ABC-THE DRUM: “The Promise: controversy rages, understanding lost” by Larry Stillman 17Jan12 January 17, 2012

by Larry Stillman  -  ABC-The Drum  -  17 January 2012

Another freedom of expression issue has raised its head in the Jewish community in Australia.

This time, it involves a series which recently appeared on SBS and is now being sold as a DVD.

The Promise, written and directed by the UK film-maker Peter Kosminsky, gives a picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of a British soldier (Len), in 1948 Palestine fresh from seeing the horrors of the Holocaust. (Kosminsky himself has been interviewed on a number of occasions on his reasoning and method adopted in the series.)

The long and very detailed series is set in 2005 and looks at his granddaughter (Erin) who wishes to return a key that came into Len’s possession to its Palestinian family. Erin is a rather conflicted, brash young person and the story of the key is used as a device to develop conflict and argument over questions of ethics and morality with her wealthy Israeli host family.

There are also Palestinian characters linked to the key, who similarly, are used as a means of provoking responses.

The principal objection from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry to the series – as explained in a strongly worded and detailed complaint to SBS – is that the “insidious” series involves a collective group libel that:

“Unrelentingly portrays the entire Jewish presence throughout the country, including modern-day Israel, as an act of usurpation by Jews who, without exception, are aliens, predators and thieves and who enforce their usurpation by brutal, racist policies akin to those inflicted by the Nazis upon the Jewish people.”

They also object that SBS marketed a fictional account as a historical truth.

This is an extraordinary charge. In addition the ECAJ’s concerns are going to be raised via political allies at Senate Estimates hearings in mid-February, to which SBS director Michael Ebeid has been summoned. There is an implied threat to SBS funding.

It is also reported that the ECAJ wants the DVD withdrawn from sale until the complaint is adjudicated, and the issue has now had a three-page spread in the monopoly print Australian Jewish News, in the online Jwire, and doubtless is being carried by Jewish wire services internationally.

How seriously should the ECAJ’s complaint – or feelings in the Jewish community that the series is anti-Semitic and grossly insulting to Holocaust survivors – be taken?

It should be taken very seriously, because it has major implications (once again) for artistic licence and the capacity of broadcasters to carry controversial programs. It also has implications for defining the meaning of “anti-Semitism” and discussion of Israeli history and the Holocaust. Mind you, the ECAJ has not complained about Israeli Hebrew-language films which appear on SBS that also carry disturbing messages about Israeli and Palestinian politics and identity.

The ECAJ also objects on the basis that Jews in the film are subjected to a degree of critique that is not imposed upon more generously-depicted Palestinian as victims of oppression, without accounting for Palestinian violence. There are also objections to the literary licence used in the series which has collapsed the time and geography of some events so that some are not “real”.

In fact, the film is a fiction based on considerable historical research but unavoidable simplification: Israel is born out of violence and caught up in violence and division. All its characters are metaphors for different aspects of the conflict, including Omar, the Palestinian who is now part of a joint Israel-Palestinian organisation of former combatants (there is a scene at a meeting of the organisation which would also be confronting for many Palestinian viewers). There is also one terrorist bombing involving Palestinians and other confronting events or allusions to Palestinian actions but there is no attempt at “equivalence”.

Part of the complaint also seems to be that the film presents nothing of Israeli ethnic and cultural diversity: they are a monotype. I would argue that while this is a regrettable slip in the series, it is a metaphorical device: a wealthy family represents privilege over Palestinian poverty, the state of being refugees in their own land. The comparison of the ability to live one’s life as one wants as distinct from having to pass through checkpoints is used to promote discomfort and questioning on the part of the viewer. None of this is made up or akin to anti-Semitic stereotyping, and the main Palestinian character is Christian, not Muslim. Furthermore, much of the first episode is devoted to the horrors of the death camps and Len’s reactions to it, and the Holocaust comes up in many conversations between the Jewish characters, because it continues to traumatise them (and perhaps, most disturbingly, blind them to the effects of Israeli actions).

The film is thus about the difficult relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, and it uses what happened in the 1940s and what happens today, through the eyes of its major characters, to question not the existence of the State of Israel (that is never raised), but the trauma on which it came to exist and how it can continue today.

That is indeed a highly controversial question, but given that the series was written and produced by a British Jew, and that the crew and actors are predominantly Israeli Jews and it must therefore reflect their own sentiments as well about the country they live in. To think of them contributing to such an “insidious” series or being manipulated for anti-Semitic purposes by the writer (as implied by the ECAJ complaint), smacks of conspiracy theory reasoning, rather than understanding that the series is a political and moral examination of one of the most enduring and intractable conflicts of the past century. It is about the confronting trauma that effects Israeli society in its unresolved relationship with Palestinians, not Jewish stereotypes.

Larry Stillman is a member of the Executive of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society. View his full profile here.

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