BBC R4 “Little Moscow in Israel” programme fails on accuracy and impartiality

On June 10th 2013 BBC Radio 4 aired a programme made by Ladbroke Productions – produced by the company’s director Richard Bannerman, with presentation/narration by Dennis Marks (both former BBC employees) – entitled “Little Moscow in Israel”. Commissioned programmes are, of course, required to meet the same editorial standards as content produced by the BBC itself. 

The programme can be heard for a limited period of time here or for those with access to iPlayer, here.

Little Moscow

Whilst claiming (according to its less than accurate synopsis) that it “explores the life of the 1.2 million Israelis of Russian origin”, the programme actually has three levels. At first hearing, it may seem like a rather benign portrait, with sympathetic sketches of the Gesher Theatre Company and the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. But underneath that level lies a second one made up of stereotypical generalisations about the Israelis who came from the former USSR and subjective individual experiences. Underneath that level, we find a third one consisting of the advancement of the programme makers’ own personal prejudices and stereotypes about Israel which are hung on the hook of the subject of USSR-born Israelis. 

At 03:26 Dennis Marks informs listeners that:

“Practicing Jews don’t speak of immigration to Israel. They talk of making aliyah – going up.”

Of course the use of the Hebrew word aliyah has nothing whatsoever to do with the user’s level of religious observance and hence Marks’ claim is – in contravention of BBC editorial guidelines – inaccurate. 

One of the programme’s interviewees is Lily Galili – a senior journalist at Ha’aretz for 30 years. We will never know what parts of the conversation with Galili were edited out of this programme, but what was left in creates a bland caricature of over a million people with sweeping claims such as “they hated the climate”. 

Next, listeners hear from Elizabeth Tsurkov  (with Marks conveniently forgetting to inform readers that she is a contributor to the radical far-Left ‘+972 magazine’) who claims that:

“There wasn’t much housing available, so Russians were pushed to the periphery”.

Housing was indeed a big issue, as it would be in any country with such a large number of new immigrants arriving in such a short period of time, and naturally much of the new building to accommodate their needs took place on cheaper land outside the Gush Dan metropolitan area –as indeed had been the case with previous large waves of immigration. But Tsurkov’s generalised observation ignores both the large communities of immigrants from the former USSR in places such as Bat Yam (just south of Tel Aviv) or Petah Tikva, the subsequent independent relocation of many immigrants in the following years and projects such as ‘First Home in the Homeland’ (Beit Rishon B’Moledet) in which new immigrants were housed in kibbutzim for their first six months in Israel. 

At 12:37 Marks says:

“In the early nineties indigenous Israelis known as sabras stigmatized the new arrivals. They may have been invited to swell Jewish numbers to match those of the Palestinians, but for the sabras they also constituted a threat.”

Listeners are not given any factual evidence to support those highly politicised statements by Marks (or any information about the Law of Return) and the insinuation of stigma and discrimination is continued when Tsurkov says:

“Doctors, for example, managed to do exams and prove that they are real doctors even though they studied in the USSR”.

The facts, however, are very different. The wave of immigration in the early 90s included a very high number of doctors, with nobody doubting for a moment that they were “real doctors”, but not enough job openings for all of them. In common with the standard practice in most Western countries, immigrant doctors were required to take training courses designed to familiarize them with the local language in general, the local medical terminology and the very different methods of practicing medicine in Israel whereby doctors first qualify in general medicine and only then specialize in a certain field – in contrast to the system in the USSR. They then sat exams in order to qualify to practice medicine in Israel and those able to meet the required standards were absorbed into the medical system according to the quotas available. 

At 14:22 Marks’ commentary moves into the sphere of the overtly political. 

“One contentious prospect for ‘generation one and a half’ [people who immigrated to Israel as children] is offered by the settlements in the occupied territories. We’re driving down Route 5. Turn right out of Tel Aviv, cross a checkpoint and you’re in the West Bank. We’re on our way to Ariel – not so much a settlement; more a small town. It began as a hilltop encampment for a handful of settlers in 1978. Now it has light and heavy industry, new shopping centres and schools. It’s the archetypal fact on the ground. More than half its citizens are Russians.”

