I had just made a film called "In The Name of God: Scenes from the Extreme" about radical Islamists (HBO, 2003). It was a journey into the most radical communities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and South Lebanon. Every religion has its extremists, I guess it was time to deal with my own.
Where did you start?
I wanted to meet the people that I only heard about on the news, to visit their homes, to see what they were about, to hear what they had to say. So I started by visiting various settlements in the West Bank. I would get into my car and drive from my home in Jerusalem to a settlement. I'd stay there and talk to people. And I had a wonderful team of two top journalists whom I worked with, Abat Tal-Shir and Tzadok Yechezkeli, who did excellent research. We spent about a year working on the film.
How did you approach the different groups?
Well, our starting point was the late Rabbi Kahane. He was a leader whose teachings influenced many. A very controversial leader who was hated and rejected by many, but admired and loved by his followers. Kahane used to say "I want the Arabs out! They must go! This is my country." He once went to visit an Israeli Arab village called Um El Fachem and provocatively said, "There is no such thing as an Arab village. It's a Jewish village temporarily inhabited by Arabs." … He was a very charismatic leader. Stubborn, with a strong personality. And I saw his ideas as the root of the new extremism. Kahane was murdered in New York in 1990 by an Arab assassin, but his spirit lives on in the hearts of his followers. There is also a whole generation who didn't even know him, the "Hilltop" settlers, who uphold his ideas, sometimes without even knowing that they are Kahane's ideas.
Are the Kahanists and the Hilltop people and other far-right groups well-known in Israel?
Israelis know of them, yes. But the bigger concern to the Israelis is from Palestinians. The Palestinian conflict is first and foremost in people's minds. So the other conflict, the inner conflict that Israel is facing, is more pushed aside than dealt with. Ultimately Israelis will have to deal with this inner conflict, because any deal with the Palestinians, any deal that will determine the future of the land -- whether or not there will be a reconciliation and peace for the country -- very much involves the settlers, especially this small but vocal group of people who I made the film about. They're small in numbers, but they try very hard to set the tone.
How many people are we talking about -- those who believe the country should be exclusively Jewish?
Latest polls show that 30 percent of the people in Israel support the idea that the land belongs exclusively to the people of Israel, to the Jews, and that the state should be exclusively Jewish.
Can you break down this 30 percent into smaller groups?
Think of it as a pyramid. At the very bottom is the foundation, the ideology. At this bottom level you get to those who believe that Israel should be inhabited by Jews only, that the Arabs should find another place to live in. Go higher and you have less people, but more determined ones, who say something should be done to reach that goal. At the very top are the people who are willing to do something about this themselves, to take some action to escalate events, to help bring about the final biblical redemption. They are a small minority, but it only takes a few to change the course of history. We saw what happened when one man assassinated Prime Minister Rabin [Yigal Amir]. It stopped the peace process, changed its course. It took a while until it was resumed again. This was a very traumatic event that is still fresh. It has not been forgotten.
Now there's a chance that we resume the process. And what the security forces and many people in Israel are concerned about is that some of these extremists will derail the fragile process again, using violent means.
Is there a sense that the security forces and the media didn't take these extremists seriously enough before Rabin's assassination in 1995?
Yes, very much so. Or else how can you explain the easy way in which it happened? No one believed this was possible. That a Jew would murder a Jew?… Even those who did not accept Rabin's views and his ways were shocked at the very fact that this was possible, that it happened. And if it happened once, it can happen again. Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, came from the same circles, the same ideology as the people in the film. He might be from a different background, but he shares the same values and was just as determined as they are. In essence the extremists are very much against the way Israel is run and want to change it. They want a Jewish Kingdom, a monarchy. They want a king. They want the Torah to be the law.
And many who believe this are settlers?
Many. But that is not to say that all the settlers think that way. I'm talking about the ideology of the radical. There are about 250,000 people who live in the West Bank and Gaza. Many believe that it is their fundamental right to live there, but they accept the reality of living next to the Palestinians. Some have come for economic reasons such as good subsidized housing, cheap land… Others are making a political and strategic stand, and then there are the zealots. In the film I'm focusing on the zealots. They're religiously determined, rebellious, fanatic, and therefore fascinating to me. The Hilltop people, especially. They sprung up as a response to Prime Minister Barak and the Camp David peace process. This new wave of settlers grew more intense during four years of tragic Intifada that followed the failure of the talks.
