israel: rise of the right

Filmmaker Q&A: Rise of the Right

Israeli photojournalist Ilan Mizrahi spent 16 years photographing right wing settlers.

An Israeli soldier is injured in clashes with protesters at a West Bank outpost [Ilan Mizrahi]

Ilan Mizrahi is an Israeli photojournalist who has spent 16 years photographing and filming right wing Israeli settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron.

His film, Israel: Rise of the Right, looks at the followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane, an American-born rabbi and Israeli parliament member who proposed the mass expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the West Bank before he was assassinated in 1990.

How did you come to establish a relationship with Israel’s radical right wing settler movement?

My relationship with the group was the result of many years of working as a photojournalist in the West Bank, often photographing clashes or other events that the settler community had been involved in.

But on many other occasions, I came in order to photograph, and later film, the daily life of both Jews and Arabs living there.   

How, during your career as a photojournalist, has this relationship developed and what changes have you witnessed within the movement?

Ilan Mizrahi has spent 16 years photographing and filming Israel’s right wing settlers

Trust and respect were the basic issues in the development of our relationship.

Also my photographs, published in the Israeli and international media for many years, served as long-term proof that I really was a journalist and not an undercover policeman or secret service agent, as they often fear when outsiders arrive in their community.

When trust had been established, I spent a lot of time with them, holding private conversations for hours.

One change came about on the eve of Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip. The Kahane followers were deeply frustrated and were at the peak of their anger towards the government and mainstream Israeli public.

They felt that the settlers’ movement had been exploited, used by the country as a human shield along the borders with its Arabs neighbours since 1967, and that now they were being cut loose and left alone in the battle.

Along with the houses of the Jewish settlers in Gaza, the pullout had destroyed their spirit too.

What challenges did you encounter while filming Israel: Rise of the Right?

The main challenges were the fear among many Kahane supporters of the security forces, as well as a deep loathing towards most media representatives.

Various situations would pose additional challenges, such as when I would cover a story for a magazine or a newspaper about the Palestinian side of the story.

I sometimes found myself standing with my camera in the middle, between the Palestinians and the settlers.

Roughly how many people form the radical right wing settler movement?

It’s hard to say; some say hundreds, others say thousands.

The fact that Israel’s security service has a special department just for that group shows the influence they have on Israeli society.

Can you briefly describe the ideology of the settlers you filmed?

Their ideology is clear: they strictly follow Jewish and Biblical law and are not willing to compromise on any of its guidelines.

In depth

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They perceive Israeli law as a leftover from the British mandatory era, rejecting anything that contradicts the Bible.

They want to rebuild the Jewish Kingdom as it was in the days of King David and aspire to erect the third Jewish temple in Jerusalem, in the same spot the second temple stood 2,000 years ago, and where the Dome of the Rock now stands.

During your time filming radical right wing settler groups you have witnessed a new generation take over the reins of the movement. Has this changed the nature of the movement at all, and if so, in what ways?

The generational change was mostly felt in the way the new Kahane followers’ leadership work with the media in a modern world of high-speed internet, mobile phones and small cameras.

They used these tools to their advantage and did it well, in a way that upgraded their abilities and revolutionised their media exposure and public relations.

The ideology has not changed.    

What is the difference between an official settlement and an outpost that is considered illegal by the Israeli state?

The real difference between the two resides in the terminology; in fact, all settlements began as outposts in their early days.

Today, most outposts are extensions of existing settlements.

Can you describe some of outposts you filmed in – roughly how many people tend to live there and what facilities do they have? What is the typical lifestyle of the people living there?

Most young people living in the outposts today – often referred to as ‘hilltop youth’ – try to live in the most simple, modest manner possible.

They grow some of their fruit and vegetables; many have farm animals to provide the rest of their diet.

Some of the men work outside the outposts, while their wives raise the children.

Some live in caravans, even tents, sometimes with no electricity or running water. 

The number of people living on a hilltop can be anywhere from a single family to few dozen.     

Is there a divide between the more politicised elements of the movement and those, such as the hilltop youth, who pursue their ideology through other methods?

Settlers and right wing supporters march through Jerusalem’s Old City [Ilan Mizrahi]

I thing the settler community has many sides to it.

Half of the settlers are closer to the mainstream political agenda, and live in the West Bank for the benefit of more affordable housing or to enjoy a large house in the countryside.

The other half of the settlers are more ideological, with a commitment to the Bible. And this half has both political figures fighting for their rights in the acceptable, parliamentary ways, as well as the young generation that is building its homes in illegal outposts.

How did the disengagement from Gaza change the perceptions of many Israelis toward the radical right settler movement?

The rocket attacks on the Israeli cities and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, brought many Israelis to lose their faith in the Arab neighbours after 14 years of failed negotiations.

Many mainstream Israelis now believe that the presence of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank will stop Hamas and other militant groups from taking power into their hands as they did in the Gaza Strip after the Israeli pullout.

And this means that the community of settlers was reappointed as Israel’s bullet-proof vest in the 2009 elections.

What is the relationship between the settlers and the Israeli army?

The relationship between the two is generally very good, since all settler men serve in the Israeli army.

The problems between them start when the army is sent by the government to dismantle a house or any illegal structure.

Then, tensions rise and can deteriorate into fist fights or far worse, as happened at Amona in 2006 when a partial demolition at the outpost had turned violent.

How is the radical right settler movement viewed by mainstream Israelis?

The extreme right wing is not popular in Israel, to say the least. And the Kahane followers are the black sheep of the right wing circles.

Israel: Rise of the Right can be seen from Sunday, July 28, at the following times GMT: Sunday: 1400; Monday: 0600, 1900; Tuesday: 0300.