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.

18 Responses to “The Promise as agitprop”

  1. Zkharya Says:

    Thanks for this, David.

  2. David F Says:

    One of the problems with ‘The Promise’ is that although it works well as a drama it portrays Israelies very negatively. I don’t mind so much the clearly possitive representation of the Palestinian narrative, except when it ventures into propoganda and the misrepresentation of history, portraying Jews only as terrorist aggressors whilst ignoring completely the efforts of the mainstream Jewish army, the Haganah, to oppose terrorism, even to the extent of turning them over to the British.
    The trouble is that most people who will have watched this very emotive series will not necessarily go out and read 1948 by Benny Morris to fill in the gaps and will conclude as many seem to have done already on the comments section of the channel 4 website that it is ‘historically accurate’ and ‘truthful’…
    That’s a real shame in my view.

  3. Zkharya Says:

    If you depict the Holocaust as the justification for a Jewish state in Palestine/the land of Israel, you are granting Zionism no justification at all.

    The Holocaust is the not reason Jews have been regarded, by themselves and others, as a people exiled and dispossessed, for most of Christian history.

    The Jews being regarded as a non-European, non-Arab, ethno-nationally ‘Judean’ (i.e. ‘Palestinian’) people is in no small part the reason for most being killed in or expelled from most of Old World Christendom and Islam in the 19th and 20th centuries; before 1914 mostly to America; after 1914 mostly to Palestine or what became Israel.

  4. BobFromBrockley Says:

    “a Deir Yassin style village” – the titles actually said it was Deir Yassin. Len’s presence there was so ridiculous.

  5. Saul Says:

    I could not help thinking that Len’s experience – whose feeling of sorrow for “the Jews” after what he witnessed at Belsen turns into anger against them because of the war they fought against the imperialist Brits and their refusing to act like eternal victims – mirrors accurately the experience of Europe as a whole in the period 1948 to the present and which is captured nicely in the slogan of “how, after all the Jews have gone through, can they do this” (i.e. act like any other state).

    However, considering Len’s final words about Israel being born out of violence, I am not sure Kominsky meant this to be the “moral” of the story.

    (Needless to say, the idea that the Brits “felt sorry” for the Jews in 1945 is risible. See Bevin?, see the war the Jews had to fight, see immigration restrictions, etc, etc..)

  6. Bill Says:

    A good post with some interesting points.

    However, the notion that Jews and Arabs have lived peacefully together in the region for a long time is not a “gross distortion”. It would be more accurate to describe it as a slight exageration. Jews and Arabs lived peacefully in the region before the rise of modern nationalism when compared to the West during the same period. Relations between the two groups were certainly not equal and were not good by modern standards, but the situation was much better for Jews than it was in the West

  7. zachary esterson Says:

    ‘Jews and Arabs lived peacefully in the region before the rise of modern nationalism when compared to the West during the same period. Relations between the two groups were certainly not equal and were not good by modern standards, but the situation was much better for Jews than it was in the West’

    ‘“The Jews and Arabs have been living here in relative harmony for thousands of years”

    Is a distortion. And a gross one. ‘Harmony’ is highly value laden, and implies a relation of equals. Even ‘peacefully’ is problematical, because, again, it implies equality. Jews were subject to periodic violence and abuse, according to the records, and they had little to no redress. They couldn’t bear arms.

    The Ashkenazim were expelled for 100 years from Jerusalem in the 18th century. The Hurva synagogue closed, and renovations refused. There were progroms in the 1834-5 in Hebron and Safed, when the imperial power was removed.

    And underlying it all was an apartheid, a systematic discrimination, by Christians as well as Muslims, as legacies of imperial Christian and Islamic rule. predicated on the notion that the Jews are a people accursed/punished for their rejection of Jesus and the prophets with dispossession and humiliation, and that was the state in which they were to remain.

    One reason Palestine compares so favourably with Europe, after all, is that there were hardly any Jews there. And that was a legacy of Roman pagan then Christian imperial policies towards Jews in the land, followed by that of the Muslims.

    To call that ‘thousands of years’ (sic) of ‘harmony’ is a serious distortion in a drama that purports to be historical, and purports to do justice to the circumstances in which the modern arose.

  8. Truth Says:

    “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.”

    Well that’s not quite true is it,

    casts a heavy doubt over your entire ‘unbiased’ review

  9. conchovor Says:

    Hi, Truth,

    had you read your link, the last lethal suicide bombing was in Eilat. It likely originated from Gaza-Sinai, not the West Bank. The same goes for the thwarted Dimona attack.

    I think somehow who prefers to use the PSEUDO-nym of ‘truth’ rather than his or her name is a contradiction in terms, particularly when they haven’t even the moral courage of their convictions to read through their own link properly.

