Channel 4’s The Promise breaks new ground for Palestine on British TV

Drama breaks new ground on mainstream TV by portraying some of the brutality that characterises the state of Israel and shattering its claims to be a democracy.

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Written and directed by Peter Kosminsky for Channel 4, The Promise is a four-part drama series that tells the story of the creation of the state of Israel in Palestine, 1948. Set mainly in Haifa, events are seen through the eyes of two British protagonists – Len, a sergeant in the British army of occupation in 1947/48, and his granddaughter Erin, who visits Israel 60 years later during her gap year at the invitation of a friend.

Reading her grandfather Len’s diary six decades after the events it describes, 18-year-old Erin learns about some of the momentous events that led to the Palestinian Nakba (‘catastrophe’) at the same time as her travels in modern-day Israel/Palestine are opening her eyes to the legacy of that time.

Originally inspired by the letter of a Mandate-era British soldier, the drama has been meticulously researched. Seventy former servicemen contributed their stories in order to give a detailed picture of the way ordinary British soldiers in Palestine lived and thought during the years immediately preceding the partition and ethnic cleansing of the country.

There are excellent performances throughout the seven-and-a-half hour drama, particularly from the two leads, Christian Cooke and Claire Foy, and the authentic atmosphere is immeasurably boosted by an excellent supporting cast of Palestinian and Israeli actors and by being shot on location in Israel itself.

We see the enormous sympathy that most soldiers initially had for the jews following the atrocities of World War Two, and we see how the zionists played on that sympathy to foster support for a jewish state in Palestine.

Setting up social clubs in which ordinary soldiers mixed with jewish girls was one tool used by the zionists to great effect – both as a means of spreading sympathy for zionism and also as a way to gather information on the movements of British forces. Len’s love affair with a jewish girl who turns out to be a militant Irgun fighter is one of many relationships that is shown to help zionist paramilitaries in their mission to speed up the process of ejecting the British army from Palestine.

Len’s ultimate disillusionment with both his lover, who he sees taking part in the massacre of unarmed Palestinian villagers, as well as with his British army superiors, who seem unconcerned with the imminent slaughter of Palestinian Arabs about to take place, leads him to desert, fighting briefly on the side of the largely unarmed Palestinians who are being killed and driven out of their homes under the noses of the departing British forces.

The depiction of modern-day Israel is similarly well drawn. We see the jarring contrast between the first-world lifestyle of those in westernised Israeli cities, complete with designer shopping malls and hedonistic nightlife, and the Palestinians living in the run-down Arabic towns and villages under occupation. The sadistic and all-embracing nature of the occupation on the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, and the apartheid nature of the state of Israel for those Palestinians who remain within Israel’s borders are both shown.

The militarisation of what initially appears to be a very pleasant society is clearly revealed as Erin gradually comes to realise that every Israeli she meets is or has been in the army. Indeed, it transpires that the apparently ‘liberal’ father of the family she’s staying with was formerly a general. He is keen to present Israel as a democracy and to brush over the fascistic nature of its military state, but his liberalism doesn’t extend to accepting a Palestinian as a guest in his own home, or to wishing to spare his children from the brutalising experience of playing their part in the occupation.

As a drama, The Promise works well, in particular in relation to the 1947/48 characters. The love story between Len and Clara, her ultimate betrayal, Len’s friendship with local Palestinian Mohammed’s family and his overriding sense of failure when he is unable to save their young son Hassan from a zionist sniper are all movingly and convincingly portrayed.

Erin is a less likable but equally convincing character, and viewers are drawn into her quest to hunt down the family that her grandfather befriended. Her journey across Palestine, from Haifa to Nablus to Gaza, gives an insight into the still ongoing process of colonisation and expropriation as she comes face to face with those who now live in the homes that formerly belonged to Mohammed and his relations.

As a piece of history, The Promise is less satisfying. The drawback of Kosminsky’s style of research – ie, based solely on asking people about their experiences – makes for a wealth of interesting detail, but does little to explain the real historical context or forces at work.

Thus, the ‘background’ to the creation of the state of Israel is given as the Nazi holocaust – and while this may well have been the subjective experience of many people who lived through the events, one does not have to look that far to find that it is in fact a piece of imperial myth-making – as well as being one of the main planks of zionist self-justification.

Jewish immigration into Palestine became British imperial policy as far back as the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which stated: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object … ”

This policy can be explained not by a desire to give jews a ‘homeland’ where they could be free from persecution, but by the desire to implant a population that would help them maintain control of the middle-eastern oil that had just then become central to the military and industrial workings of the British empire.

As British colonial governor Sir Ronald Storrs wrote of the zionist project: “It will form for England a little loyal jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.”

