By Harold Zwier, AJDS (Australian Jewish Democratic Society)
Recently The Age newspaper reported that the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) had complained to the SBS ombudsman about a fictional drama, The Promise, shown on SBS late in 2011. The drama is set against the historical background of Palestine at the end of the British Mandate 1947/48 and Israel in 2005.
The main contention of the ECAJ is summed up in this quote from their complaint to SBS.
“The basic concept of The Promise, and the premises on which it rests, are … not merely a gross misrepresentation of history, they also fall squarely within the … Working Definition of Antisemitism.”
The showing of The Promise pushed all the wrong buttons in the Jewish community. It is an unsentimental and unflattering portrait of Israel’s creation. The portrayal of Jews is less sympathetic than those of the Arabs. The main Jewish family depicted in modern day Israel is wealthy. The historical narrative is biased towards the Arabs.
Reflecting the concern of many in the Jewish community, the ECAJ reacted by raising these and many other points in their complaint to SBS. The complaint in part depended on a general acceptance of what constitutes anti-semitism, but the SBS ombudsman did not agree with the ECAJ.
It used to be reasonably easy to spot anti-semitism. It fell fairly neatly under the headings of racism, prejudice and bigotry, and unambiguously manifested itself in caricature and stereotype that painted all Jews as subversive. Nowadays, that sort of anti-semitism has shifted to Muslims who are accused of collective subversion. Anti-semitism is probably a good description for the calumny directed at Muslims – except that it is a term applied specifically to hatred of Jews. So new words, such as Islamophobia, have had to be invented.
Over the last two decades there has been a widening of the definition of anti-semitism. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights published a working definition of anti-semitism, giving examples which include: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”. But with the qualification that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”.
In reality it often becomes a matter of opinion as to whether a work critical of Israel falls within the definition of anti-semitism or not. The problem is not with views from the political extremities, whose black and white depiction of issues sets them clearly apart from the real world. The problem is with the mainstream, where a diversity of views is the currency of debate.
Who can take on the task of objectively adjudicating whether a particular “criticism of Israel is similar to that leveled against any other country”, or whether it is more harsh and therefore deemed to be anti-semitic?
More importantly, if identifying anti-semitism of this form can be so difficult that it becomes the subject of academic or legal debate, how can ordinary people of goodwill be expected to understand its nuance and subtlety, let alone oppose it.
Whatever the historical inaccuracy and bias of The Promise, its characters are complex and there are a variety of opinions expressed about the nature of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Any influence it has on the audience of people uncommitted to one political narrative or the other, would be offset firstly by their general awareness that the story itself is fictional and the historical background subjective, and secondly by other dramas and documentaries on television that present a broad spectrum of views.
In making their complaint to SBS, the ECAJ must have been aware that the complaint would likely enter the public domain, giving a level of publicity to the drama that SBS could only dream of. They must also have been aware that no matter how genuinely they believe the drama to be anti-semitic, the complaint could be seen in the wider community as a way of suppressing a valid political viewpoint with which the ECAJ disagrees.
On an even more fundamental level, the working definition of anti-semitism in relation to criticism of Israel encourages those who believe the drama is biased against Israel, to look for ways in which the bias can be attributed to anti-semitism, rather than simply to a different political or historical perspective. Once anti-semitism has been identified, the whole work can be dismissed as being tainted.
This in-built bias in the working definition of anti-semitism, in my opinion, compromises an objective determination that a work is anti-semitic. And the dismissal of the ECAJ complaint by the SBS ombudsman reinforces that view.
Considering that a major purpose of categorising this form of racism is to educate the wider community as a way of countering anti-semitism, anything that works against its easy identification spoils the effort to fight it.
Harold Zwier is on the executive of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society
This article was published, in a very slightly modified form, in the Australian Jewish News of 2 Feb 2012. This version is here
SBS Ombudsman response to complaints about “The Promise” January 26, 2012
I write in relation to your formal complaint to SBS about The Promise, a four part series broadcast by SBS on four consecutive Sunday evenings from 27 November 2011. Your complaint was among a number of complaints investigated, then reviewed and determined by the SBS Complaints Committee, chaired by the Managing Director, Michael Ebeid, which met on 17 January, 2012.
The SBS Complaints Committee is constituted under Code 8.9 of the SBS Code of Practice (see annexure 1) and was convened in light of the number of complaints that the broadcast of the 4 part series The Promise breached the SBS Codes of Practice.
The SBS Complaints Committee investigated, reviewed and determined each of the complaints about each and all of the 4 episodes of the series The Promise, including your complaint by email received on 28 November 2011.
This letter is to advise that your complaint was not upheld and the reasons for SBS’s decision.
Your complaint was investigated against Code 1.3 of the SBS Codes of Practice (see annexure 2 below). Some of the complaints investigated also raised the issue of accuracy and balance, perhaps seeking to invoke Code 2.2 of the SBS Codes of Practice (see annexure 3 below). Code 2.2 has no application to this drama, being limited to programs produced by SBS’s News and Current Affairs division. The Promise was not produced by SBS’s News and Current Affairs division.
