‘The Settlers’: And How This Documentary Fails To Bring Value

Originally published on The Times of Israel on 3/12/17

I’m not sure who Shimon Dotan was aiming for. He certainly couldn’t convince me. But then again, what did he try to convince me about? Let’s discuss Shimon Dotan, Romanian-Israeli filmmaker’s new movie, The Settlers.

When you do a documentary film, you must have a punch line in mind. Or not. But then you get what I’ve got after watching The Settlers: nothing really.

In fact, I left with a bad mouth taste. The only thing I could think of was how biased this movie really is, and perhaps it serves nothing more than a self-fulfilling cinematic work. (Which, I can accept, after all, we all need a creative outlet.)

And as I don’t like thinking alone and I usually don’t leave any event without interviewing a few people, I asked two guys how they felt about the movie. They were both Jewish – and that is what I wanted, to talk with Jewish people about this.

One of them was raised as an observant Jew but never been to Israel before. As he said, however, he was taking the current Israeli situation very seriously, and the movie showed him how complex this issue really is.

I really love talking to strangers, and see how their eyes tear up as they start talking about Israel; a country they have never visited yet.

The other guy told me, the movie made him lose all hope that there is a way to make peace and the 2-state solution is clearly an utopia. Hearing that I am from Hungary, he asked me if I find any kind of parallelism between my history and Israel. Clearly, he was talking about the Russians.

“They came to occupy you, no?”

“Depends on who you ask: according to them, they came to free us.”

And that is what Dotan’s movie is about: stretching the definition of what is occupation, what is a settlement, what is a held zone.

The whole movie is one-sided. Intentionally. It was the aim. To show the Jewish side. It only brings in four Palestinians for a quick snapshot, but it shows an extensive layer of Jewish sub-communities who breathe and live for their ideology.

“Are you a settler?” The movie starts with Dotan asking the same question over and over to different Jewish families. Some struggles to answer, some take pride in being part of the settlement movement.

What bothered me the most is that if Dotan – who is evidently representing the left wing’s views in Israel – wanted to produce a documentary that shakes things up, why didn’t he do it?

If I’m already on the left side, he didn’t show me enough.
If I’m on the right side, he certainly didn’t change my opinion.

While the cinematography offered a peaceful 2-hours dear escape to Israel, the narrative was lukewarm.

Halfway through the movie, I set myself up for a challenge and decided to continue watching it as if I would have nothing to do with Israel, if I would have never been there, wouldn’t live with an Israeli.

It didn’t work.

Dotan couldn’t tell me why Israel deserves the apartheid story.

My only fear is that if this movie – that is widely praised by the New York Times and others, – is watched by people who dislike Israel, how much harm it does?

Dotan lined up a strong ideological Jewishness by interviewing the forerunners of the Gush Emunim, and today’s far-right grassroots (the hilltop youth movement) who want Israel all the way till Iraq, picturing Israel as a group of fanatic people who pray, fight and conquer lands.

Obviously, this is not the way to go. And while I personally am against fanatism – from which the movie displays a lot – that is the minority in Israel and not vice versa. And as a documentary maker Doran has a responsibility, and he can’t or shouldn’t assume that everybody knows this and that his movie won’t fuels hatred even further. I need to note here that the movie is screened in New York exactly during the Israel Apartheid Week around the US Colleges that, by itself, fuels hate and anti-Semitism. Innocent mistake or a conscious decision? We’ll never know.

The only place where The Settlers brought some value was towards the final scenes:

Israel can’t have it all. Israel can’t have democracy, ideology, and a full-fledged stretched state.

So what is the solution then?

The movie is filled with maps, dates, documents, and first-person sources, with a clear narrative that the settlements are the cause and reason for today’s troubles. It mentions the government’s push and pull games, by not approving and not disapproving the settlements. It brings up Yitzhak Rabin, the only Prime Minister who clearly did something against the settlements to establish peace; but it doesn’t mention Netanyahu and his current expansion of settlements at all. (About this I would ask Dotan. Why not?)

One thing is for sure: even if you have strong values, you need to test yourself and if it means watching a 2-hour movie that brings you to uncomfortable places, let it be. The Settlers was good enough for that.

 


And something to add: as I was exiting the theater a woman handed me over a piece of paper. I hoped it would tell me something about the movie. But no! Instead, it was the usual propaganda paper that I get at every event where BDS is present. It didn’t make the case any better. The movie was already on your side, value my freedom and let me go to a cinema without getting political propaganda.



Did I just catch her praying after the bathroom?

Just before my first class at the Grad school, I bought the book Judaism For Dummies. As dumb as it sounds, it’s actually genius. And while I avoid reading it on the metro during my tiresome commuting minutes, I am reading it everywhere else. Yes, including the bathroom. (And here I need to mention in brackets that in Europe I’d not read the book in public because the title says Judaism;  in  New York, I’m not reading it because it says Dummies, and revealing the slightest version of being a dumb in NYC, is not something you do. You can decide which excuse is better.)

