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.
At the outset her ignorance serves as a guarantee that she has no allegiances or preconceptions; instead she has un-channelled affections and sympathies. Erin stands in for the TV audience as someone initially without much investment in the drama played out before her, someone on a steep learning curve who may well lack the will or the wit to climb any higher. Unfortunately Erin has neither the discrimination nor the stamina required to handle complexity or weigh rival rights. Once Len’s Arab servant Mohammed and his family have been established as virtuous victims, Len’s sympathies (and Erin’s after him) are unidirectional. Eventually the promptings of his heart lead Sergeant Len to take up arms (as a number of his colleagues did) against the Jews. Two generations later similar sentiments inspire his sanctimonious granddaughter in a climactic scene to chain herself up (along with an Arab child whom she casually and needlessly endangers) in a Palestinian house in a vain attempt (vain in both senses) to prevent its destruction.
The story started in an appropriate place by referring to the horrors of the Holocaust. It is impossible to understand the history of Israel without knowing that it was founded immediately after the refugee Jews were abandoned and betrayed by the European countries to which they had contributed so much. Len is initially sympathetic to the Jewish desire to build a homeland after witnessing the horrors of Bergen-Belsen. But his philo-Semitism wears off. Sadly it seems that the writer and his characters suffer from compassion fatigue when it comes to the Jewish national cause. Perhaps Palestinian Arab nationalism has a longer shelf-life in the West because it is so much younger.
After a plausible beginning the mini-series descended from a multi-faceted examination of the issues into a much narrower account. In 1948 when he leaves with the British forces, Len’s parting curse is that the state of Israel was born in sin and violence and therefore can never prosper. It’s a view that no doubt he still holds in his final days in his hospital bed having ignored the last 60 years of Israel’s history, its challenges and its achievements. The truth is that Israel has prospered, no thanks to Len or his descendants: Israel’s absorption of millions of refugees from Europe and the Arab world, its survival and self-sacrifice, its creation of a vibrant democracy, of an independent judiciary, a critical press, a multi-cultural society and the finest universities in the Middle East — all this is a closed book to him, and seemingly also to his insouciant granddaughter.
Although one Palestinian terrorist bomb forms part of the narrative, Erin and her counterparts (the unaligned British TV viewers) have no way of knowing that this atrocity is part of a concerted and ruthless campaign to snuff out the Jewish state. Erin has no context to enable her to understand that terrorism, political lobbying and propaganda have all been elements of a consistent programme of rejection by the Palestinian Arabs of the opportunities to live in peaceful coexistence which the 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.
By the final episode (broadcast Sunday February 27) it became clear that the dominant agenda of The Promise was a celebration of the self-righteousness of the bien-pensant British onlooker. Early in the mini-series some criticism was levelled against Britain’s mishandling of its responsibilities under the Mandate and the poisonous legacy created by its iniquitous policies. But as it progressed the series settled comfortably into sanctifying a very familiar naive and a-historical account of the foundation of the state of Israel. The Arab attempt to annihilate Israel in the 1948 war of independence has disappeared from this narrative, along with the pogroms perpetrated against the Jews in Hebron and Gush Etzion and other places, the Nazi allegiances of the Palestinian Arab leader Haj Amin el-Husseini in the 1940s, and the Palestinian Arab rejections of partition in 1937 and 1947.
Israelis seeing The Promise will have been infuriated by its misrepresentations both of the past and of more recent history. In pre-1948 Palestine Kosminsky’s attention is restricted to the atrocities of the Irgun splinter group, and he has no time to represent the mainstream Jewish population which repudiated the extremists and helped the British to arrest them. He has no attention available for the nation-building of the early Zionists. Closer to the present day, in the parallel universe of The Promise all Israelis seem to live in vast palaces with swimming pools; this stands in stark contrast to the poverty of their Arab victims.
Concentrating on the personal sympathies of his characters allows Kosminsky to eliminate the broader political narrative. Accordingly, absent entirely from his account is the very nature of Britain’s Mandate in Palestine, which had the force of international law and included the wording of the Balfour Declaration written into it, namely the consensus of the League of Nations that the territory of Palestine was to be administered by the Mandatory Authority — Britain — with a view to facilitating the establishment therein of a national home for the Jewish people. Four parallel mandates were created to protect the political rights of Arab nations — in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and, later, Transjordan. Uniquely it is the right of the Jewish people to political self-determination that has been subjected to continual attack ever since: in a series of further wars and terrorist attacks, in the UN, in the aggressions of Hamas and Hizbolla, in the genocidal threats of the President of Iran, in innumerable efforts to isolate and boycott Israel, and in the publication of works of biased historiography and drama like The Promise.
Drama has the advantage that rival views can clash and conflicting claims and truths can be explored. This is why it is so sad when formerly respected writers like Caryl Churchill descend into writing agitprop (her infamous Seven Jewish Children) which feeds hatred rather than exploring difficult and complex historical and political issues. Drama descends into propaganda when arguments are enunciated that should be answered, or at least debated, and that opportunity is deliberately closed down.
