x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

BBC film which casts doubt on Jewish exodus from Palestine in 70AD cops flak

A documentary by an Israeli filmmaker has sparked debate and accusations of bias against the British state broadcaster BBC even before it has aired.

LONDON // A documentary by an Israeli filmmaker has sparked debate and accusations of bias against the British state broadcaster - the BBC - even before it has aired.

Exile: A Myth Unearthed casts doubt on the extent to which archaeological evidence supports a mass Jewish exodus from Roman Palestine in 70AD.

It is a deeply contentious subject and one that goes to the core of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is largely based on historic narratives.

For reasons still in dispute, the BBC pulled the film in April at the last moment after having been long-scheduled to form part of a documentary season on archaeology.

It prompted Ilan Ziv, who made the film, to suggest that the decision was reached as a result of "incompetence, political naïveté" and "conscious or subconscious political pressure".

Now the New York-based filmmaker said that an agreement with the BBC is being worked on to allow a shortened version of the film - edited by Ziv - to be broadcast, followed by a panel discussion in which he will take part.

"The important thing is that the film is shown," said Ziv from Paris, where he is working on another project. The new format, he said, achieves "two things in a very intelligent, English way".

"It takes the onus of responsibility away from the BBC and in a way enhances its role as providing an arena for ideas without taking sides," said Ziv.

But to others, the arrangement smacks of compromise by BBC senior management unwilling or unable to challenge pro-Israeli bias.

"The fact that the BBC has to [include a panel discussion] in a way panders to the Zionist lobby," said Ismail Patel, the chairman of Friends of Al Aqsa, a UK-based NGO that advocates for Palestinian rights.

"The BBC should be more mature. They should have a spine and the moral and ethical authority to say, 'we will show this and let the public make up its mind'. They shouldn't have to do this stuff."

Mr Patel was one of six organisations - including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Jews for Justice for Palestinians - that this month signed an open letter to the director general of the BBC, Tony Hall, seeking an explanation for why the documentary was pulled.

The BBC has not replied to the letter. But the broadcaster - which renamed the film Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story - rejects accusations of bias in the initial decision to pull the documentary. The film "did not fit the season editorially", said a BBC spokeswoman. "This was an internal decision and there was no political pressure involved."

The BBC is no stranger to accusations of bias from both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. During last year's London Olympics, the BBC listed East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, but failed to list one for Israel, drawing protests from Israelis.

Even before the controversy of Ziv's film, some pro-Palestinian groups were concerned by BBC programming decisions after it hired James Harding, who is Jewish, as news director this year. Harding was candid in 2011 in remarks to the Jewish Community Centre for London when he called himself "pro-Israel".

Mr Patel said British licence fee payers should be "very concerned about the direction the BBC is going and how reality is being reflected".

But it is how the past is reflected that is central to Ziv's film in a region where archaeology was politicised long before Israel was created.

In the 19th century, when European archaeologists rediscovered the "Holy Land", they flocked to the area to seek confirmation of Bible stories.

Biblical archaeology has continued since the creation of Israel, with Israeli archaeologists focused on finding evidence for a Jewish presence 2,000 years ago that, according to Jewish tradition, ended with a forced mass exile after a failed uprising against Roman rule in 70AD.

Ziv's film suggests that the archaeological evidence does not support the theory of a mass eviction, one of the cornerstones of what he called the "Jewish-Christian construct" of Israel.

Rather the opposite is true. Excavations in biblical Sepphoris - the village of Saffuriya in Galilee, one of more than 400 Palestinian villages destroyed or depopulated in 1948 - indicate that Jews remained after 70AD.

That in turn suggests a much more complex ethnic make-up in an area that has seen countless rulers, religions and cultures. It raises the possibility, disturbing to many on both sides, that some Palestinians are descendants of Jews who converted to Islam.

"What the film is trying to do is show that Palestine does not lend itself to a simple historical narrative," said Ziv, who left Israel after fighting in the 1973 war.

"Any time you try to squeeze this place into one historical narrative, you'll end up excluding the other. Excluding the other in reality means violence."

okarmi@thenational.ae