‘The Promise’ Breaks Its Promise
March 4, 2011 17 Comments
The Channel 4 series The Promise finished on Sunday. I did not get around to seeing the final episode until today, being ill this week, and going to see the much more fun True Grit instead. Some are up in arms over alleged anti-Israel bias, and having reserved judgement until seeing the final episode, I can say it is true to a sickening extent. However, as this comes from Channel 4, which let Mahmoud Ahmadenijad deliver a televised address at Christmas, was anyone really surprised?
What was the show like?
Bias is one thing, but as a drama The Promise fell flat and patronised the viewer from start to finish. And the premise made no sense: why would a British girl spend her gap year in Israel accompanying her best friend Eliza who is called up for military service? Eliza would be away all the time apart from weekends, leaving a teenage girl to hang out with a pair of middle aged professional parents.
The set up of the story is the lead female Erin discovering her grandfather Len’s diary, which is quite a cliché in the historical drama genre, a staple of numerous novels and most successfully used in Ken Loach’s TV series Land and Freedom. The diary is used as a treasure map, revealing tidbits allowing the narrative to develop slowly and drawing Erin into a mystery, though Grandpa Len is still alive and we are told is been making a good recovery in her absence. Why couldn’t she have just called him? Or skipped through the damn thing? The ultimate flaw is a problem seen in a lot of these historical dramas: Len is somehow constantly at the centre of major historic events, from the liberation of Bergen Belsen, to the King David Hotel bombing, the Sergeant’s Affair and Deir Yassin. This became tiresome and unrealistic by Episode Two.
The script was also a bit too cavalier with geography. In the final episode Len picks up the son of an Arab friend, who lives near Haifa, in a Jerusalem school, and for some reason they wander into the Deir Yassin incident, when they would have gone in a totally opposite direction. Erin is at one stage smuggled into Gaza through a tunnel from Israel, but those tunnels are between Egypt in Gaza and there is no way such a thing would be possible. It also appears that there are Israeli troops operating in and administering Gaza, even carrying out interrogations and house demolitions, but this is supposed to take place after the 2005 withdrawal. Historical inaccuracies are abundant, too much to list here in total but here are a number of them:
* The shorts are slightly too long for the period
* Why did a mere sergeant without officers have to attend the senior officers briefing in the KD in Jerusalem for the major operation that was the search of Tel Aviv? Historically this was done orally in the guise of a race meeting of officers at Lod, where the Palestine Police kept hounds so that all officials and units could hunt as convenient throughout the Mandate and would have made a very British scene
* There was a regular confusion of time and distance over the two [bus/train] legs of 80 miles between Haifa and Tel Aviv and Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, even if taken as a single lap
* There was serious breach of British Army procedure, in that there was a lot of extensive driving about without work-tickets. Each Army vehicle in pre-computer times had forms in a green cloth covered folder, that have to be shown at checkpoints at camp gates and such, which is the licence and permit to drive it with duty, destination and mileometer readings on display for authorization purposes. This was not so wide when folded as an A4 sheet, but certainly as long and would have been lying about the vehicle or on the dashboard and made an obvious background item to be seen occasionally.
* Two obvious security breaches were seen with Len Matthews, in driving solo extensively about a “disturbed” province/ colony.
* Also, the jeeps did not apparently have the standard fitting for an internal security situation: a metal picket post welded vertically to the front bumper with its top point bent and filed to catch and stop/snap wires stretched across the road to injure drivers of and passengers in open vehicles.
The Promise’s Agenda
On the matter of bias, there is a hell of a lot more to say.
‘The Promise’ introduces us to the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict in a talk given by a British military commander to the young anti-hero Len Matthews and his fellow troops:
“The Jews and Arabs have been living here in relative harmony for thousands of years. But our victory over the Germans has turned the trickle of Jews coming to this land into a flood. You must understand, the Jews see it as their holy land. But the Arabs, who have been here for over a thousand years, see them as stealing their land. Our job is to keep the two sides apart…..”
From the very beginning an underlying bias is clear. This reading of history is based on an increasingly popular myth of the Israel-bashers, who claim that before Zionism, Jews and Arabs lived in peace and co-operation as equals. It was the Jewish demand for statehood, pure and simple, that ruined everything. Thus, the anti-Zionists say that if Jews just give up the notion of political independence they will face no hostility from Middle Eastern Arabs or the world’s Muslims, who are after all paying for the crimes committed by other powers during the Shoah. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Jews and other minorities in Muslim lands historically had the status of dhimmis, essentially protected second-class citizens. This involved Jews paying a discriminatory poll tax, known as the jizya, in exchange for state protection and a level of religious freedom. This arrangement was often a peaceful one, and Muslim rulers let the Jews live uninterrupted as Jews (far rarer in Christian states) and even took steps to protect Jews from a hostile local Muslim population. It was never ‘equality’ as some of today’s apologists claim, but it would be foolish to expect it in societies untouched by the Enlightenment. However, very often in the dhimmi ‘contract’ there were absurdly detailed humiliating rules and regulations on the life of the dhimmi, and extensive arrangements to keep them separate from the Muslim population. Large scale anti-Jewish massacres were not unheard of, and of course many Islamic sacred writings contain explicitly anti-Jewish messages that are used today as they were then to justify atrocious behaviour.