Before the Nazi holocaust, zionism was a marginal ideology amongst jews worldwide, despite the persecution many jewish communities suffered all over Europe. Indeed, the very idea that jewish people constitute a ‘nation’ is one that progressives have always disputed, and working-class jews in the early decades of the 20th century were much more likely to be drawn to socialism and communism than to zionism.

Peter Kosminsky’s own background is a reflection of this. His father, a second-generation immigrant from Romania to Britain, worked as a tailor in London and is described by his son as a communist. Kosminsky himself, despite identifying with his jewish cultural background, had never been to Israel before shooting The Promise, and felt no particular affinity for the country when he was there.

The suffering of the jews during the Nazi rampage was used as a justification for bringing the zionist project to fulfilment, but why it was that the jews should be ‘compensated’ for their sufferings in Europe by being given Palestinian land was quietly glossed over. The local population were either dismissed as ‘Arabs’ who could be easily moved to some other Arab country, or their existence was denied altogether, as epitomised by the widely-used phrase “A land without people for a people without land.”

The father of modern zionism, Theodore Herzl, was himself under no illusion about what kind of mission he was on. In his 1896 work The Jewish State, he wrote:

“For Europe we shall serve there as part of the fortified wall against Asia, and function as the vanguard of civilisation against the barbarians. As a neutral state we shall keep our ties with all the European nations, who will guarantee our existence there.”

That is, that in return for being allowed to establish Israel in Palestine, the zionists would promise to serve imperialist interests in the region.

And that is precisely what Israel has done and continues to do – and precisely why its armed forces have been given imperialist protection (first by Britain, then by the US with British support) as they have massacred, bombed, invaded, occupied, ethnically cleansed and generally broken every rule of international and humanitarian law for six long decades.

By showing the situation only as it appears through the eyes of a lowly sergeant, the series neatly sidesteps the question of Britain’s long-term role and motivation in Palestine and the wider middle east, leaving a general impression of an army that was playing the ‘difficult’ role of policeman between two opposing sides – the same impression that was carefully fostered in official British propaganda at the time, and the same story British imperialists have used to cover many of their manoeuvrings before and since, from India to Ireland and Iraq.

This missing of the big picture from the early story cannot but have its knock-on effect into the present-day narrative. Like her grandfather, Erin is shown as a disinterested bystander caught up in events outside her control – one who has divided sympathies and is frustrated by the injustices she sees, but who ultimately has no real connection with the events being played out before her.

The racism of Israeli society is an anathema to Erin’s sensibilities and we are invited to sympathise with her frustration, but she seems profoundly oblivious to the fact that she herself expects to – and does – remain largely immune when she challenges Israeli soldiers. Her outspoken ‘bravery’ comes easily, since she never has any thought that she might seriously suffer for it as a Palestinian would. Nor does she ever seem to wonder why this should be so.

Of course, those from the west and Israel who truly take the stand of the Palestinian people (such as Rachel Corrie) can’t necessarily expect to receive such kid glove treatment, and have even paid with their lives, but Erin herself clearly has no idea of any of this. The overriding impression that is left from the various scenes where Erin flies to the defence of Palestinians is that the Palestinian people themselves are objects of pity or charity in need of ‘rescuing’ by more forceful/clued-up outsiders.

The idea that Israel’s racist, colonialist society still serves British imperialism – that it continues to be fostered, supported and given financial, military and diplomatic support in order that British oil monopolies can carry on dominating and plundering the region – is never explored.

And nor, therefore, is the connection between the privileged life that Erin unthinkingly takes to be her own birthright and the oppression of those whom she is rightly angered at seeing the Israelis mistreating.

Petty-bourgeois pacifism permeates Erin’s thought processes and directs the audience’s sympathies too. The acts of the occupying army and those of a ‘suicide bomber’ are equally to be condemned, and the myth that present-day acts of demolition and ethnic cleansing against Palestinians are ‘reprisals’ for such acts of ‘terrorism’ is left unchallenged.

The Palestinians are overwhelmingly depicted as victims with whom we can and should sympathise – so long as they don’t take it into their heads to fight back. The only member of the resistance with whom we are invited to sympathise is a former soldier who has renounced violence as ‘futile’.

Despite having seen the massive Israeli armoury ranged against them, Erin’s main concern when she sneaks through a tunnel into Gaza is that the people she is travelling with might be carrying weapons into the Strip!

Despite these weaknesses, however, The Promise is a rare and brave attempt to show at least a part of the reality of a situation that has been so far ignored by British mainstream dramatists. Kosminsky has produced a thought-provoking and intelligent drama that will no doubt inspire many to look again at their prejudices regarding Palestine and Israel, having been given some small insights into a history of Palestinian dispossession and oppression of which most British people are still quite unaware.

It remains for a truly anti-imperialist director to show the story of Palestine in its full context, with the Palestinians and their resistance (rather than the Israelis and their myths) in centre stage.