, a mere seven months before it would be imposed on Palestinians residing in the newly occupied territories. Most of the more distressing features of the post-’67 occupation—curfews, the permit system, military courts, imprisonment without trial on secret evidence, official censorship, restrictions on freedom of association, the widespread seizure of Palestinian land by the state—are the direct inheritance of practices employed within Israel’s boundaries in the first twenty years of its existence. Better put, they are the same practices.

It is nonetheless possible to watch The Settlers to its end and conclude that Israel was dragged unknowingly from the path of virtue by a small group of fanatical outliers. One would like to think that after fifty years, the spiraling atrocities engendered by the settlement enterprise might provoke a more rigorous reckoning than this.

Film Forum is screening The Settlers in a double bill with Ben-Gurion: Epilogue, a documentary directed by Yariv Mozer and based on recently discovered footage of a six-hour-long 1968 interview conducted with the Zionist patriarch in his dotage. Ben-Gurion had at the time retired from public life to the small kibbutz in the Negev where he would be buried five years later.

Israel’s first prime minister is depicted watering saplings and feeding livestock, doing headstands, meeting Einstein and Ray Charles.

The film, funded in part by the Israeli government, is purest hagiography: Israel’s first prime minister is depicted watering saplings and feeding livestock, eating humbly at long communal tables, doing headstands, meeting Einstein and Ray Charles. Not a single critical question is posed about his legacy. The word “Palestinian” is used exactly three times, once in the film’s single clip of an actual Palestinian and twice by Ben-Gurion: first to deny Palestinians’ existence as a people, and again to deny their possession of a state.

The takeaway for many will be Ben-Gurion’s grudging but apparently prophetic willingness to sacrifice the territories won in 1967. “We were entitled to the whole land of Israel,” he insists. “But if I have to choose the entire country or peace, I think peace is more important.” The fact that Ben-Gurion knew better, of course, fits neatly into the settlers-did-it narrative. What stuck in my mind, though, was how often Ben-Gurion’s valorization of the idealism, courage, and determination of the early Zionists would be echoed almost precisely, half a century later, in the self-justifications of Dotan’s tone-deaf settlers.