As this post is about ‘The Promise’, I will only be focusing from here on events in the land of Israel prior to independence in 1948.
To begin with, it is important to note that well before the mass organised immigration (or aliyah) of Jews to the corner of the Ottoman Empire known as Palestine there were religiously inspired pogroms and blatant discrimination towards a long-established Jewish community. Interestingly Karl Marx was one of the people who observed this, and after a visit to the Holy Land in 1852 he published an article in which claimed the following:
Firstly, the Jews were in a majority in the city of Jerusalem (this has been confirmed in all censuses and polls since the 1860s).
Secondly, Jews were the most oppressed even in areas where they were a majority.
Finally, the Jews were living in a situation of constant insult from the Muslim population, who were ethnically Arab and Turk amongst others. Contrary to modern claims that today’s Palestinians have been living in Israel and the Palestinian territories for thousands of years, the Muslim population of the area was disparate, with many arriving in the 19th Century from Egypt and the Ottoman Empire in general. There were settlements full of Armenians, Circassians, and many others. Certain sections of academia have gone to great pains to cover this up and ruin the careers of those who don’t follow the official line, but in Marx’s time it was not controversial in the least, as there was no conflict in which many people had a proverbial dog.
There were during periods such as the Egyptian occupation of Palestine in the 1830s, when the native Jews were intensely persecuted for no other reason than Muslim zealotry. According to De Haas’s ‘History of Palestine’ in 1934, Jewish households systematically ‘were sacked and their women violated’ and later in the year the Jews of Hebron were victims of a large-scale massacre. The most interesting writing I have found comes from the British consul in Jerusalem in the early to mid 1800s, decades before Herzl organised a Zionist movement. His name was William Young and he sent fairly chilling report to the British Foreign Office in 1839 on the condition of Jews in the city of Jerusalem in at that time:
“I think it my duty to inform you that there has been a Proclamation issued this week by the Governor in the Jewish quarter — that no Jew is to be permitted to pray in his own house under pain of being severely punished — such as want to pray are to go into the Synagogue….
There has also been a punishment inflicted on a Jew and Jewess — most revolting to human nature which I think it my duty to relate. In the early part of this week, a House was entered in the Jewish Quarter, and a robbery was committed — the House was in quarantine — and the guardian was a Jew — he was taken before the Governor-he denied having any knowledge of the thief or the circumstances. In order to compel him to confess, he was laid down and beaten, and afterwards imprisoned. The following day he was again brought before the Governor, when he still declared his innocence. He was then burned with a hot iron over his face, and in various parts of the body — and beaten on the lower parts of his body to that extent that the flesh hung in pieces from him. The following day the poor creature died. He was a young Jew of Salonica about 28 years of age — who had been here but a very short time, he had only the week before been applying to enter my service.
A young man-a Jew — having a French passport — was also suspected — he fled — his character was known to be an indifferent one — his mother an aged woman was taken under the suspicion of concealing her son — She was tied up and beaten in the most brutal way…
I must say I am sorry and am surprised that the Governor could have acted so savage a part-for certainly what I have seen of him, I should have thought him superior to such wanton inhumanity — but it was a Jew — without friends or protection-it serves well to show, that it is not without reason that the poor Jew, even in the nineteenth century, lives from day to day in terror of his life.”
As a persecuted minority, Jews had no legal redress, as the report observed:
“Like the miserable dog without an owner he is kicked by one because he crosses his path, and cuffed by another because he cries out – to seek redress he is afraid, lest it bring worse upon him; he thinks it better to endure than to live in the expectation of his complaint being revenged upon him.
Scarcely a day passes that I do not hear of some act of Tyranny and oppression against a Jew — chiefly by the soldiers, who enter their Houses and borrow whatever they require without asking any permission-sometimes they return the article, but more frequently not. In two instances, I have succeeded in obtaining justice for Jews against Turks-But it is quite a new thing in the eyes of these people to claim justice for a Jew-and I have good reason to think that my endeavors to protect the Jews, have been — and may be for some little time to come, detrimental to influence with other classes — Christians as well as Turks….”
