Presence in Absence: Hesitations about C4's "The Promise"

I have been watching Channel 4's fabulous drama, "The Promise." It is some of the best drama on TV for a long time.

Basically the plot concerns a young British girl who accompanies her friend to Israel as the friend does her military service in the Israeli army. The story partly follows her experiences in Israel and the Occupied Teritories. Whilst she is there, she is reading her grandfather's diary about his time in the British army in Palestine in the final years of the British Mandate. The drama moves back and forth between the 1940s to the present day.

There are so many good things about this drama: An engaging and moving story (or stories), a brilliant script, believable characters, fabulous acting, an authentic feel (the whole show was shot on location in the Holy Land), an education (it is based on a lot of research), an attempt not to take sides, some real nuance (including having Israeli characters that actively oppose the actions of their government and Palestinian characters that are Christian as well as Muslim), and it does bring the last days of the British Mandate, in particular, to life.

But I do have a hesitation. It is not so much with what is in the drama as with what is not. Before saying more, let me offer some caveats.

I know that the issues raised are white hot and that however they were handled people would complain.

I know that every story has to leave things out. And I also appreciate that some of the ommissions that concern me are a side-effect of the chosen foci for the narrative.

I also appreciate that the show has tried to be relatively "neutral" on the conflict.

Nevertheless, the effect of the ommissions seems increasingly to present an overall message that simplifies the conflict and people's perceptions of it.

OK—so what makes me uneasy?

The 1940s plotline is effectively about the conflict between the British and the Irgun (a Zionist paramilitary group that existed prior to 1948). That is a legimitmate topic for a drama and it seems to me to have been well done.

But, inevitably, with such a focus the impression can be given that "the Jews" in Palestine were more or less equivalent to the Irgun and that "the Jews" were the initiators of the violence in the 1940s.

I have no interest in defending the Irgun (although the drama is very fair in helping to 'understand' their perspective and why they did what they did. It is also fair in showing some of the British actions against the Jewish imigrants as inhumane). But, of course, the Jews in Palestine in the 1940s were far more diverse than the illegal Irgun, and, whilst the TV show does not deny that and shows something of it, my worry is that viewers may wrongly imagine that "the Jews" as a whole supported violence against the British. Such was not the case.

In the present-day story there does seem to be an imbalance in what is shown. Israel is presented as using its military might to hold the Palestinians down. Now, again, all that is shown in the drama are indeed aspects of the situation and there is no reason not to present them in a drama in the way that they are presented. And I have no objection to constructive critique of Israel's actions (not least in the support of illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories).

But my concern is that the cause of the Israeli security concerns is underplayed (and when it is presented it may be presented as no more than a reaction to Israeli oppression). Now, that is an important dimension of it so I have no objection to it being presented as such. However, an important part of Israel's problem is that a significant root of opposition to Israel is the ideology of radical Islam. According to that ideology, the very existence of a Jewish state on land that was once ruled by Muslims is something that can never be accepted. As such, groups like Hamas are committed in principle never to accepting peace with Israel (except as a temporary, strategic move as a step towards destroying the Jewish state and most Jews from the land). In the past, when peace agreements seemed to make progress they would send suicide bombers to kill Israeli civilians with the goal of hardening Israeli public opinion and scuppering peace negotiations. This context complicates the situation significantly and renders Israel's attempts to secure its citizens much more understandable. The threat of violence (lethal violence included) is very real.

I am not offering a defence of all that the state of Israel does—I don't know anyone who would. But my worry is that the drama presents a picture that, for all its attempts at complexity and fairness, is too simplistic. "The Jews" in the 1940s and the present day are presented as the initiators of violence (whilst the considerable—albeit understandable [NOTE: by "understandable" I certainly do not mean "justifiable"]—Arab violence in the 1940s is completely absent and in the present day the threat of Palestinian violence is underplayed and oversimplified). So the big story emerging from the drama may be this:

The Jewish people suffered an unimaginable horror in ther holocaust. We completely understand why they wanted a land where they could be Jews without living in fear of persecution. But they soon turned to violence and never turned back from it, becoming oppressors in the process.

My concern is that, for all its many virtues, this drama presents a very, very complex situation in which both sides have a real share of any blame as more straight forward than it is.


Ariadne said…
Robin, that's a very gentle criticism. I do not agree with it. I support Israel and find the betrayal of Jews in the British Mandate period a huge and rank offence.

But thank you for presenting more than one side. The drama has engendered more Jew-hatred and one has to ask whether that is one of the dramatist's aims.
Robin Parry said…

Thanks for that comment.

I do not think that the drama aimed at engendering Jew-hatred. Not at all.

However, I do think that there was an implicit polemic against the State of Israel. Not its existence so much as its perceived praxis. It was here that it fell short, in my opinion, because it presented Jews in the role as initiators of violence in the origins and perpetuation of the State of Israel without understanding adequately why such actions were undertaken. It also failed to present Arab (in ther 1940s) and Palestinian (in the present day) initiation of violence adequately.

This is worrying because although I do not think that the program intends to engender Jew-hatred (and for most viewers it will not, I hope) this may be the effect for some viewers, especially those who already have anti-Semitic inclinations.

But, I would also oppose a drama that ignored or whitewashed the actions of the Irgun in the later Mandate period and the impact of Israel's security measures on Palestinians. My problem was not wish what was presented but with what was not.

I think that the program is much better in dealing with the Mandate period. It makes no attempt, I think, to whitewash it or to make the British into the good guys.

The British had a very difficult role during that period, seeking to satisfy two mutually incompatible agendas and facing violence from both sides when things swung against them. I agree with you, however, that the British acted shamefully at points—with some notororious examples that stand out.
Ariadne said…
Robin, the generation is now passing away that was present and capable of understanding at Israel's independence. I am glad to have lived at a time when people who were there told us how it really was. Try telling people now that the Jews always wanted to share with the Arabs. And look at what Israel has given to them for not much in return, to put it mildly.

A comment from Judy in Richard Millett's blog says this:

who would have thought from the Promise that just prior to Deir Yassin between December 1947 and March 1948 more than 2,000 Jews were killed and 4,000 injured by the Arabs?

Judy's blog is Adloyada.

Even at the time the vast majority of Jews, in the Mandate and in the diaspora were against Irgun and Lehi. Ben Gurion and the Haganah were against them. The Jewish Agency was against them. Jewish people who weren't born then feel guilt about the two sergeants.

Israel needs more security measures than she takes and the Arabs have had the possibility of peace for decades now without showing the slightest interest in making it. The sad thing is that they were allowed to become dynastic "refugees" and the sooner that status is ended the better for them.

I think you are correct that someone who is not antisemitic won't become a Jew-hater because of this negative drama. But those who know no history or hate Jews are raving about it as the best thing for years. And in many quarters demonising Israel is the acceptable thing to do. Very sadly for such a brave and productive country.

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