The Promise as agitprop

This is a guest-post by David Miller.

I occasionally pass comment on films or dramas that I’ve seen, mainly if I think I have something to say that hasn’t been said already. However, the final part of Peter Kosminsky’s factional drama for Channel 4, ‘The Promise’ made such uncomfortable viewing that I just had to write something about it. The series ended, thankfully, without Claire Foy’s Erin being crushed under the tracks of an Israeli army bulldozer. But this obvious parallel with Rachel Corrie’s recent fate was intended to do more than just jog our memories. In the end, Kosminsky wants us to feel Erin’s dawning realisation that all is not well with the modern state of Israel that her Jewish friend Lisa has invited her to visit. She and her grandfather Len (whose wartime diary Erin carries) come into the country, albeit in different eras with almost wide-eyed innocence, despite the latter’s firsthand experience of Bergen-Belsen’s liberation. Both leave with sour aftertastes in their mouths but they also reach a kind of peaceful understanding when on her return to the UK, Erin tells her dying grandfather that she has returned the ‘key’ to its rightful owner. Many (but by no means all) viewers will know how symbolic that final scene was without my having to describe it any further; suffice to say that part 4 of this peak time drama lays on the sour relish very thickly indeed, from the taunting of Palestinian residents by a motley band of ultraorthodox settlers in present day Hebron, to Len’s 1947 encounter with his Jewish ex-lover turned terrorist, who turns up at a massacre of the Arab innocents in a Deir Yassin style village. The young woman’s corruption by violent hatred is the complete opposite of Erin’s enlightenment and we are meant to feel this viscerally when her grandfather’s young charge is mortally wounded in front of him. That particular scene was extensively used in Channel 4’s publicity for the series and even then, I had a bad feeling about it. By focusing almost exclusively on the plight of the Palestinians, Kosminsky guides us on a grand tour of everything and anything that is wrong with Israeli life. Through his lens, Israelis are either well heeled colonialist types living in grand circumstances (Lisa’s family) or as jackbooted occupiers, either protecting obnoxious Jewish settlers from their Arab neighbours or brutally carrying out reprisals against the families of suicide bombers (including using a child as a human shield).

Any politically active person watching this well crafted and well acted series who harboured nagging doubts about Israel’s legitimacy as a State or its treatment of the Palestinians should by now have had them fully dispelled. Kosminsky’s lens on past events views Israel’s legitimacy as at best questionable and at worst, criminal. The ‘ordinary’ viewers’ reactions that I canvassed, however, varied from being ‘none the wiser’ to ‘I didn’t realise the Jews had stolen their land’. From the comfort of our armchairs, we see Len’s sympathies for the Jewish refugees turning up on the beaches of Mandatory Palestine slowly fade as he encounters one Jewish atrocity after another, culminating in the violent razing of the King David Hotel. From the point in part 1 of the series, when Len’s commanding officer declares that Arab and Jews have lived in peace in the region for thousands of years and that the army’s job now is to keep the two sides apart, our earlier hopes for a transparent account fade with Len’s. We know that this announcement is a gross distortion of the truth but we are powerless to interject. When Lisa’s brother shows Erin the Wall and what it really means for Palestinians, she looks and is confused because it is clearly an obscenity; but surely there must be a reason for it being put there. In the following episodes we are left in no doubt what that reason is as Erin begins to grudgingly understand and accept the suicide bombers’ motivation. What most of the programme’s audience won’t know is that suicide attacks disappeared as the Wall was built and that Erin was a decade too late to have encountered one in the Israel that she visits.

Kosminsky has commented that he wanted to tell a complex and tragic story as best he could and the approach taken of linking the experiences of Len and Erin across the 60 years of history that separates them as young adults is indeed a good one. But his final product turns out to be so shallow that it more closely resembles agitprop. If this really was not his intention, then his researchers must bear some responsibility for relying so heavily on Combatants for Peace (which Lisa’s brother supports), and Breaking the Silence, both of which are unsympathetic to Israel’s situation. In the end, Kosminsky’s drama helps us to the conclusion that Israel’s foundation was on balance a tragic mistake and that the current policies of its leaders are doing nothing to put things right. Few readers of ENGAGE would disagree with his critical view of current Israeli policies; but had his researchers looked more widely and with greater precision, the viewer may just have begun to understand why those policies remain in place.

Unlikely though it may seem, The Promise bears some similarity to The Tudors, now in its fifth series. Both are historical dramas with big budgets and very engaging casts who perform brilliantly all round; and both distort the historic record to fit their respective narratives. The writers of the Tudors will do no lasting harm to the enduring portrayal of the forever youthful Henry because there is no need to worry over its many inconsistencies. As a contemporary and highly controversial issue, however, Kosminski’s faction certainly has the potential to do lasting harm because its omissions carry far greater powers of distortion. For me, the ‘icing’ on the cake was the declaration early on by Lisa’s brother to his family and to Erin that Israel is a military dictatorship because all of its leaders are or were generals. He doesn’t go on to point out that until the day comes when political change really does happen in this troubled, dictator-rich region, all Israelis except the ultraorthodox and Israeli Arabs will be compelled to do national service. To give Kosminski some benefit of the doubt, it must be virtually impossible to do justice to all aspects of such a complex situation in just a few hours of television. Nonetheless, when he comes to answer the critics who will justifiably accuse him of anti-Israel bias, he needs to consider that it is not just the violence that we find uncomfortable to watch, but the almost complete lack of reliable context in which it is framed.

Two pieces by Jonathan Freedland

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