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For Former Soviets in the West Bank,

Jewish Identity Goes With

By Susan Armitage

In a West Bank settlement home, a middle-aged man strums a tune in a soulful Soviet singer-songwriter style that was popular in the 1960s. A Soviet sailor’s cap sits jauntily on a plaster bust nearby. But the lyrics of this Russian song — “Judea, you are my land. Any way you say it, I am a Jew” — could never have been uttered publicly in the Soviet Union.

This image turns up in Dmitriy Khavin’s documentary “The Territory,” which is showing in New York on January 30. The film provides an up-close and personal introduction to the Soviet immigrants who now call the West Bank home. According to the film, they represent about 100,000 of the 500,000 settlers in the West Bank. They’ve carried their Soviet heritage with them, but many of the settlers in film also express deep connections to Jewish identity.

Like Khavin’s earlier films, “Across the Narrow Bridge” and “Artists of Odessa”, “The Territory” explores the post-Soviet Jewish experience. In the early 1990s, Khavin and his family left Odessa for New York. A friend from Jerusalem told him about a group of Russian-speaking settlers in the West Bank. Intrigued, Khavin started reading their blogs to learn more. Eventually he decided to see for himself.

Khavin sat down with the Forward in New York to talk about “The Territory” and post-Soviet Jewish identity.

How did you come up with the idea for the film?

Conflict was not on my mind. I was really interested in the relationship of these people to being Jewish. Growing up as secular Soviet citizens, how do you establish [Jewish identity] and how does that take you to living in the settlements? They’re not your armchair Zionists. These are not people who are battling on the Internet. This is somebody who’s doing something and it may not be the safest thing to do, but they’re sort of putting their money where their mouth is. I felt that was interesting.

How did the journey towards Jewish identity play out for you, and how does it play out for the settlers you met? Many of them come from very secular, assimilated backgrounds.

For me and for many of the people I know, the first time you realize you are even Jewish is when some of your neighbors and the kids you play with have that news for you, and it’s sort of with a negative connotation. It’s not the Shabbat candles. That’s not your first introduction to ‘this is who you are.’ Again this is all my experience — there’s a lot of prejudice around, so if you don’t have to advertise it you just keep quiet. On the other hand, when your family gathers for a few Jewish holidays that are celebrated. There’s that extra warmth. So you live in these two different realities. For Anya [one of the settlers in the film], the way she describes is it like, “I started learning the language and I started learning the tradition.”

What was most surprising to you in your conversations with the settlers?

Everything was surprising — the lifestyle, the conviction, and also the diversity. Like Anya for example. She runs an organization called Mesto Vstrechi (Meeting Place). She had a few meetings with Palestinian villagers. One was like “let’s talk,” and the other one was “let’s talk about the herbs.” Let’s not talk about the conflict, let’s go on a hike together and you’ll teach us about this.

She also wanted to organize a protest against the separation fence, because a lot of settlers don’t like that separation fence just as much as the Palestinians. They don’t think the land should be separated. She wanted to try to protest together with Palestinians: we’re protesting for different reasons, but we both don’t like the wall. That didn’t work out, but I never knew [that side of the story]. I didn’t know there was quite a large number of secular people. These are not — or at least most of them are not — sort of religious fanatics. There’s a difference in the intensity of their religious devotion.

You mentioned that some Russian-speakers in the settlements were drawn by cheap housing and didn’t exactly know what they were getting into. Did they say, “I didn’t sign up for this, but I like the cheap deal?” Or did it then awaken something in them and they became more Zionist?

The only way to keep on living there — my take — is you have to embrace Zionism. You have to think I’m not only here for the cheap housing. I’m doing something for the good of the country.

When you were making the film, how did you set out to document — or not document — the controversy around the settlements?

I knew what I could add because I share the same background as the characters in the film. I could get to maybe some nuances and some insights with the Russian settlers, and contribute to the greater dialogue and let people know a little bit more than what makes the headlines.

I spent a day in a Palestinian village near Hebron [visiting a man who communicates with the Russian-speaking settlers.] It was very good for me to hear [a Palestinian perspective] from this guy who actually meets with the settlers. On the other hand, I wasn’t getting anything that I didn’t hear before, that was something new. That wasn’t included.

The Palestinian that is in the film, that’s an accident. I didn’t plan meeting him. The reason he was so passionate is that he had some conflicts with the next-door settlers. I wasn’t looking for a balance, but it was important to remind the viewer that that’s there.

I think it’s maybe easier to see [the settlers] as hysterical, lunatics, villains…but it may be more productive to talk. You think they’re your enemies? Learn about them. You think they’re your friends? Go talk to them.

“The Territory” screens Wednesday, January 30 at 7PM in New York and will be shown at the Zagreb Jewish Film Festival in May.

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