It’s one thing to see children too young to know better acting in casually cruel ways. It’s entirely another to watch adults—particularly adults who have adopted the cloak of moral superiority—acting like the very worst sort of playground bullies. But that, sadly, is what takes up the bulk of This Is My Land… Hebron, a documentary that is having its North American premiere this week at the Human Rights Watch film festival at Lincoln Center in Manhattan.
There are plenty of shots of Jewish kids and teenagers acting like brats—throwing stones to bait Palestinian schoolchildren their own age, talking back to elderly missionaries trying to intervene. But what really shocks are sequences like the one about ten minutes in, where a Jewish woman living in a settlement bloc guarded by IDF troops walks up to the chicken-wire fence surrounding her Palestinian neighbors’ house, puts her face right up to the barrier, and begins hissing, “Sharmouta”—Arabic for “whore.” The presence of the camera only seems to goad her on; she drops her voice to a sibilant whisper, repeating her curse over and over again. It’s difficult to watch. In the context of the film, it doesn’t really matter what set the woman off, or how just her irritation may have been. What matters is that she chose not to turn to the soldiers very expensively stationed along the road for help, but rather to be petty and mean: To engage in taunts for the sake of demonstrating her power—as bullies do.
To an American ear, it is particularly galling to hear the many Brooklyn and New Jersey accents, in English and in halting Hebrew, from people who insist repeatedly that God, the Torah, and the long, sad history of the Jewish people excuse their holding on to the land they so fervently believe is their birthright. “I’m not talkin’ to you!” one man shouts at a television journalist who interrupts him while he’s screaming at IDF soldiers that they, as fellow Jews, should be defending the holy, sacred children of the settlers rather than Arab residents of one neighborhood.
Those viewers who defend the settlers will find fault with the film, because it fails to take seriously the possibility that there are actual security threats to the city’s 600 or so Jews; because the unapologetically anti-settlement Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy is the movie’s voice of reason; because it gives equal time to settler leaders and to advocates from B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, two left-wing groups. But it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to seriously defend some of the slimier behavior discovered by the filmmakers, Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson, from religious young Jewish men casually calling passersby Nazis and unleashing vile torrents of f-bombs and other multi-lingual verbal abuse, to parents employing their clearly terrified and screaming infants as pawns in front of the cameras. And it’s hard to avoid the tragedy at the heart of the film: That, more than 15 years after the American-born settler Baruch Goldstein committed his Purim massacre in a Hebron mosque, successive Israeli governments have failed to defuse a powder keg that could easily blow up even the most ironclad peace deal—when, or if, such a thing is ever reached.
The trailer below: