THE SETTLERS, a film by Shimon Dotan, opens in Toronto March 17, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema


The Settlers
Shimon Dotan’s eye-opening documentary tells a tale
of religious zeal behind the West Bank settlements


Of the grievances and grudges that plague the Middle East, no issue is more incendiary than the Jewish-only settlements that have dotted the occupied West Bank for a half-century.

Canadian/Israeli Shimon Dotan’s acclaimed documentary The Settlers sets out to illustrate – through first-person accounts, historical footage and expert witness – how 400,000 motivated Israelis ended up in communities almost strategically placed between, and sometimes within, Arab Palestinian cities populated by the millions. It is a confounding tale of religious zeal and secular hatred, where an olive tree is an amorphous territorial border, and the burial of a stillborn baby amounts to a claim of political sovereignty over a city.

Dotan, a professor of political cinema at NYU Graduate School of Journalism, traces 50 years of internationally-incendiary conflict to a single charismatic rabbi, Tzvi Yehuda Kook, who gave a rabble-rousing sermon just before the 1967 War, asking rhetorically “Where is our Hebron? Where is our Nablus? Where is our Jericho?”

All those scriptural places would end up in Israeli hands, and the young disciples of Rabbi Kook, who formed the movement of the Gush Emunim, became a powerful political force who soon learned not to ask permission when it came to putting down roots in occupied territories. What follows is a history of wildly-different approaches from an Israeli government at odds with the most religious of its own people.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called the Gush Emunim, “a cancer in the democratic fabric of the state of Israel” (and was assassinated by a Jewish extremist 20 years later). At other times, the government’s approach seems to range from arms-length to secretly-enabling.

As the settlements and “outposts” continue to expand, with non-religiously-motivated Jews moving in for cheap houses a short drive from Jerusalem, The Settlers is a profoundly thought-provoking document that debuted to international acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, and in Toronto at Hot Docs.

“I made The Settlers because, in my view, the Settlement Enterprise has the most dramatic impact on the future of Israel, and the discussion about it, is often misinformed,” Dotan says. “I set out to explore the reality in the West Bank settlements. But it soon became clear that I had to go back to the roots, to where and when the West Bank settlements began.”

“What stood out was that the Israeli government, never conducted a strategic analysis and came to the conclusion that the settlements were in the best interest of the state of Israel. They were kind of dragged along by events and by reckless actions.”

“It seems that the 50-year-old pattern is repeating itself.”