In which the BBC asks ‘is Zionism wrong?’

A three-minute long and embarrassingly superficial effort by the BBC to explain Zionism.

On July 23rd the BBC put out a short video titled “What is Zionism? A very brief history” on its ‘Ideas’ platform.

“Confused about what Zionism actually is? Here’s a three-minute history from SOAS professor, historian and author, Colin Shindler.”

The same video also subsequently appeared in the ‘Features’ section of the BBC News website’s ‘Middle East’ page. 

The film – made by an external company called Somethin’ Else – begins by giving equal weight to a definition and an outright falsehood. [emphasis in bold added, punctuation in the original]

“For its supporters, Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. For its opponents, it is a means to establish a settler-colonial state in the developing world.”

It goes on:

“Theodor Herzl, a Viennese journalist and playwright, founded the modern Zionist movement in 1897. Yet many orthodox Jews strongly opposed the rise of Zionism. They believed that the Jews would only return to Zion, the land promised by God to the Jews in the Hebrew Bible, with the eventual coming of the Messiah. Jews should not therefore force God’s hand.”

While the First Zionist Congress was indeed held in 1897, it is inaccurate to present Zionism as having come into being in that year and that portrayal erases the First Aliyah which of course included orthodox Jews.

“There were may types of Zionist – Marxist, religious and nationalist, Liberal, Social Democrat – the forerunners of today’s political parties in Israel. But Zionism and Arab nationalism arose during the same period of history, with claims over the same piece of land – a geographical area known for centuries to Jews as the Land of Israel. This is the ideological basis of the seemingly intractable Israel-Palestinian conflict. While there’s been a Jewish presence in the Holy Land since biblical times, at the beginning of the 20th Century the Jews were few in number compared to Christian and Muslim Arabs.”

No effort is made to explain why that was the case and the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine is not mentioned at all in this film.

“Unlike other national liberation movements whose supporters were actually living on the territory they wished to free, Zionist Jews had first to emigrate from a far-flung diaspora, build an infrastructure, and only then initiate a liberation struggle. Zionism therefore does not fit into conventional theory. So, is Zionism wrong or just different?”

Yes – the BBC really did posit that Jewish self-determination might be “wrong”. Totally ignoring the experiences of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews and downplaying antisemitism, the film continues:

“In the aftermath of the French revolution, many 19th Century Jews began to regard themselves as a people with a history, literature, culture and language – and not just followers of an ancient religion, Judaism. Many were highly influenced by progressive national movements in Europe such as the Risorgimento of Mazzini and Garibaldi for a united Italy, and Irish Republican efforts to throw off the yoke of British domination. The example of Russian revolutionary Lenin influenced the socialist Zionist leader and first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion. Lenin demonstrated what could be achieved with a handful of supporters. Many East European Jews wanted to escape the heavy hand of Russian anti-Semitism, [spelling in the original] so the early Zionists were often revolutionary socialists who not only wished to build a new country, but also to construct a new society, unlike the ones they had just left. One of the building blocks of this new society was the kibbutz, [mispronounced] a self-sufficient, self-governing collective.”

Kibbutzim were actually never “self-sufficient”.

“There were many possible territorial solutions where a Jewish state could be built. They ranged from the Portuguese colony of Angola to the Jewish Autonomous Region in the USSR, Birobidzhan on the border of China. Herzl even approached the British with the idea that Uganda might be “a night shelter” on the road to the Land of Israel.”

Viewers are given no information as to why those “solutions” were not acceptable. The film ends with some blatant political messaging and a visual misrepresentation of the Star of David on an image apparently supposed to resemble Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

“Some supporters believe that Zionism completed its task when the state of Israel was established in 1948. Others believe that the Zionist project cannot be considered complete until Israel is at peace, secure within its boundaries and within the wider region, and creates a fairer society for all its inhabitants.”

Why the BBC chose to put out this film at this time is not clear but it could of course be connected to the ongoing antisemitsm scandal in the British Labour party. The unavoidable conclusion, however, is that this three-minute long and embarrassingly superficial effort contributes very little indeed to audience understanding of the topic it purports to address and in the current political climate in the UK, that is a particularly unfortunate waste of licence fee funds.

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