Your complaint specifically included concerns that The Promise:
presented one-sided Palestinian propaganda;
was anti-Semitic; and
characterised Jews as liars, untrustworthy and wealthy while Palestinians are portrayed as poor, loving and considerate.
That complaint was investigated and reviewed specifically. In addition, the Complaints Committee investigated and reviewed all complaints in respect of three over-arching Code-related issues raised across all the complaints taken as a whole, which, in summary, were that the program:
promoted, endorsed, or reinforced inaccurate, demeaning or discriminatory stereotypes (relevantly of Jews and/or Israelis); or
condoned, tolerated or encouraged discrimination or prejudice against Israel and/or Jews as a people or a religious group.
Allegations of historically inaccuracy were investigated and reviewed insofar as they related to the above issues. But, as noted earlier, accuracy per se is not a Code requirement in respect of a drama such as The Promise.
Some complaints alleged that the broadcast of The Promise (either in a particular episode or collectively the series) amounted to racial vilification. These allegations have been investigated and reviewed against the Code provisions precluding condoning, tolerating or encouraging discrimination or prejudice. The advice of SBS Legal department also was taken into account in this respect.
In assessing against The Promise against Code 1.3, the Complaints Committee had regard to Australian Communication Media Authority’s test of the ordinary, reasonable viewer as defined by the ACMA’s Investigation Report No. 2537 of 2 March 2011. It states:
“In assessing the content against the Codes, the delegate considers the meaning conveyed by the relevant broadcast material. This is assessed according to the understanding of an ‘ordinary, reasonable’ viewer.
Australian Courts have considered an ‘ordinary, reasonable’ viewer to be:
A person of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. That person does not live in an ivory tower, but can and does read between the lines in the light of that person’s general knowledge and experience of worldly affairs.
The delegate asks, what would the ordinary, reasonable viewer have understood the program to have conveyed and, in so doing, the natural, ordinary meaning of the language, context, tenor, tone, and inferences that may be drawn.
Once this has been ascertained, it is for the delegate to determine whether the material has breached the Codes.”
The Complaints Committee’s investigation and findings
The Complaints Committee noted that The Promise is a high quality drama series that was written and directed by Peter Kosminsky and produced by DayBreak Pictures in association with Stonehenge films, Canal+ and Arte France. It was produced in association with SBS TV although SBS had no editorial control over the production. It was first broadcast on Channel 4 (UK) in February 2011. It was nominated for a BAFTA TV Award for the Best Drama Serial. Apart from the United Kingdom and Australia, the drama has been sold to SVT Sweden, YLE Finland, DR Denmark, RUV Iceland, RTV Slovenia, Globosat Brazil, TVO Canada.
The Promise is a four part work of fiction. Its dramatic narrative makes reference to some political or policy debates between the Jewish/Israeli and Palestinian communities and, at different times, to the political status of the area. But these references are incidental to the purpose of the series, namely, the dramatisation of the personal experiences of two related people, a grand-daughter and her grandfather, visiting the same region six decades apart.
On the Channel 4 website Peter Kominsky describes the series this way:
This is first and foremost a drama. I wanted to take two characters on a journey – starting pro-Jewish but then becoming less certain, in keeping with the thrust of our research. There are no caricatures – all the characters are based on people we met, read about or interviewed. One character is a soldier who was in Belsen, another is an Arab thrown out of his village in 1948. It would do an immense disservice to a complex situation to attempt to over-simplify it. I’m not attempting to be definitive. It’s not a comment piece. It would short-change the viewer to tell them what to think in a simplistic way.
The series is detailed and the characters portrayed are complex in the interwoven storylines which show a range of political and personal positions. As Mr Kominsky says, the film did not claim to be historically accurate, nor to be a documentary. However, it is fair to conclude that by the end of the series the sympathy of audience is more likely to be with the Palestinians than with the Israelis.
The SBS Codes of Practice do not limit the subject matter of fictional dramas, nor do they restrict the range of political views presented. Consistent with the general principles of freedom of expression, Code 1 (General Programming) of the SBS Codes of Practice acknowledges that SBS will broadcast a broad range of program material:
SBS’s programming can be controversial and provocative and may at times be distasteful or offensive to some. Not all viewpoints presented will be shared by all audience members.
Allegations of anti-Semitism
The Complaints Committee found that the series was neither anti-Semitic nor racist. While many characters in the series display increasing antipathy towards Israel, Israelis and Jews at different times, this is merely part of the dramatic narrative, creating the conflict that provides the momentum of the storyline. As you know, it is quite common to portray individuals, groups or even nations in a negative light as a part of a dramatic work.
The central character is a young English girl, Erin, who appears in the contemporary storyline, and provides the dramatic relief for the historical storyline, whose central character is her English grandfather, a British soldier Len. These two characters are brought together by being shown to make similar journeys, driven by their respective relationships with people who happen to be Jewish, a lover in Len’s case; and a school friend in Erin’s case.