What do the Hilltop people stand for?
The Hilltop people see themselves as the pioneers of today, the authentic Jews who live like Jews should live. They have returned to the land of the Bible. They are a new radical generation of settlers. They are a magnet for young people who are kind of fed up with the emptiness that the society can offer them. Suddenly there is substance. They come to a hill which is barren and they settle it. First they put a shack or a hut there, then another, pretty soon they have built a little village. It's hard labor, but it feels good. They feel rebellious. Who is this government to tell them that what they do is illegal? Here is where Abraham walked. Here is where Jacob shepherded his herd. It's in the Bible. They look around and see a landscape with sheep, goats and donkeys. They see the Bible -- they see the land of the Bible. They imagine a Holy Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem… A romantic approach, except totally fanatic and extreme.
How did you make contact with the Hilltop people?
We started by getting to know the Kahanists, to hear what they have to say. First you get to meet and talk with one or two, then you get to know more. And they all know each other; they're all like a big family. And they feel that they're being persecuted by the Shabak, the internal security service. They feel persecuted by the legal system, they feel persecuted by the government… I learned a lot. I listened and often was astonished. Both astonished and fascinated. Our policy was not to confront them and we were never condescending, we mainly listened.
The Kahanists are an illegal party?
The Kach movement is. It's not only illegal, but in 1994, after Baruch Goldstein entered a Hebron mosque and killed 29 Muslim worshippers, they were declared a terror organization. And all their activities and symbols were banned. But today they are very visible, they are active and they wear the symbols with impunity.
So how did you come to Bat Ayin and the plot to bomb the girls school in East Jerusalem that's so central in the film?
We were looking into the issue of Jewish terrorism, because this is what extremism can lead to. The security service was talking about some kind of organized Jewish underground, with several cells spread throughout the West Bank. When we began our research there were already numerous attacks against Palestinians, and then came the attempt to blow up the A Tur school of girls in East Jerusalem, which failed. The settlers who attempted to do it were caught and jailed. It made news, but at first it wasn't a very big story because the security forces were holding information back, trying to understand what went on. It turned out that this was a very important story, because it demonstrated how serious this phenomena is.
I think that the security forces were alarmed by what they learned, because soon after, they acted very firmly, monitoring the radicals, clamping down on them, and there has not been another major attack after this one. This was really the last murderous attack, to date. That doesn't mean that the radicals will stop. It only means that, for now, the security services have succeeded.
How far is Bat Ayin from your house in Jerusalem?
It's about 25 minutes drive. At first when I was driving into the territories, I was a bit scared. Scared from Arab snipers and Palestinian terror. So I would have a "press" banner on my car. My car is not a bullet-proof car. And when I approached the settlement, I would take off the "press" sign because I thought I would be better off there without it. They don't particularly like the press. But I kept thinking that the settlers are driving there always. After several trips, I got used to it. It becomes a habit. And then it's just like getting into the car and driving to Tel Aviv. It feels safe because so far you weren't hit…
Any incidents happen during the time of the filming?
I had my tires punctured in Bat Ayin by some of the young settlers. I was there interviewing the father of Yarden Morag. My car would be outside, and they let out the air.
Why would they do that?
They probably spotted me coming out with the camera and a film crew. I automatically was perceived as "the media." But the father, Yaki Morag, was so nice. He managed to get the guys who did it, and they offered to pay for the repair.
How did you come to meet the men who attempted the bombing?
I visited them in prison. They usually let you into prison as a journalist, but then you have to get the consent of the inmates. So I spoke to them. I met with Yarden and Shlomi and Ofer, spoke with them, spoke to their friends.
They speak pretty openly in the film.
Each interview went on for a couple of hours. So they gradually open up, talk about what interests them. I was shocked by their tone. Quiet, matter of fact, yet terrible words. For instance, I spoke to Shlomi about the other side. We say, "Oh, these Jihadis, these Hamas people that blow themselves up, hurting innocent civilians." And here comes a group of Jews, and wants to do to them the exact same thing, hurting innocents. I went on to say, "You're just like Hamas…" Finally, when Shlomi told me the story of planning to bomb the girls school, I said, "It's just like they do." And he said, "Yes. Just like them."