This book is frenetic and exactly what an almost Jewish person (aka not Jewish, but wishing to be one) needs to read. But you know what, I think most of the Jewish people should read it too as it turns out sometimes I know more about Judaism than my Jewish friends.

One thing is for sure, most people in my Jewish circle had their jaw dropped when I asked them: ‘Why do you pray after the toilet?’

‘What are you even talking about?’ They asked with less interest than I’d expect. After all, they are Jewish; I am not.

‘I am talking about that you guys pray after using the bathroom.’

Silence. So I explained.

Observant Jews whisper a prayer after their visit to the bathroom that says “Thank You, God, who formed human beings with wisdom and created them with openings and orifices. If one of these orifices were ruptured or one of them blocked, whoa – it would be impossible to stand before You and survive. Blessed are You, God who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.”

I’ll admit: I smiled when I first read about this.

So I quickly looked up if Christians have any similar prayers that I don’t know of, but the only remotely close search result that came up was: is it disrespectful to pray on the toilet?

Well, I don’t know how my grandfather, who served as a priest until his retirement, would answer this, but if you want to hear my take on it, I say, there is no place that is disrespectful for a prayer. In fact, I made a pact with God when I was 14: I’m not attending Church anymore, but I’ll talk with you every day. God said: ‘OK my child.’

Asher Yatzar (meaning, ‘that was formed) aka the bathroom blessing whisper might sound an act of a far too religious person (but again, what is too religious anyway?) and if you are a secular or a non-believer, it might be something that you would just roll your eyes at. But if you’re someone who thinks of himself or herself as a spiritual person, this prayer is absolutely in line with everything today’s new age gurus teach you.

From Louise Hay through Deepak Chopra to Tony Robbins, they all say the same: be grateful. Stop the running, and in-between your routines acknowledge the miracles of life. And you can laugh, but being able to pee without help, without pain, without an effort is a true gift. (If you have ever had a kidney infection, you know exactly what I am talking about).

So as I was reading about Ashe Yatzar, I thought OK, I might not pray in the Jewish sense, but sometimes I do think about it how lucky I am to be healthy and be able to go to the bathroom without too much of a hassle. (Not counting the hassle your roommates give you during morning hours.)

But then today, just before class, there was this girl. She whispered something as she was walking towards the classroom. And I stopped her because I wanted to know if she got the job she applied for. She was a little hesitant to stop – and I was even thinking why is she talking to herself? But then she did stop, and she did answer me. She got the job.

I said mazal tov, and I went to the bathroom as my routine preparation for the 2-hour-long-no-break classes.

It was only on the R line on my way home when I realized: ‘Oh, shoot, I think I just caught her praying after the bathroom.’

And there, between City Hall and Cortland Street, I was once again in my delicate balance between embarrassment and naivete. Embarrassed because how could I interrupt her prayer? And then naive, since how should I know? I am just an Almost Jewish.

You think I am overthinking it? Perhaps. But this is why I am here. My only question is what do I do when I break someone’s prayer? Do I apologize? Or do I just shut up and walk away?

I don’t know. Do you?

Will I ever be enough for you, Israel?

Originally publish in the Times of Israel on 4/15/2016

I’m scrambling eggs on Shlomo Artzi. I am cutting tomato on Rita. I am rinsing the pasta on Avram Tal. Galgalatz is on full volume. (Even if sometimes I wonder who my neighbors are. Not really because of the volume. But because I am listening to Hebrew songs).

Ah yes, I live in the heart of Brussels. I think I need to mention this here.

I know most of the songs by heart. Well, after a while it comes easy as Galgalatz makes sure songs are coming in a diligent rotation. But still, I sing in Hebrew. I am loud. And I only have a shower-voice. You know, the one that sounds good only within a closed area — usually with a strong water flow. But I sing in Hebrew full-heartedly. And you would be bought by the shows I put up sometimes. What if I would even understand the words I am saying?

Ah yes, I do not speak any Hebrew. I think I also need to mention this here.

I am standing in front of the Israeli section at the local Delhaize. The flag – indicating at which international section I am – is once again missing. I am staring at the shelves. It’s me against the silence. And I hate what I am seeing. I hate that they get money from each and every Israeli product, and yet they take off the sign because…

Well, we all know why.

I am standing a bit more there hoping people would pass by and see that yes, I AM going to buy that Israeli wine. And yes, those pickles, too.

There are colorful post-it stickers all over my home. One on the window, one on each door, one on my office table, one on the mirror, one on the milk in the fridge and several others within the wardrobes. It’s not because I am suffering from memory loss. (Not yet at least). I am learning Hebrew words. I am now confident with the stickers on the misrad, halon, delet, halav, but I keep forgetting the washing machine, the dishwasher, and the fridge. I never liked machines anyway.

I developed impeccable skills to spot Israelis. I became extremely sensitive to the smallest resonation of one’s face when I say Israel. I can easily tell if, after my first intimation of Israel, the person in front of me will still keep talking to me. So far, it’s half-half.

