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The Promise


A Sensitive Television Drama on the Israel-Palestine Conflict

17 February 2011

This piece is cross-posted from Eretz Acheret where it was published today.

[see our advancd notification of the series at Peter Kosminsky’s “The Promise”, from Sunday 6th Feb at 9.00pm on Channel 4]

British television viewers are currently being treated to a 4-part dramatised lesson in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. And so far, there has been virtually none of the knee-jerk complaints of anti-Israeli and even anti-Jewish bias usually levelled at such programmes by over-sensitive elements in the Jewish community. After the first two almost two-hour long episodes of Channel 4’s ‘The Promise’, which has two interlinked story lines—a British soldier’s experience in Mandate Palestine between 1945 and 1948 and his granddaughter’s exploration of that experience when she visits Israel in 2005—television critics have largely been impressed. And this is a series that tackles head-on the most controversial aspects of the conflict.

No one could say that resentment against Israel and Jews because of the actions of the Jewish terrorist groups in the last years of the Mandate is a live issue in Britain today. In Israel—although I haven’t tested this recently—I suspect the reverse isn’t quite true. There are many close ties between the UK and Israel, many things that Israelis admire about British politics, culture and society, but scratch the surface and lingering anger and bitterness at what older Israelis in particular regard as Britain’s perfidy in preventing Jewish immigration into Palestine and reneging on its commitment to facilitate the building of a ‘national home for the Jews’ can soon surface.

Where anger, or at least very mixed emotions, may still prevail is among the dwindling number of British soldiers who served in Palestine. And it was one such soldier who wrote to the acclaimed television film director Peter Kosminsky telling him that no one remembers or talks about the 100,000 military personnel who were based in Palestine between 1945 and 1948. Kosminsky, whose grandfather was Jewish, has made films about British soldiers in Bosnia, the Falklands War and the conflict in Northern Ireland, so it was no surprise that he was prompted to investigate further and come up with a treatment that would draw parallels between those post-war years and modern times.

Erin, the granddaughter, travels to Israel with her best friend, a British-Israeli girl who is returning to undertake her army service. Pretty much an ingénue when it comes to the Middle East conflict, Erin takes her hospitalized grandfather Len’s Palestine diary with her, which she recently discovered among his papers. Her friend’s parents are wealthy Israeli liberals, but the son, who spent much of his army service in Hebron, has become a severe critic of Zionism and is a member of Combatants for Peace. Witnessing the family arguing over how to resolve the conflict, Erin gets a crash course in the rights and wrongs of Israeli and Palestinian nationalism. This leads her to look more closely at Len’s diary in which she discovers that his initial strong sympathy for the aspirations of the Jews gradually dissipates as a result of the terrorist attacks on his fellow soldiers and his growing awareness of the feelings of the Arab population. Len’s army career ends in ignominy and as Erin sets out to discover why, she comes face to face with the fact that the past still lives in the present. She learns about the realities of Palestinian dispossession and Jewish resolve to have a secure home after the Holocaust.

Kosminsky cuts between past and present, sometimes implying equivalences with which not everyone would be happy. For example, the bombing of the King David Hotel is juxtaposed with a suicide bombing in an Israeli café. Yet Kosminsky has endeavoured to be as objective as possible and he presents the Jewish-Israeli and Arab-Palestinian narratives very fairly, while also seeking to show the complexity of the problems.

The action is rather clunky at times. Since most viewers will be as ignorant as Erin, Kosminsky has to impart a great deal of information and is sometimes reduced to having certain characters talk as if they are reading passages from a school history textbook. But this is a minor price to pay for what is undoubtedly a sensitive and gripping portrayal of a situation where, as Kosminsky says, there is ‘right and wrong on both sides’.

That such a major and challenging series—in which the Israeli characters are drawn sympathetically and realistically, with not a hint of demonization—appears on one of the country’s mass audience television channels and is positively received throws an interesting light on what I believe are grossly exaggerated claims that London is the hub of international efforts to delegitimize Israel and that British Jews are subject to a constant barrage of media-driven anti-Zionist propaganda that borders on, or overlaps with, antisemitism. The film shows that major figures in the arts, often seen (but not necessarily correctly) as very left-wing, can present the Israel-Palestine conflict in a balanced way; and that when this is done audiences respond in a fair-minded fashion. The fact is that a substantial majority of people in the UK know very little about the conflict, past or present, and Kosminsky accurately reflects this in the central character, Erin.

Sadly, it’s the propagandists and shrill voices on all sides who grab most public attention, and it’s in their interests to oversimplify the arguments, even while disingenuously paying lip-service to the complexity of the issues. But in the last year or so, partly influenced by the significant emergence of much more even-handed attitudes among some pro-Israel leaders of the Jewish community, a more nuanced tone has perhaps crept into the public debate about Israel-Palestine. Kosminsky’s series is a contribution to that more reflective atmosphere and this is something Britain’s Jews should warmly welcome.

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