In Ariel, Marks meets an Israeli who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 1991 and who explains to him that his reasons for living there are primarily ones of convenience.  Rather ironically, Marks continues:

“Another stereotype bites the dust. Moshe isn’t the Zionist settler of journalistic cliché. He isn’t an ideologue, he’s not even religious. He’s firmly secular like the majority of new Russians.”

It is revealing that Marks insists upon calling Moshe and other Israelis who have lived in the country for 22 years “new Russians”.  One presumes that any attempt by a foreign journalist to describe British citizens of two decades’ standing in their own multicultural country as “new Pakistanis” or “new Jamaicans” would be met with fierce disapproval from most BBC editors and journalists.

The synopsis to the programme which appears on the BBC website claims (inter alia) that:

“He [Marks] hears of Russian/Israeli weddings which rabbis have refused to solemnise, because the bride cannot prove that she has a Jewish mother.”

Whilst Marks may have heard of such things, his listeners do not. His next interviewee – Dima Motel – states quite clearly that the rabbinate did recognize him as being Jewish when he went through the standard process of registration for a religious marriage.  The insinuation that such a process is confined to immigrants from the former USSR is of course untrue and constitutes another inaccuracy.

The next notion which Marks tries to advance is that of supposed identification with the political right by immigrants from the former USSR. He interviews Arik Elman – a former spokesman for ‘Israel B’Aliyah’ – who explains to him that the ‘Russian vote’ can be found across the political spectrum, with concentration on the Right and Centre. Marks is not apparently curious enough to wonder if the reality of years spent under communist oppression might influence the political opinions of immigrants from the former USSR. Instead, the programme cuts directly to Elizabeth Tsurkov who says:

“I think Russians are…will continue to identify with the Right, but as the older generation dies out and becomes less influential there is room for other voices. Voices that are more liberal. People who don’t feel the need to prove that we are real Israelis by hating others, by hating Palestinians, by hating Arabs.”

Not only does that grotesque caricature of Israeli conservative politics and Israelis in general somehow get past BBC editorial standards of impartiality, but Marks adds his own ominous commentary.

“Elizabeth Tsurkov again, speaking for the young, liberal minority. But they are most definitely a minority.”

Marks continues: 

“Back in Ariel’s Russian bazar, life may appear stable and comfortable. Secular Russians are free to eat their pork sausages. Today is Saturday and the shops in Jerusalem are firmly shut. Here the Sabbath opening hours are 9 a.m to 6 p.m. But scratch the surface and you’ll quickly remember that you are seventeen miles into the West Bank. Ariel is named after the former premier Sharon who coined the phrase ‘facts on the ground’. For Moshe these facts offer nothing but benefit to the Palestinians who once cultivated these hilltops.”

Marks’ claim that Ariel lies “seventeen miles into the West Bank” is not even supported by ‘Peace Now : the western entrance to Ariel is some ten miles from the ‘green line’. His claim that the town is named after Ariel Sharon is only partly correct. It was actually originally named after one of Jerusalem’s synonyms, but in 2009, whilst keeping the same name, was ‘renamed’ after Sharon. 

Immediately following his interviewee’s explanation of how many Palestinians from the surrounding area work in Ariel’s industrial zones, Marks interjects:

“Is that really the case? No Palestinians live in Ariel. You won’t see them in the Russian supermarket. Nor can they use the gym and the swimming pool in what Russians call Ariel’s country club. Its funding comes from American benefactors, but the water in the pool is diverted from the nearby Palestinian aquifer.”

No Israelis of course live in Nablus or Tulkarem and you won’t see them in the supermarkets or gyms there either, but that fact – or mention of the Oslo Accords and Palestinian Authority-controlled Areas A and B – does not fit in very well with the narrative of discrimination which Marks is trying very hard to promote. What Marks calls the “country club” is the Milken Sports and Recreation Complex. It does indeed receive contributions from benefactors abroad, but Marks neglects to inform his listeners why it was built

“In reaction to the violence and terrorism that began with the Intifada … in the year 2000, Mayor Ron Nachman initiated the construction of a comprehensive sport facility. He envisioned a family center where Ariel residents could build themselves both physically and emotionally.”