In 1842, in a message to Viscount Palmerston, Mr. Young noted how defenceless the Jewish population was against such onslaughts, which had no cause other than ‘’the blind hatred and ignorant prejudice of a fanatic population’’. This was well before a Jewish state, before Herzl, before any occupation, before any Western power came into control of the area. Reports from other writers who visited the Holy Land, such as A.W. Kinglake, abound with similar stories – Kinglake, Winston Churchill’s favourite writer, witnessed and wrote about anti-Jewish riots and looting in Safed, though in holding anti-Semitic views he was not as sympathetic as men like William Young. So how did the myth swallowed by The Promise get started? My guess is that it originally came from Islamic apologetics, where Muslim writers contrasted their historic relations with the Jews with that of Christendom, which were historically worse. The radical left in the West seems to have adopted this defence of Islam and warped it for their own needs. The left-of-centre public broadcasters then use our tax money to give these opinions a platform. I can’t imagine The Promise being brave enough to declare that for centuries Jews lived in ‘mostly-peaceful subservience’ to their Muslim rulers, which would be more accurate.
‘We’ve Left the Arabs in the Shit’
So claims Len on leaving what was the British Mandate of Palestine for good. Several times in the last episode we hear remarks claiming, for instance, that the British army had left weapons for the Jews and none for the Arabs, and Len at one stage says the Arabs are defenceless against the Jewish Underground, even though he is later seen fighting with a well-armed group of Arabs near Haifa. In fact, immediately after the UN decided to create a Jewish and Arab state west of the Jordan River organised Arab attacks were directed against the Jewish population. In many cases the Arab fighters were armed and directly or indirectly assisted by the British. One of the first major incidents in Jerusalem of the Israeli War of Independence, around two mornings after the UN decision, was when Arab mobs burst into a shopping complex on Mamilla Road and set fire to over forty stores. They were assisted by armoured British police cars and troops, who blocked the Haganah (the main Jewish militia) from assisting Jews trapped inside. Sixteen Jewish defenders were arrested attempting to get in, and the Haganah’s arms were confiscated. This pattern repeated itself in the next few months: Arab attacks were watched by the British, who made a lacklustre attempt to keep the peace but always prevented Jewish forces from counter-attacking. The Jewish population grew angrier and angrier as the British allowed forces from the Arab Liberation Army (a force raised by the Arab League to assist local Arab militias before the Arab invasion in 1948) to infiltrate the country. It is estimated that up to 6,000 ALA fighters took part in the conflict. Many British policemen and members of the armed forces sympathised with the Arabs to the extent of desertion to their cause, while some acted on old anti-Jewish prejudices. One of the worst bomb attacks of the war was the February 22nd bombing of Ben Yehuda Street, the social hub of Jewish Jerusalem. An organisation known as the ‘British Fascist Army’ loaded three trucks with dynamite, the resulting explosion levelled six storey buildings and much of the busy centre, killing 52.
The Promise shows us plenty of Jewish military attacks against the British and atrocities against the Arabs during the 1940s. No Arab or British attacks on the Jewish population were shown. It is unusual, as you would expect after focusing on the Sergeant’s Affair (the lynching of two British soldiers by the Irgun) The Promise could have shown the British reaction, when soldiers went on a rampage in Tel Aviv, beating civilians on the street and even shooting at buses, killing five. One of the most significant scenes portrays the Irgun and Lehi assault on Deir Yassin, where many unarmed Arabs were indeed slaughtered, and Len meets his former Jewish lover for the last time. The Irgun are a major focus of The Promise, though it never informs the viewer that the Irgun were a minority dissenting military force, consisting of 1500-2000 fighters. The Lehi, or Stern Gang, were an even smaller group of under 500 fighters (smaller than CIRA today), specialising in assassination and bomb attacks. They were both far smaller than the Haganah, under the command of Ben Gurion, which numbered over 25,000 and became the IDF. The former organisations were more hawkish and violent than the Haganah. Historically, it was Haganah policy during the Mandate era to refrain from attacking the Arabs during violent periods (a policy known as Havlagah), and focus on defending Jewish communities. The Irgun and Lehi rejected this. The Promise in many instances forces the viewer to compare the Irgun attacks with modern terrorism, and thus make us remember the ‘what is terrorism?’ question and expose Zionist hypocrisy on the matter. Of course, it does not tell us that the State of Israel did declare the Irgun as a terrorist organisation immediately after its establishment, and the Haganah and IDF disseminated posters and pamphlets denouncing them as such. Ben Gurion went so far as to shell a ship carrying arms to the Irgun, which was one of his first acts as Prime Minister. The Promise does not tell us that Ben Gurion also wrote a letter of apology and condolence to the King of Jordan on hearing of the killing of civilians at Deir Yassin. Even though the Irgun is the focus of The Promise during the 1940s scenes, and it is meant to show the dark side of Israel, it never shows how the Haganah co-operated with the British to suppress the organisation, as well as the Lehi. It portrays the Jewish paramilitaries in the worst, most uncompromising light.
