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Christian Cooke (front left) as Squaddie Len in Channel 4's The Promise 

The Promise turned out not to be all that promising after all. It has been hailed widely in the UK as dramatic, informative, and unbiased — serious prime-time TV at its very best. On all these counts I beg to differ. 

There is no question that the brief that the creators set themselves in this controversial mini-series (transmitted on Channel 4 in four parts, February 6-27, 2011) is ambitious and the production values are high. But the series radically misrepresents the past. Unfortunately the writer and director Peter Kosminsky will have persuaded many UK viewers that they now have the key to understanding the Israel/Palestine conflict and the history of Britain's involvement. I fear that he will merely have reinforced many viewers' complacent indifference to the Zionist cause, the moral claim that underlines the foundation of the state of Israel.

For some UK viewers the story of Tommies sent to police the British Mandate in post-war Palestine will be news. Kosminsky challenges viewers to accept that the legacy of the Mandate is not an issue that Brits can shrug off. He wrote recently in The Guardian: "In Palestine, as in so many other examples of our rapid retreat from empire, we left chaos, political confusion, bloodshed and war. It turns out that it is our problem, at least in part, and we should take some responsibility for it."

The story concerns an English teenager Erin spending her gap year in Israel. She becomes passionately involved in retracing (by means of an old diary) her grandfather Len's experiences as a paratrooper posted to Palestine from 1945 to 1948. The historic strand of the plot (set in the 1940s) is considerably more engaging than the action set in 2005.  Some of the parallels and contrasts between the past and near-present are heavy-handed: Jewish terrorism by the Irgun back then is set against suicide bombing now; British squaddies blowing up the homes of bombers then, Israelis doing the same now. Kosminsky's article indicates that he was surprised to discover that the Israelis learned this tactic from the Brits. I have known it for as long as I can remember.

Many of the shortcomings of The Promise originate with and are shared by Erin, the know-nothing English teen at the centre of the drama. Claire Foy as Erin plays exactly the same headstrong, selfish, sexy, troublesome young woman that she played as Lady Persephone in the recent Upstairs Downstairs. In The Promise her blank, blue-eyed expression increasingly settles into an indignant sulk. (Foy was easily cast into the shade by Perdita Weeks who played her friend, a much more nuanced and interesting performance.) Why should the writer have chosen to place so vacuous a character as Erin at the centre of so complex and sensitive a drama? What are the advantages of a cipher?  We shall see.

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Daniel Eilon
March 9th, 2011
6:03 PM
Suzanne is right that I have mis-remembered one scene (my apologies): the military dictatorship allegation is made by Paul at the dinner table, not in the car. But that correction changes very little since his allegation is not seriously disputed. His parents look down shamefacedly as if the characterisation of Israel as a military state were unanswerable, Eliza enters in uniform to clinch the point and then the scene ends. This is not the genuine cut and thrust of drama: this is the arrogant auteur telling viewers what to think. The lack of a third person to raise a sceptical eyebrow is the dishonest device used by Kosminsky in relation to the rest of Paul's crash course for Erin on how and why to hate "this f***ing country". Most of that "education" takes place in the car when Erin and Paul are alone precisely so that his allegations will go unchallenged. Suzanne believes that "the Jewish Israeli point of view is powerfully presented". The notion that there might be only one such point of view defies my experience of both Jews and Israelis. Kosminsky has artfully created an impression of balance by including stooges to represent pro-Zionist points of view - but they are paper tigers. Similarly he has made a pretence of building a "factually based" drama, and the marketing for the series highlights his claims regarding all the "research" he has done (i.e. the anecdotes he has garnered). The manifold historical omissions which I have listed show that the project very deliberately loaded the dice. For a further analysis of the biased historiography underlying the series see the article by Professor David Cesarani on the Guardian Comment is Free website. When Kosminsky's historical selection is shown to be ludicrously partial Kosminsky will no doubt claim that he is not writing history, but fiction. Let no-one be deceived: this is not open-minded imaginative drama. It's a reprehensible work of propaganda.