And what of Marks’ claim of water diverted from some “nearby Palestinian aquifer” to Ariel’s swimming pool? As we know only too well, the BBC excels in weird and wonderful tales of ‘stolen Palestinian water’ – keeping a highly problematic permanent feature on the subject on its website.  Apparently Marks and Bannerman – along with subsequent BBC editors – did not bother to fact check the veracity of their claim – but BBC Watch did just that.

Mr Yigal Rosental – Director of the Ariel Water Corporation – informed us that:

“The water in the swimming pool is received in the framework of the general town water supply which is supplied to us by the company ‘Mekorot’. The source of the water supplied by Mekorot’s pipelines is in the coastal lowlands.”

Yigal Rosental

In other words, the water in Ariel’s swimming pool does not come from “Palestinian” sources at all and Marks’ claim that it does represents a serious breach of both accuracy and impartiality. 

Mark’s next interviewee is Liza Rozovsky, whom he describes as a “Russian-born journalist and human rights worker”. Once again, Marks is not completely candid: Rozovsky is “Spokesperson of the OPT Department at Association for Civil Rights in Israel” and her organization is of course one of the many political NGOs operating in the region using the ‘apartheid’ trope to delegitimize Israel.

Towards the end of the programme Marks turns his attentions to the subject of multiculturalism. 

“It goes back to the very beginnings of Zionism in the 1890s when the Austrian journalist Theodore Herzl imagined the Judenstaat  – the Jewish state – as a multicultural rainbow nation. When the state was finally founded sixty years later, its first prime minister, Ben Gurion, had a very different vision. Israel would be a melting pot in which Jews from Western Europe, North Africa, the Levant and beyond would combine together to create a new national identity. But have they?”

Herzl certainly did not use the modern catch-phrase “rainbow nation” and Marks’ claim that he was a committed multiculturalist is arguably very far-fetched, with one of the few references to that subject in his pamphlet being little more than an afterthought.

“And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live amongst us, we should accord them honorable protection and equality before the law.”

But Marks’ romanticized portrayal of the founder of Zionism serves as background to the point he really wants to make and that is that Israelis have supposedly betrayed the multicultural Zionist ideals as he perceives them.

Marks concludes:

“I first met Russian immigrants here almost thirty years ago. In the 1980s many of them seemed lost and confused. Returning in the early decades of the 21st century, with Russians in the Knesset, with Russian towns in the desert, with Russian theatre companies and Russian technocrats dominating the new industries, I imagined that confusion would have given way to confidence. But I wonder. How many more generations will it take for the schism between melting pot and rainbow to be resolved? How long before Israelis address the much greater gulf between facts on the ground like Ariel and the people who can’t shop in its bazar and can’t swim in its pool?”

What exactly “Russian towns in the desert” are supposed to be is a mystery. There are Israeli towns in the desert in Israel, but “Russian” ones? Does Marks also make a habit of referring to ‘Pakistani towns on the moors’ in his own country? One very much doubts it.

But that is precisely the issue with this whole programme. Marks’ anachronistic intellectual colonialism allows him to be judge and jury, making sweeping generalisations and promoting jaded stereotypes and glaring inaccuracies in order to promote his own political agenda. Rather than making an honest attempt to explore and understand “the life of the 1.2 million Israelis of Russian origin” and to discover the ways in which Israel has succeeded in absorbing them, Marks is unable to resist using those people as a springboard from which to advance well-worn themes of Israeli racism and discrimination.

That is a pity, because had he actually approached the subject with an open mind and tried to learn something from the experience, he might have been able to provide Radio 4 listeners with some food for thought regarding approaches to the subject of immigration which have turned out to be considerably more successful than those with which they are familiar in their own country. Instead, Marks and Bannerman merely spoon-feed  BBC audiences more fertilizer for their already warped impressions of Israel. 

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