What does the BBC Academy teach the corporation’s journalists about Judaism?

If you happened to be a BBC journalist looking for information about an unfamiliar faith, the place to go would be the BBC Academy’s Subject Guide on Religion. There you would find the following introductory statement:

“Attitudes to religion are influenced by understanding – and it’s a journalist’s job to inform. So it’s important to be aware of the principles behind the world’s religions. In this section of the BBC Academy website, some of the BBC’s most experienced commentators […] guide you through the basics.”

One of the eight items on that page is former BBC religious affairs correspondent Emily Buchanan’s guide to Judaism which consists of text and a ten and a half-minute video. At the end of that video Buchanan tells her colleagues:Academy Judaism

“A knowledge of the history and of the different practices within Judaism is essential if journalists are going to report accurately any story connected with the Jewish faith.”

Indeed – and one might therefore expect Buchanan’s filmed guide to pay particular attention to the accuracy of its presentation of Judaism and Jews. So how does it fare?

Standing in front of the Western Wall, Buchanan tells viewers:

“This is the remains of the outer wall of the Jewish Second Temple, built by King Herod the Great.”

No – that is a retaining wall of the Temple Mount plaza: not a remnant of the Temple itself.

Buchanan goes on:

“The Western Wall is the holiest place in the world for Jews to pray.”

Misleading: the holiest place in Judaism is Temple Mount but Jews do not pray there under the terms of the status quo. The Western Wall is the closest site to Temple Mount where Jews are currently permitted to pray.  

“It’s also called the Wailing Wall because for centuries Jews have come here to lament the destruction of their Temple.”

The anachronistic term “Wailing Wall” is of course an English invention which is not used by those for whom the site has cultural and religious significance.

With regard to the Temple, viewers are also told that:

“Inside used to be the Ark of the Covenant: scrolls containing the Ten Commandments which the prophet Moses brought to Israel after the exodus from Egypt.”

The Ark of the Covenant is of course viewed as an object in itself, the Ten Commandments are said to have been inscribed on stone tablets rather than scrolls and Moses did not enter Israel.

Footage of worshippers laying Tefillin is accompanied by the statement “from the age of 13 men wrap this black tape around their arms….” and the Torah is confusingly described as “the first five books of the Christian bible”. [emphasis added]

There is also no shortage of dubious political commentary in this film. Despite the fact that Israel’s first Knesset included sixteen representatives from the United Religious Front, viewers are told that:

“Israel was created in 1948 by Jewish nationalists who were not, in the main, religious. But in the years since then the influence of religious Jews in politics has grown.”

As is usually the case in BBC content, the terms of the Mandate for Palestine and the Jordanian occupation of Judea & Samaria and parts of Jerusalem are erased, with history hence conveniently beginning after the Six Day War.

“….Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war….”

“This then inspired Jewish settlers to move into Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza…” [emphasis added]

Those “Jewish settlers” are portrayed as a homogeneous group, with the kibbutz movement erased from history:

“The settlement movement, driven by religious Zionists, came to dominate the Israeli Right and became the most dynamic movement in the politics of the Jewish state.”

British Jews too find themselves subject to some dubious labelling:

“The more Orthodox communities are finding their numbers growing because of their higher birth rate while more moderate Jews are seeing their numbers drop as some marry out of the faith.”

Near the beginning of the film viewers are told that;

“There are 12 million Jewish people in the world – most of them here in Israel and in America and the former Soviet Union.”

The former Soviet Union actually has fewer Jews today than France, the UK or Canada. Buchanan then goes on to promote the following stereotype:

“The numbers are small compared to the other major faiths but Jewish people exert considerable political and cultural influence.”

Towards the end of the film, viewers are told that:

“The so-called Jewish lobby in the United States has done much to keep America’s loyalty to Israel unshaken. It’s also teamed up with the Christian Right to find a common goal in opposing Islamic influence in the Holy Land.”

This film is supposed to be a reference item for BBC journalists, designed to help them produce accurate, impartial and informative content. It is therefore little wonder that we see, for example, repeated inaccuracies concerning the Western Wall and Temple Mount in BBC reporting or that promotion of the ‘Jewish lobby’ trope has become such a regular feature of BBC content.

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