'A Letter From London': A Documentary About Israel's Creation That Mostly Leaves Out Palestinians

This Balfour Declaration documentary offers a Zionist ethos nostalgia overdose and a superficial gloss on the Arabs living in pre-state Palestine

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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A still from “A Letter from London,” showing a demonstration against Britain’s 1939 “White Paper."
A still from “A Letter from London,” showing a demonstration against Britain’s 1939 “White Paper." Credit: Gavia Media
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

A Letter from London,” a documentary directed by Doug Dalgliesh and written by Melvyn Lipitch, is being shown this month at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. Over the course of its 50-minute running time the British-Israeli co-production explores the British attitude toward the idea of establishing a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine — from the early 20th century to the Balfour Declaration through the end of the British Mandate in 1948.

The Balfour Declaration is the letter from London that gives the film its name. It was sent on November 2, 1917 by Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, and the text was approved by the British cabinet on October 31, 1917. The main part of the film deals with the circumstances leading to the writing of the document and their consequences.

As a documentary, the movie lacks all cinematic value. It is a bog-standard documentary, whose only purpose is to provide us with information in a historical context. It is composed of three elements typical of a documentary of this kind: narration (which in the Israeli version is provided in the familiar and authoritative voice of Haim Yavin — a sign of the movie’s importance), archival material and talking heads. Many, many talking heads — Britons and some English-speaking Israelis — so many that few have a chance to get in more than a couple of significant sentences.

So is the movie important from a historical perspective? Here too it falls short, but it does point to a few problems that characterize this type of documentary, and that is why I chose to discuss it. Is it possible to squeeze into 50 minutes nearly five decades of complex history with political, national and international implications that affect our lives today, and which is only becoming more complex, complicated and frustrating? It’s possible but difficult, and Lipitch and Dagliesh do not rise to the challenge.

“A Letter from London” proceeds chronologically but does not add up to more than a story told step by step without addressing its complexity in a historically and ideologically challenging manner. It is stuffed with details, but I didn’t find much new in them. The movie functions, if you will, as a kind of historical summary; a history lesson for beginners that is sure to find its way into high school history classrooms. We can only hope that the teachers will also discuss the implications of the events on which it is based for our ongoing history.

I am not a historian, and therefore I won’t go into the details of the story described in “A Letter from London,” from Theodor Herzl to the outbreak of the war in 1948. I imagine that David Lloyd George, Herbert Samuel and Clement Attlee are familiar names to many readers, as are concepts such as the White Paper and events such as the Night of the Bridges and the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. All these are mentioned briefly in the movie.

What interests me most about this and similar documentaries, is the extent to which documentary filmmaking can document a historical issue while contributing to what has already been written about it. This question came up mainly after I watched all the episodes of David Deri’s television series “The Ancestral Sin” (“Salah, Po Zeh Eretz Israel” in Hebrew), which did a good job of presenting local history in a complex manner that went far beyond the story it depicted and into challenging ideological terrain.

Alternate history

This question is particularly relevant now, when the connection between film and history is undergoing such an interesting and important revolution. So many recent features, most of them American, are based on true events, accumulating into a kind of alternate history that combines historical truth and fiction. Documentary filmmaking, which also deals with historical events, must address this phenomenon and offer an alternative of its own. In this complex set of circumstances, a movie like “A Letter from London” comes off as an anachronism.

If there is one thing that can justify the existence of this film and documentaries like it, in filmmaking terms, it is the archival footage they contain. That is what confirms their validity, as opposed to any other historical research. The same is true of “A Letter from London,” which has many archival segments that were new to me.

A still from “A Letter from London,” showing british Leave Haifa, June 30, 1948.Credit: Gavia Media

Archival footage underscores filmmaking’s unique contribution to the documentation of history, as well as attesting to the degree of ambivalence involved in this documentation. That, because we don’t always know if the archival segment really represents the event to which it refers, or only serves as a suggestive illustration.

If I may confess for a moment, this dimension of the film by Lipitch and Dalgliesh even included a personal aspect, because it mentioned the events of June 29, 1946, known as Black Sabbath or Operation Agatha. On that Saturday, the day I was born, the British arrested all the Jewish leaders in Palestine, raided all the communities searching for weapons and imposed a curfew on the entire country. I enjoyed watching the documentation of that day, even if I wasn’t sure whether the archival material was really filmed during the course of it.

One of the documentary’s main shortcomings is that although it mentions the Palestinian Arabs, their leaders and their response to the Balfour Declaration (and later to Israel’s establishment), the treatment of their story is superficial and seems marginal to the movie. This makes it less relevant today and occasionally betrays a nostalgia for the pre-state Zionist ethos.

When I reread the Balfour Declaration, one sentence caught my attention in particular: the promise “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Balfour added a vaguer condition, whose interpretation has been a subject of much dispute: “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice ... the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

The first condition is what interests me and grants the declaration its continuing relevance. Have we fulfilled this condition, which is even mentioned in Israel’s Declaration of Independence? Is it even possible to consider this question without knowing the answer immediately? Lipitch and Dalgliesh do not address this question, which is beyond the scope of their movie. Its story concludes with the end of the British Mandate, and all the rest belongs to a different history.

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