At so many points in the course of The Promise dubious allegations are made to Erin as part of her sentimental education. These unsustainable statements are allowed to remain unchallenged. Erin’s blankness and naivety now disclose their narrative function. She is told Israel is a military dictatorship. She 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. She is told that the controversial security fence has no security purpose. She knows nothing about the radical reduction in terrorist attacks within Israel which has in fact been brought about by the construction of the fence. She is told that any kind of crime against Palestinians and their children is permissible to the Israeli occupying forces in the West Bank. She knows nothing about the close and scrupulous scrutiny to which the IDF is — quite rightly — subjected. Israel’s vigorous judiciary — which has frequently challenged the Israeli authorities when wrongs have taken place — is airbrushed out of this picture. Erin visits a former Irgun fighter sitting complacently in his mansion. She says to him: “My grandfather thought the Jews were ungrateful; after all, the British fought for the Jews in the Second World War.” Oh really? How is it that he is given no words to challenge this fatuous contention? These are not coincidences: this is programmatic.
What drives the narrative of The Promise is the tale of a conscientious English girl who matures out of teenage solipsism by setting herself a mission: she returns to the family of her grandfather’s Arab servant the key to the house they once owned in Jerusalem. She explains that she found it in her grandpa’s diary. She apologises for the delay. She says flatly to Grandpa Len in the final scene of the series that she hopes what she has done is all right. He and she and we are moved that she has been able to redeem Len’s promise (to return the key) which he made as long ago as 1948. It’s touching, but does it bear much examination? This central metaphor of righting the wrongs of the past by returning the key is a sterile one: it’s all about how virtuous it makes her feel to fulfil that pledge. The symbolic key fits a lock which has been scrapped long ago. Similarly otiose is the underlying analysis, that the essence of the story of Israel’s foundation is the dispossession of Palestinian Arabs. Undoubtedly that loss forms part of the story, but to frame it in this way allows the fate of the Jewish people and their national cause to fall outside the scope of sympathy.
Property rights are but one element of the story. Cataclysmic historical changes inevitably generate victims. Their losses usually go way beyond bricks and mortar. Certainly some of the 600,000 Arabs who fled in 1948 were property owners and lost their homes. Arabs who chose to stay (for example in Haifa) retained their property and became citizens of the new state. Many of those who fled did so at the urging of the seven invading Arab armies and fully expected to return in triumph following the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Jews. When this outcome (which most of those Arab refugees expected and desired) did not come about (as a result of a traumatic war in the course of which both the Jews and their enemies lost a terrible number of their sons) some of those refugees were indeed left holding keys to houses they would never enter again. Theirs is a sad story, but it is one we have heard before. A narrative that is less often told, and certainly is not hinted at in this project, is the history of the larger number of Jews in Arab lands who lost their homes, their communities and all their property in the exchange of populations that followed the massive upheavals of the 1940s (not only in the Middle East and India/Pakistan, but also across Europe). In any event, the private property argument applies (in so far as it does at all) only to a tiny proportion of the land in pre-Israel Palestine since the overwhelming bulk of the land was held by the British pursuant to the Mandate on behalf of the Jews. Rights in that land passed to the State of Israel in May 1948.
The promise that makes no appearance in this mini-series is the promise that was made by the League of Nations and inherited by the United Nations and devolved upon Britain: to support and enable the Jews to create and protect their national home. Due to its own political interests at the time, Britain failed to discharge its Mandate. By preventing Jewish immigration to Palestine during and after the Second World War (including turning back ships carrying Holocaust survivors) Britain callously attempted to close off the last refuge available to the Jewish people in its darkest hour. Britain has earned no forgiveness for that crime. On the evidence of The Promise it is not even repentant.
Of course I speak for no-one but myself, but many Jews worldwide and in Britain share my view that since the ignominious end of the Mandate in 1948 Britain has been at best irrelevant to Israel. Britain shares none of the credit for Israel’s survival and success. At worst Britain has been a diplomatic antagonist to Israel in the international arena. I am now far from alone in regarding London as the capital of a worldwide campaign to attack Israel’s legitimacy. Part of that destructive enterprise involves re-writing the history of Israel’s creation.
Kosminsky has made Erin’s key a symbol of the debt that Britain left undischarged when it withdrew from Palestine in 1948. Viewers that accept this premise conclude (with Kosminsky) that Britain’s debt was owed only to the Palestinian Arabs. This is historically, politically and morally a nonsense. Only by eliding the rest of the story does this key — proposed as the key to the truth about Israel’s genesis — trump all other arguments, including the authentic, urgent and internationally mandated claim of the Jews to self-determination. In her final words Erin asserts that she has learned so much. She expects congratulation for bravery for her indignant interventions. But in the end her return of an obsolete key is no more than a futile gesture. The real unfulfilled promise in this story is that of the British Mandate in Palestine.