I am getting familiar with the political parties. I start to formulate a firm opinion on why I don’t believe in the two-state solution. Of course, you are welcome to challenge me.

I am damn mad at the EU whenever it slaps Israel. As if…as if it has the moral right to do so. And I am equally damn proud of Hungary each time it stands with Israel, just like we did when we said no to the labeling of products.

Ah yes, I am Hungarian. I think I might need to mention this, too, here.

I have two big dreams: to live in New York City (only the city matters) and then to live in Israel (only the country matters).

All this should come in this order.

First, to learn the brazen American confidence and check if I can make it there. And if so, then perhaps I will be ready for the intimidating confidence of Israel.

You guys are truly intimidating. Both of you. And I love it. But I am scared.

The first time I went to Israel it was 2012. I knew one or two words. Both were curses. OK, I knew shalom plus two curse words.

I was holding a parking place on that narrow street in Jerusalem when a woman drives up and starts yelling at me. Obviously, I sensed that she was not admiring my new dress. Pity, because I was really pretty that day. It was my debut in the Holy City.

I heard the two curse words, so I figured I needed to react. I said: shalom plus the two curse words. She left. I can’t say I was polite but hey who is polite in Israel, right? Later on, I learned that this scene just officially lifted me up from being a ‘fraier’.

I fell in love with Israel right there. I loved that she yelled at me. I loved that I could yell back. And I loved that it was all ok. And I knew if we would meet tomorrow we could be best friends also. Because we just did what we needed to do. Not to be a fraier.

My boyfriend was watching me from afar. He was speechless. “This is fascinating: I was running away from Israeli girls, and then I get a prototype in you?” He said as he gave me a neshika ktana.

Ah yes, I am in love with an Israeli, have I not mentioned it yet?

I go to Shabbat dinners. All types of Shabbat dinners. Orthodox, and less conservative ones. And though I enjoy them a lot, I am so focused. I am always just so focussed not to do something disrespectful. Last time, in the midst of all this concentration, I asked a question. But I asked the question at the wrong time. It was all about the timing. I was embarrassed. But then I thought: hey, I am a Christian, and I am trying hard.

Yes, if I would write a news article here, I most probably should have started with something like this:

Virag, a Hungarian Christian (who), living in Belgium (where), dreams to move to Israel (what) soon (when) because she is in love with the country and all that (to be cut by the editor)

This would have been my lede.

And the headline could be:

A pro-Israeli Christian torn between two worlds

Because after all, this is my story here:

During the past four years, my stand with Israel has taken over much of my life. I found myself working with pro-Israeli artists and people who want to liberate art and go against BDS. My firm stand got me more and more visibility. And it was not until recently that I realized how much I am torn between two worlds:

I am never going to be Israeli (or Jewish) enough, but I am already pro-Israeli enough to piss off the rest of the population.

On one hand, I meet Jewish people whose first question is if ima sheli Jewish? If not — which, by now, you know is not — I get a cold shower. No need to say anything, I feel it.

On the other hand, when I say my boyfriend is from Israel I get this: “ah just wait until the ring is on your finger — the whole family will be on you to convert”. Or “how can you go there, don’t you feel bad for those kids in Palestine?” (Sounds cliché, I know. But it is cliché for a reason: people do ask this)

Then I read all the stories of the ‘Olim Hadashim’ who can’t find a job in Israel. Then I hear all about how life is hard in Israel, and that real estate prices are skyrocketing. (Not that it would be any different anywhere else. Just sayin’). Then I see virtual friends leaving Israel for a ‘better life.’

All business as usual.

And then I open the real estate page and start looking for a flat in Israel. Because I still believe I can make it. Because I’ve already proven that I am not fraier.

I am wearing long-sleeves for Shabbat dinners, but I want to scream out that I am a Christian, and I have no idea if I am doing something that offends you.

I am working with Jewish clients, and I am ready to say adieu to people from my life because I choose to stand with Israel, but I want to scream that I am scared that I won’t be enough once I move there.

I am learning Hebrew, but I want to scream that I know you won’t give me a job because there are thousands of others with broken Hebrew and good English (better and much better English), who are even closer to you because they are Jewish.

I went to a lawyer in Israel to ask all the questions you can ask before moving. I pestered her for long minutes. I told her I am a Christian and I have no idea if converting to Judaism is on my agenda in the future.
I asked her, in random order: What are my rights? Can I get a job? Will society cast me out because I am not Jewish? What kind of schools can my kids can go to? What will happen to me if my Israeli husband decides to leave me? Can I stay? Can I keep the kids? Can I keep my furniture?(This last bit, of course, is an exaggeration, everything is else isn’t. But it shows the desperate line of questions I made her answer.)

I am in love with your country; I stand up for you in places where perhaps I should not; I want to understand your culture; I want to learn your language; I am singing your songs; I am in love with one of you; I want to tell you that I feel lucky to have met you.

But will I ever be enough? Or will I always be the one who is just not one of you enough?