What did Shlomi and the others think of the film?
The people I portray in the film, and many like them, weren't shocked by what they saw. They felt I represented what they believed in, although I'm told they didn't like the tone.
The wider Israeli audience [see press reaction in Israel] was shocked by what these guys had to say. Again, they knew about radical settlers, but suddenly, it came to them in full color along with the real "revelation" if you want, that having the Arabs leave is only their first step. What the extremists really want is a different kind of country altogether. A different way of life. They don't want a democratic state. They don't want a country with Western elements. They don't want a country with cinema and television and what have you, all the Western kind of culture, Western music, secular books and all that. They want a pure Jewish country. A Jewish theocracy with a king who rules by the law of the Torah. They want a Temple. They want to destroy the mosques on the Temple Mount and rebuild the temple that's their temple. They want to have sacrificial rituals.
Did you ever find yourself sympathetic to them?
I was never sympathetic to their ideas or their actions. I was never sympathetic on the ideological level. I'm not sympathetic to somebody who believes in revenge as a virtue, even though I can understand it in some cases. But-- I met Yitshak Pass. Yitshak Pass lost his daughter, a 10-month-old baby, Shalhevet. She was killed on a sunny Saturday morning by a Palestinian sniper. He was walking in the street with his wife, pushing a trolley, and a sniper shot the little baby in the head, killed her. I mean--
Was Pass radicalized by that?
Of course he was radicalized by that. I think most people would be. But when I spoke to him, he didn't speak about revenge to me. But I could see, I could understand. Put yourself in his shoes. My God. You would want to avenge, you would want to go after these guys.
People lost their babies, and kids lost their parents. Yeah, you can understand the feeling of revenge. On both sides. It's one thing to feel it. But when you make of it a modus operandi, part of your ideology, part of your conduct, it's a different thing.
What's the political strategy of the Kahanists, the Hilltop people, and the others? What's their political endgame at this point?
I'll tell you what they told me. They told me that they don't think that the IDF, the army, can defend them. They don't think that the army is doing a good job. They think the army is soft on the Palestinians. When a suicide bomber strikes, they don't think that the army should target the people who sent the suicide bomber. Because that's Israel's policy: to go after the cell, go after the leaders that sent the terrorist, bring them to justice or kill them. They say, "No. The assassin comes from the village next door. You go after the village. They kill our children, we kill theirs. They blow up our buses, we blow up a school." This is their strategic thinking. In the long run, they believe that this is the way that they're going to bring the conflict to a halt.
If we look forward a couple of years, if Sharon's disengagement proceeds and there are negotiations about the route of the Wall that runs through the West Bank — aren't most of the people in the film going to find themselves on the other side of the Wall? How will this play out?
I've heard so many ideas. One idea that I heard which is funny, I think it's funny, they want to create a new state called the state of Judea, which would be completely detached from the state of Israel, hoping that one day they will prove to be right. And then Israel is going to join the state of Judea to form greater Israel. And the state of Judea means that they stay there, they have their own army or militias, and they fight the Arabs with their ways.
I've even heard settlers say that if the army was not there… that the army just gets in the way. In fact, it's the army that is protecting the Arabs from them. There are all kinds of ideas. They don't see themselves leaving, for the sake of peace, as a possibility at all. They don't trust the Arabs. They don't trust the Palestinians. They are there because they know that the land is theirs.
And when you have two sides that believe so firmly, when you have the Arab religious man or people who say that they're willing to die for that land, and you have the Jews that say that they are willing to die for that land, it's a forever battle. None of them will give up.
One of the most intriguing arguments that I heard was from a guy there. He asked me, "Why are you willing to compromise? Why are you willing to give them land?" And I said, "For peace. I believe in peace. I believe in coexistence." And he says, "No. You are putting yourself in a place that proves that the land is not yours." I said, "What do you mean?"
He said, "There was a King Solomon. And there's the famous trial of the baby. You know, two women were fighting over a baby, and the king ordered a sword to be brought out. And one of the mothers said, `Yes, cut him, split him in two.' And the other woman said, 'No, you cannot split him.' It's hers. If you're willing to split your country, it's not yours."