  10. conchovor Says:

    In any case, the barrier doesn’t have to be 100% perfect to prove its worth.

  11. conchovor Says:

    ‘According to Israeli authorities, the bombers entered Israel through the Egyptian border with Israel, after slipping out of Gaza when Hamas forces demolished a portion of the separation wall between Gaza and Egypt last month.’

  12. brocklydave Says:

    The promise was possibly the most anti-semetic programme i have ever seen on tv.
    Why anti-semetic you cry surely just anti-zionist .
    but what can you say about a programme that shows one religeon to be devious ,violent,naive ,hypocritical ,acquiescent and traitorous.

    i can,t think of any jewish character shown in a positive light with the possible exception of the left wing son who shows Erin a different view on the conflict .
    But even then he is shown to be a hypocrite after promising not to take up arms again .He is shown to pick up a gun and shoot at Palestinians .When questioned he says its a matter of loyalty.
    Every jewish character has a flaw or worse.The jewish women who work for british are seen to be extremists in on e case willing to go to extreme methods to get information.
    The british jew in the army is seen to be a traitor so the programme just isn,t anti-israeli.
    If you watched the programme you might end up with the impression that most jews supported the irgun and stern gang and none could be trusted .
    The arabs were seen as being poor and defencless and the jews comparatively wealthy and agressive.
    Even the so called Liberal jews lived in luxury and ignorance of the real conditions .We even get to hear of a clearly racist comment by the liberal general that his son recounts just so we understand nearly all jews are wrong .

    When the british are attacked in a jeep and left for dead we see jews infdifferent or happy at the bloodshed ,with none going to their aid.

    We already have plenty of attacks on jews in the uk ,this series can only encourage more .

    We see jews murdering arab women and children in cold blood yet we never see arabs doing the same to jews ,except with the suicide bomb.

    just imagine if a tv series showed muslims or others behaving like that and the outcry there would rightfuly be .

    Any director is entitled to their view of the situation in palestine .But are they really being responsible in showing one particular religeon in such a negative light?

    i have written enough for now but consider the historical negative acts shown by the jews ,whilst similar events by arabs just arn,t mentioned .

    we have a british army seargant who attends every major extremist jewish event but misses any committed by arabs.
    Idiotic coincidence pile up just to reinforce the anti jewish message.iTS A device used far more sparingly in the directors award winning “WARRIORS” series.

    But in this mini series it just becomes embaressing.

  13. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    “Truth”, did you notice the headline to the piece you linked to? It read:

    “First Suicide Bombing in Israel in Over a Year”

    That, I think speaks for itself. Or are you one of those people who said that because, let’s say, speed cameras had reduced the accident rate ona particular road by “only” 20%, therefore, the whole speed camera programme was a failure? I suspect that the answer is yes.

  14. conchovor Says:

    Could I recommend this largely unnoticed 2006 film (very loose) adaptation of Lapierre’s and Collin’s O Jerusalem:

    Ian Holmes is Ben Gurion.

    It has its production flaws but, it shows the course of the 1947-49 war for Jerusalem quite well.

  15. Yisrael Medad Says:

    Can I be more exact about one incident? You write: “the violent razing of the King David Hotel”. a) only the south wing was attacked which had been expropriated for office space by the Mandatory Administration beginning in 1938; b) that wing held the offices not only of Mandatory Departments and of the Secretariat but of the Army command as well; c) it was guarded by a platoon of Paras; d) it was an operation authorized by none other than Moshe Sneh, Chief of the Hagana, in a meeting on May 15, 1946 of the ‘X’ Committee of the United Hebrew Resistance Movement.

    As I have not seen the series, I cannot analyze the details, or lack thereof, of other incidents which would check if there is any historical accuracy but this is just one example.

    If the UK Jewish establishment bodies want to do something, they should pick out a half-dozen scenes, record them, analyze them and with a “stop-deconstruct” method show what the viewer saw and what was the truth. Those could be uploaded or taken to schools or assemblies to destroy the docudrama’s relaibility.

    • David Miller Says:

      It’s not the accuracy of the events dramatised here that I’m questioning but rather the way they are presented, without any sense of or feel for their historical context. No-one doubts that crimes were committed in the name of nationalism, but Kosminsky seems to be under the impression that only Jewish nationalists were involved. I’d love to see the transcripts of the British veterans’ testimonies that he used and whether he checked their veracity against more informed records such as Christopher Sykes’ (Crossroads to Israel).

  16. conchovor Says:

    ‘If the UK Jewish establishment bodies want to do something, they should pick out a half-dozen scenes, record them, analyze them and with a “stop-deconstruct” method show what the viewer saw and what was the truth. Those could be uploaded or taken to schools or assemblies to destroy the docudrama’s relaibility.’

    Excellent idea.

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