Suzanne
March 7th, 2011
3:03 PM
Daniel Elon writes that Erin is told Israel is a military dictatorship, and "has no basis to contest this ludicrous libel. There is no third character in that scene to do so much as raise a sceptical eyebrow." This is simply not the case. The "military dictatorship" claim is made by Elza's brother Paul at a family lunch (Eliza stays with the family during her time in Israel)and there is argument about his claim. Paul and Eliza's former general father, who is something of a celebrated peacenik, very much raises an eyebrow and protests that Israel is the only democracy in the region. Eliza(played by Perdita Weeks, whose performance Danial praises so highly - though I found Claire Foy excellent too) regards her brother as a bit of a crank/exctremist who only turned against the military after traumatic service with the IDF in Hebron. She tells Erin that he now belongs to weird groups of former soldiers. Paul is involved in peacemaking with Palestinian former militants, but is himself an ambivalent character for all his criticisms of his father's brand of peace activism (resorting to the Isareli supereme court to get the path of the separation wall changed, writing open letters, demonstrations etc). Erin points out to the family that she saw him on a demonstration himself, outside an army base. When Paul goes to Hebron to help Erin out of a sticky situation she's got into with the IDF, who have detained her there, he is revealed as being on most friendly terms with his IDF former comrades currently serving in the town. When their post, where he and Erin spend the night, is attacked during the night he unhestitatingly picks up a gun and starts firing at the attackers. When Erin questions him about this he says it's a question of loyalty. And by the way, the shocking behaviour of Israeli settlers in Hebron towards Palestinian children and women, with even children throwing stones at Palestinian kids, and women spitting at Palestinian women and calling them whores etc, all under the eyes of Israeli soldiers, is absolutely fact based, as recorded on amateur videos. Palestinian families have to cage themselves into their family homes and courtyards to protect themselves from what the settlers throw at them. I thought the Jewish Israeli point of view was powerfully presented - for example when Eliza takes Erin to meet a relative who took part in the bombing of the King David Hotel (Erin's grandfather had been in the hotel at the time). He is a most sympathetic, convincing character, played apparently by an Israeli actor, who explained movingly to Erin the background of Erin's mother's family, many of whom perished in concentration camps. JH's comment above about the need to quote the Balfour Declaration in full,not just selectively quoting the "national home for the Jews" part, is well made.

Mathew
March 6th, 2011
6:03 PM
Some good and fair points in this article and glad they have been made. However he is allowing his emotions to rule in places, does he really believe; 'the close and scrupulous scrutiny to which the IDF is — quite rightly — subjected.' and 'Jewish people have offered time and again, in response to the Peel Commission, the Partition Resolution, the Oslo Accords, Barak's proposals to Arafat in 2000 and so on' Israel being painted again as the victim, keeping land that was won against adversity, rather than a cynical land grab. This leads to reactionary and ignorants comments, such as above 'UK government's policy of pursuing peace and appeasement with Hitler for most of the second world war.' Err heard of the battle of Britain and the blitz mate? As usual the truth is somewhere in the middle, I look forward to seeing a documentary that really shows Britains failings at that time, perhaps Israel can make it, it we do not?

Sunday Sentinel
March 6th, 2011
3:03 PM
"Some of the worst bigots of our time were not only Nazis but British Empire officers." (Capa, the all knowing) Capa, old bean, British Empire officers are most emphatically not 'of our time'. They were of their time and a bloody good job they did too, by and large. Maybe the odd rotten apple, but then who the hell are we to pass judgement? I recall there was an elderly and quite famous British historian (of East European stock) who remarked that back in the pre-war years it was fashionable (in pansy, left-wing circles Orwell might have added) to deride the Blimps and their blimpish ways - but when the country had its back to the wall these old imperialists rallied the Empire, added the backbone and took the fight to the enemy. Don't knock 'em, Capa. Most were buried out there somewhere, maybe East of the Irrawaddy, with men who would follow them to hell and back as the saying goes.

