BBC Two’s ‘The Holy Land and Us’ chooses narrative over history

The BBC Two series “The Holy Land and Us – Our Untold Stories”, aired in two parts on March 14th and March 21st, has rightly been criticised for failing to adequately address the topic of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, many of whom took refuge in Israel where their descendants today make up more than half the population.

That subject matter apparently did not fit into the chosen narrative, which was explained by co-presenter Robert Rinder near the beginning of episode two as follows:

“We have two competing foundational stories – the story of dispossession and the story of creation – sitting alongside one another.”

Those two ‘stories’ were however presented throughout the series from one very specific angle. Viewers heard nothing about the dispossession of Jews who lived until 1948 in the Old City of Jerusalem or the eradication of Jewish communities such as Mishmar HaYarden and Kfar Etzion by invading Arab armies.

As for the “story of creation”, the series’ focus on stories concerning a Holocaust survivor and a British Jew inspired to move to Palestine in 1946 after having learned of the atrocities in Europe taps into the existing politically motivated narrative according to which Palestinians ‘paid the price’ for the Holocaust.

The series’ take-away message is expressed towards the end of the second episode by co-host Sarah Agha as follows: [emphasis in italics in the original]

“I can understand that there was this dream. Many Jewish people around the world were told this place could be a sanctuary for them. But Palestine wasn’t empty. It was emptied. There were people here like my family, like hundreds of thousands of others, that had to leave to facilitate what was described as a sanctuary. Where’s the justice in that?”

That simplistic approach to a highly complex topic is also evident in the two personal stories relating to Sarah Agha’s family history presented extensively in the series. In episode one, Agha travels to Ibilin in northern Israel (with no mention made of its Jewish history) to learn about her ancestor Akil Agha. Interestingly, the fact that her ancestors were Bedouin who came to the area from Egypt in the nineteenth century is not mentioned at all in the highly romanticised portrayal of what Agha “did for communities” in the area: described by some historians as essentially a protection racket.  

While Agha tells viewers that part of her family moved to a place called Dalhamiya in the mid to late nineteenth century, no mention is made of the history of that village of tenant farmers in the Jordan Valley. Following the First Egyptian-Ottoman War (1831 – 1833), the conquering Egyptians established four villages in the Jordan Valley with the aim of settling their own countrymen there, one of which was Dalhamiya. After the Ottomans retook power in 1840, those villages were abandoned by their Egyptian settler inhabitants. At least part of Dalahamiya’s lands were sold to the Palestine Jewish Colonisation Association (PICA) and Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov was established there in the 1930s.

When Sarah Agha visits the site of Dalhamiya in episode two of the series she speculates that her ancestors may have left their homes due to the evacuation of the Arab population of Tiberias in April 1948 by British forces after the Haganah “seized control” of the town. Agha’s account of course does not include any mention of the Arab attacks which preceded the evacuation that was requested by the Arab forces themselves.

Although Agha’s local guide tells her that “the Jordanian army asked the people of Dalhamiya to move” ahead of the invasions in that area by Iraqi and Syrian forces, Agha declares herself “sceptical” and goes on to object to the fact that people who evacuated themselves to an enemy country were “not allowed to come back”.

That motif of passive Palestinians ‘forced out’ – with remarkably very little explanation of the invasions by Arab forces before and after May 1948 or the part played by Palestinian fighters – is repeated in the two additional stories from the Palestinian side.

The BBC’s original press release promoting this series stated:

“Rather than presenting a comprehensive history, the series lets the human stories of the time speak for themselves, enabling viewers to reach a richer understanding of the divisions that have lasted to this day.”

Indeed, no effort was made to present the comprehensive history which includes the fact that during Ottoman and British rule over the region, people such as Sarah Agha’s ancestors moved from other countries and regions to settle in the area. Barely any mention is made of the ancient Jewish communities in places such as Jerusalem, Tsfat, Tiberias and Hebron which predated Jewish immigration from elsewhere. 

Hence, the overall result of the framing presented in this series portrays Palestinians as wronged and passive victims who lost land, homes, money and status (while ignoring the topic of the Arabs who did not leave), whereas Jews are presented as immigrants (rather than refugees), however unfortunate, who came from elsewhere to seek “sanctuary” and “build something new”.

By employing that selective framing, the BBC taps into the narrative of “competing stories” which in fact actively hinders audience understanding of the history and “the divisions that have lasted to this day”.

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1 Comment

  1. says: Grimey

    The Holy Land And Us – typical BBC antisemitic garbage designed to further the demonisation of Israel. No prizes for naming the side on which the treacherous BBC stands in the current Iran-Israel war.

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