It is very interesting that while Len manages to drive into Deir Yassin just in time for the attack (and when it really made no sense for him to be there), the incident which did the most to inflame anti-British sentiment among the Jews, and led to major Haganah offences throughout the country, happened to take place less than 200 hundred yards from a British army installation – and was passed and seen by General MacMillan, the Supreme Commander of the British forces in Palestine. That was the massacre of the Hadassah medical convoy, when a group of doctors, nurses, academics and scientists on the way to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem were assaulted by Arab fighters, with 79 killed and the corpses and vehicles burned. Among them were Professor Chaim Yassky, director of the famous Hadassah Medical Organisation, two of the founders of the faculty of medicine at the University, a linguist, an expert in Jewish Law, a physicist, and the head of the Hebrew University psychology department. It was a great tragedy for the city and the Jewish population. The Arab Higher Committee, the political leadership of the local Arab population, unequivocally praised the attack, a great contrast to the attitude of Ben Gurion and the mainstream Jewish leadership to incidents like Deir Yassin. Yet it was the role of the British, whose HQ in Jerusalem informed the Haganah that they were in control of the situation, while forbidding the Haganah access and doing nothing themselves to stop the attack until it was almost over, that became the focus of Jewish scrutiny. Len would have had a much greater chance of being there than at Deir Yassin. Thus, we can see how an Israeli viewer might be downright angry at The Promise for suggesting the British supported the Jews, abandoned the Arabs and left the Arab population in a hopeless position (some historians estimate up to 12,000 Arabs were under arms before the invasion of the five Arab armies).
The Promise did focus much attention on the Holocaust, and the cruel treatment delivered on the survivors by the British, and how much it drove the desire for Jewish sovereignty in the historic land of Israel. However, the Holocaust was portrayed as the justification for Israel from Episode 1 to 4, and is the focus of Len’s original pro-Zionist sentiment. As one reviewer put it:
‘‘…it is a narrative which does not operate to resolve the conflict, but to perpetuate it. Ever since World War Two, the Arabs have seen the Jewish national enterprise as the consequence of Nazism. Without indigenous roots. And without historical legitimacy…They build their sense of victimhood on the argument that they are “paying the price” for European fascism’’.
Two tragic mistakes were made in The Promise concerning the Holocaust. The first is that it does not mention that the Palestinian leadership, supported by most of the Arab population, actively supported the Nazis during the Second World War and even participated in the genocide of European (as well as Middle Eastern) Jews. The Grand Mufti Muhammad Amin Al-Husayni and his family dominated the Palestinian leadership during this period and after (Arafat was a descendant). Nowhere was it mentioned he was a fanatical supporter of Nazism, who helped form a Muslim division of the SS, and was in exile for his activities – though planning military activities against the Zionists from Egypt (having escaped Allied custody in Paris and punishment for war crimes). The moral and legal culpability of such people was not an issue in the series.
The second mistake was that The Promise makes no mention of the history and ideals of Zionism proper – it is almost purely seen as a reaction to the Holocaust. The steady return of Jews to the land of Israel after the 1880s is nowhere evident in this narrative. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, and the League of Nations mandate in 1922, which asked Britain to help Jews settle in the region and create a Jewish independent body politic, go unmentioned. With no reference to Jewish state-building efforts before the Holocaust, or the history of Zionism, or a discussion of the Jewish national connection to the land of Israel, The Promise ends up misplacing the role of both the Holocaust and Zionism. This is the ultimate disgrace.
By the last episode in particular, The Promise show descends into farce and agitprop, recycling every anti-Israel trope. It was painful to watch a program that not only sympathised with the Arab narrative, but eventually fully adopted its language and symbolism. This was particularly true in the ridiculous scene where Erin returns a key to an dying Arab woman from her former home within Israel. It shows a housing demolition, the likes of which are not practiced by Israel anymore, and suggests the IDF use Palestinian children systematically as human shields, and that the IDF occupy Gaza. This mini-series did not deserve the attention it received. There hasn’t been a truly epic original drama on British TV in a long time, and I’m desperately waiting for one. After watching this effectively anti-Israel manifesto, I whipped out my Sopranos box set and went through much of the first season all over again. It felt good.