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The Uncivil Servant: How Israel Surrendered to Its Settlers

Mitchell Abidor
February 27, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: The Settlers, a documentary film by Shimon Dotan, 2016, 1 hour and 56 minutes.

ON THE OFF CHANCE that the situation in the U.S. has not sent you into a near suicidal state of depression, Shimon Dotan’s The Settlers, a thorough, well-constructed, fascinating history of the settler movement in Israel, will complete the process. Rarely has racism, arrogance, rightwing boldness, and governmental cowardice in the face of it been so well laid out as it is in Dotan’s film.

The Settlers takes us from the movement’s origins, in a rant about lost biblical cities by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook in May 1967 — a speech fulfilled a month later by the Six=Day War, which gave Kook’s presience an almost mystical air — to the present.

The settlers were originally Bible fanatics who fetishized the land spoken of in the Bible over any positive values that might be found in Judaism. The land is sacred and its ownership is divinely granted to the Jews; all non-Jews residing on it are interlopers; all those who question the Jewish peoples’ right to it lack legitimacy and –- as the assassination of Rabin would lalter demonstrate -- are not worthy of life.

Dotan lays out in clear though only partial form the gradual steps by which the settlement movement and the settlements themselves grew. It all began small, in Kfar Etzion, between Jerusalem and Hebron in the West Bank. Faced with the possibility that the government would deny the right to settle on occupied land, which already in September 1967 was recognized within Israel as a violation of the Geneva Conventions, the settlers simply took the initiative. As a settler leader of the time put it, “Don’t ask them, just do it.” And the government then, as it would for fifty years, silently acquiesced.

The film leads us to believe that the Israeli government was simply snookered by the settlers. Dotan omits from the film the long history within Israel, and in the yishuv prior to that, of a desire and a belief that all of Palestine belonged to the Jews -- a belief not peculiar to religious fanatic, but to socialists as well. The settlers might have taken the initiative, but they were pushing against an open door.

These early settlers’ unfettered boldness in the face of government acquiescence became a regular feature of the spread of settlements. The settlement in Hebron grew out of a Passover seder at a hotel in that city. The guests simply refused to leave town. The first circumcision among them took place when they went to the Cave of the Patriarchs -- off-limits, according to the Israeli government -- and performed the ceremony. When that same child died, the mother brazenly ignored the soldiers’ order not to bury the child in Hebron; she walked the corpse to an old cemetery and had the child buried. Soldiers then had to be posted to protect it, and the settlement became immovable.

Similar methods and similar government complicity, either open or tacit, have resulted in 400,000 Jews living on land illegally held, their towns carefully established to hinder contiguous Palestinian areas, blocking any possibility of a viable Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution.

DOTAN SPEAKS to the leaders of the early settler movement, the veterans of Gush Emunim, which in the 1970s was the face of the movement. He speaks as well to a new breed of settler, young ecstatic Jews, men with knitted yarmulkes and long hair and even longer peyes, women with snoods and nose piercings, who are every bit as racist and uncompromising as the earlier, more staid Orthodox group. Just as the older settlers still brag to Dotan of their murder of Palestinian mayors and their attempts to blow up the Temple Mount, the young ones of today describe themselves unabashedly as “racists,” as people who beat up Arabs, and whose children, they hope, will grow up to do the same.

As we learn in The Settlers, 80 percent of today’s settler s are motivated by simple economic reasons, which changes nothing for the Palestinians residing on the land. The Israelis are given high-speed highways and tunnels that take them directly to Jerusalem, while the Arabs must struggle along one lane highways and checkpoints.

The settlers, at least the religious among them, we are told, “consider themselves the leaders of Israel.” But the question is then asked, “where are they leading it?”

The answer, given in both this essential film and the newspapers is clear: straight to perdition

SHOWING ONCE daily in New York along with The Settlers is Yariv Mozer’s strangely charming Ben Gurion: Epilogue, a film-length interview with the founder of the state that was long thought lost.

Filmed in 1968 during Ben-Gurion’s retirement to Sde Boker, the film gives us Ben-Gurion wittily, intelligently, and selectively answering in idiomatic English the questions posed him by the interviewer, the American Jew Clinton Bailey.

Striking and significant are Ben-Gurion’s frequent references to the Biblical prophets, whose acts and words he can cite -– giving chapter and verse -– off the top of his head. If ever one doubted how Jewishness and Judaism were far more important to his generation of khalutzim (pioneers) than socialism and brotherhood between the people, it is in these easy references to the Bible, which served as the basis for the entire Zionist enterprise, even for a so-called man of the left, like Ben-Gurion. In fact, Ben-Gurion was a man always ready to jettison his self-proclaimed socialism in the name of Jewish primacy in Palestine, and he is dismissive of the idea that he was a socialist in the film.

He was, however, also clear-sighted in the aftermath of the Six-Day War about the need to give up the occupied territories. “If I had a choice between peace and all the territories which we conquered last year, I would prefer peace,” he said, while being faithful to his vision of Zionism, in its most naked form. The 1948 borders, he insists, were large enough to take in all the Jews likely to emigrate to Israel, so additional land was not necessary. He said this despite believing that “we have a right to the whole country. There was never a Palestinian people, there was never a Palestinian state, but if I have to choose between the entire country or peace, I think peace is more important.”

He doesn’t continue this thought: Ben-Gurion was opposed to keeping the occupied territories because it included the Palestinians living in them, so in order to preserve Israel as Jewish state, the West Bank could not be annexed. What he would think now that the seemingly temporary settlers have become colonists is anyone’s guess -- but the failure of his latter-day disciples to squarely address the issue of occupation doesn’t give one reason to think Ben-Gurion would have been much different.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.