Yisrael Medad
March 5th, 2011
11:03 PM
"JH" asserts "What was promised was somewhere that Jews could migrate to, and live alongside the existing inhabitants; not a Jewish state" but he is wrong. First, the League of Nations decision which incorporated five years later the language of the Balfour Declaration came after the Weizmann-Feisel agreement, the Versailles Peace Conference and the San Remo Conference all of which promoted a Jewish state. Second, is it not odd that the word "Arab" does not appear at all and that the 'other' population is simply "non-Jewish"? That is because the political/national rights to the country were to be esconsed with the Jews and non-Jews were to be guaranteed but personal/individual rights.

walt kovacs
March 5th, 2011
7:03 PM
in less than a month, the weinstein company will be releasing a film in america that has already played in cannes and parts of europe...miral. it is based on a semi biographical novel by a palestinian woman. this movie has gained no buzz at all...despite the fact that it tells the story of israel/palestine from the palestinian perspective. what weinstein and the director did not do, was say they were trying to tell a balanced narrative....they admit that they are not. had kosminsky been honest...there would have been little to no blowback, my god, israelis have been making films that beat themselves up for years watch "waltzing with bashir" kosminsky is being bashed for his dishonesty....that is all

Capa
March 4th, 2011
11:03 PM
Of course the Promise is B.S. No British producer would ever be able to secure funding about a movie that shows British soldiers massacreing Jews and Arabs. British soldiers running over captured Arab fighters with military vehicles (a favored tactic!) or Arabs demolishing the homes of both Jews and Arabs to build British military bases. Or the British sinking Jewish refugee ships. Or the British hauling away Jewish Zionist fighters to Nazi POW camps in Africa. Or the British training Jordanian fighters to kill Jewish civilians in the West Bank. No. Why did the British lock their historical archives? Why did the Arab states lock their historical archives? It's easy - the British now their guilt and don't want the world to know. Movies like the Promise make today's Brits feel all good inside about their righteous moral empire but the reality is far, far different. Some of the worst bigots of our time were not only Nazis but British Empire officers. The British performance in Palestine was nothing less than shameful. This movie is just that...a MOVIE. Anyone who hails it as unbiased knows nothing about the Middle East or Britain. I love how Israel makes endless movies critical of their military. Lebanon, Waltz of Bashir, etc...but never will a similar movie about the British military be produced. NEVER!

Anonymous
March 4th, 2011
8:03 PM
`the U.K.government's policy of pursuing peace and appeasement with Hitler for most of the Second World War'. How on earth does `Musological' arrive at this insane and inaccurate statement?

Bored on Friday Afternoon
March 4th, 2011
3:03 PM
Your understanding of the League of Nations role in the creation of the Palestine Mandate is curious. There is the impression that this was some supra-national body that dispensed instructions to its members and in Britain's case to facilitate a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Well, if we accept this hypothesis, how can we explain the almost total lack of subsequent interest in the affairs or problems of this Mandate by other nations (exceptions being the Bolsheviks and Germans)? Truth is, these lands were hard won by British & Commonwealth soldiers and it was a British promise, to be honoured as best it could under difficult circumstances. That's why the League of Nations changed the original declaration by not a jot, it wasn't their concern. Remember also that the British government had arranged this promise with urbane and wealthy members of the British Jewish community, none of whom had any plans to relocate to Palestine. This reality hit home not long after, when the confrontations and riots began.

JH
March 4th, 2011
3:03 PM
Much that I could agree with. But if you are going to raise the Mandate, then at least present its terms in full: "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country." What was promised was somewhere that Jews could migrate to, and live alongside the existing inhabitants; not a Jewish state. Also, given the recent leak of the Palestine Papers, it is hard to dismiss any more the Palestinian position as merely "a consistent programme of rejection". As for "The Promise", the initial publicity promising 'balance' was unfortunate, because The Promise very much followed one particular narrative. That's not necessarily an illegitimate dramatic choice, though -- dramas exploring a particular narrative can have great value. And in the wider scheme of things they are, after all, only one point in a wider media landscape. Given the frame of the narrative it was putting over, (and within the margins of dramatic licence), what The Promise showed was not untrue -- the events it showed did, have, and do occur. But I'd agree it was disingenuous of C4 not to insist on more clarity that what was being presented was a particular narrative, one that was significantly selective.

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