BBC Radio 4’s ‘Sunday’ misleads on Western Wall and the Waqf

When the Israeli government approved plans for a new mixed gender prayer area at the Western Wall and the end of January the BBC produced two accurate reports on that story.

A written article which appeared on the BBC News website under the title “Liberal Jews to get prayer site at Jerusalem’s Western Wall” correctly informed readers that:

“The Western Wall is a remnant of the retaining wall of the mount on which the Holy Temples once stood, and is one of the most sacred sites in Judaism. Every year, millions of Jews from all over the world visit the wall to pray.”

In a filmed report for BBC television news which also appeared on the website under the headline “New prayer space approved at Jerusalem’s Western Wall“, Jonathan Josephs accurately described the Western Wall as “the holiest site at which they [Jews] can pray”.Sunday 7 2 R4

However, when the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Sunday’ covered the same story on February 7th (from 00:53 here), a decline in the standard of reporting was evident. Presenter Edward Stourton introduced the item by telling listeners that:

“The Israeli government’s decision to approve a new area by Jerusalem’s Western Wall where men and women can pray together will mean some big physical changes at Judaism’s holiest site.”

The Western Wall is of course not “Judaism’s holiest site” – Temple Mount holds that title – and it is difficult to understand why that inaccuracy is repeatedly found in BBC content, especially in a programme which purports to focus on “religious issues”.

Later on, while discussing the story with journalist Judy Maltz, Stourton materially misled listeners by inaccurately claiming that the Waqf has authority over the Western Wall.

“There is also of course opposition from outside – isn’t there – from the Palestinians and from the Muslim authorities responsible for the area.” [emphasis added]

As the Times of Israel explains:

“While the Jordanian-run Waqf governs the top of the Temple Mount […] Israel maintains control over access to the site as well as areas below the Mount, as part of a status quo agreement in place since 1967. Israel does not allow Jews to pray atop the mount.”

 Stourton’s statement is not merely inaccurate: its significance also lies in the fact that for some time now Palestinian officials have been promoting the politically motivated falsehood that the Western Wall is a Muslim site as a Ha’aretz report from 2010 shows.

“The United States on Tuesday condemned claims by a senior Palestinian official that the Western Wall of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount holds no significance for Jews.

Al-Mutawakil Taha, the Palestinian Authority’ deputy minister of information, had said Wednesday that the wall, regarded as Judaism’s holiest site, was part of an Islamic waqf, or religious endowment, and that only “Islamic tolerance” allowed Jews to pray there. […]

“We strongly condemn these comments and fully reject them as factually incorrect, insensitive and highly provocative,” a U.S. State Department spokesman said.

“We have repeatedly raised with the Palestinian Authority leadership the need to consistently combat all forms of de-legitimization of Israel including denying historic Jewish connections to the land.””

Last year the Palestinian Authority unsuccessfully attempted to have UNESCO declare the Western Wall part of al Aqsa Mosque. Whilst the BBC did not report that story at the time, it would appear that at least one of its journalists has chosen to adopt and promote the Waqf’s highly incendiary narrative regardless of the BBC’s commitment to accuracy and impartiality.

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