The changing political perspectives of the central characters across the narrative, is a matter of politics, not race or religion. As the characters develop, the series traverses issues of betrayal, trust, love and loyalty. These highly emotional issues are the standard structures of drama on television, stage and film.
It was the view of the Complaints Committee that the series does not, demonise Jews either individually or as a collective, nor deny their individual and collective right to selfdetermination and therefore does not vilify Jews or Israelis.
Further the Complaints Committee does not accept that the program simply made the Jews look bad and by contrast made the Palestinians look unproblematic. True, some Palestinian characters criticise Jews as being “greedy” or having “stolen” land or homes but the Palestinian “suicide” bombers are obvious negative characters among the Palestinians, where the drama finds it colour in actions rather than words.
In addition Erin is critical of Omar’s suggestion that it is disrespectful to leave the home of the of the “suicide” bomber in Gaza she says “…. I didn’t respect his daughter, she murdered three people. I’ve been blown up by a suicide bomber. OK. I know what I am taking about”. In a similar vein, in the contemporary storyline, the principal Palestinian character Omar, is threatened with a gun by a Hamas supporter at the home of the “suicide bomber”, and tells Erin they have to go because “the son is Hamas and he will not have me here”.
The drama presents a range of views and perspectives, and the characterisation of the main Jewish characters, including Paul and Clara are nuanced. The same is true of the Meyer family, who are shown as complex characters. The point is underlined as the Meyer family, individually and as a whole, continues to show Erin respect and provide her with support and hospitality although she challenges and criticises them at almost every level.
Although The Promise has two interwoven stories set in different times, it is about the drama of various human relationships, which happen to involve characters from different cultural and political groups who are brought into conflict. It is the differences and tension that is critical to the drama, not the identity of the players.
Discrimination or prejudice against Israel and/or Jews as a people or a religious group
The Complaints Committee reached the conclusion that the various political or policy debates between the Jewish/Israeli characters on the one hand, and the Arab/Palestinian characters on the other hand were incidental to the main purpose of the storyline in the drama series as a whole; namely the dramatisation of two personal journeys made some 60 years apart as a young girl becomes obsessed with her grandfather’s diary.
Like all drama, there is tendency towards a binary play of “good guys” and “bad guys”. That characterises all drama, to a greater or lesser extent, and is almost inevitable given the need to hold the viewer’s interest. It is an oversimplification to cast the drama as being bad Jews versus good Palestinians.
After a careful investigation and review of each of the episodes individually and the four part series as a whole, the Complaints Committee is of the view that the film does not breach Code.1.3.
Inaccurate demeaning or discriminatory stereotypes
The Complaints Committee noted that many complaints specifically referred to stereotyping of Jews, including allegations that Jews are stereotyped as liars, untrustworthy, wealthy, conspiratorial, cruel, hateful and violent. The Complaints Committee considered that this was an incorrect reading of complex characters, which ignored their individual and collective positive characteristics.
Some complaints alleged that this perspective was reinforced by a contrast with the depiction of other (non-Jewish) characters in a favourable light. Some complaints focused upon the disparity of wealth. For example, in the contemporary storyline, The Promise depicts the Meyers as being rich family. These are Jewish characters, but their wealth has a dramatic function in the narrative, about the effects of political turmoil reaching every Israeli. The drama is set in one Jewish family’s home, almost in isolation.
The Complaints Committee rejects the allegation that the use of one family involves any stereotyping, positive or negative. It is simply a family around whom a drama is hung. There is no suggestion that the Meyer family is a typical Israeli family, they are clearly affluent. However they can be contrasted against the settler family who appear to be only moderately comfortable. The Complaints Committee found that as only two Jewish families are shown, the ordinary reasonable viewer would not conclude that these families typify Jewish or Israeli society.
This is a complex drama, that is obviously presented as a work of fiction. Each of the main characters has many facets. Obviously, some viewers will focus upon particular facets of each character. But in any drama as densely layered as The Promise, characters are depicted at different time in different ways; the loving father may also be a stern taskmaster, the reckless teenager may be a loving daughter too. The portrayals vary with the narrative and the development of the drama. This is typical of all drama.
The Complaints Committee is satisfied that the ordinary reasonable viewer fully appreciated that The Promise was a fictional drama and nothing more than that. The Complaints Committee found that that the characterisations in The Promise did not cross the threshold into racism, and in particular that it did not promote, endorse, or reinforce inaccurate, demeaning or discriminatory stereotypes.
In the light of some early representations after the first episode of the series was broadcast, SBS prefaced the broadcast of each subsequent episode with a reminder that the film was a drama to negate any suggestion it was a historical or documentary film. SBS considers that the disclaimers highlighted what is obvious from the content of the film, that it is a work of a fiction.
If you consider that this response is inadequate you are entitled to take your concerns to the Australian Communications and Media Authority for external review. SBS appreciates you raising your concerns with us, and would like to assure you that SBS presents a wide range of factual and fictional program material on the Middle East.