Controversial Film Series on British-controlled Palestine Comes to Tel Aviv

British director Peter Kosminsky's 'The Promise' comes to the Tel Aviv Cinemateque, where its inaccurate portrayal of Israel is sure to offend.

For 11 years, British director Peter Kosminsky worked on the television series "The Promise," in which he draws some unlikely comparisons between modern-day Israel and British-controlled Palestine toward the end of the Mandate period.

The four-part series - which prompted fierce debate in Britain for its suggestion that the Holocaust is comparable to the founding of the state of Israel - has now arrived here for the first time since airing in Britain one year ago. The Tel Aviv Cinematheque began screening the series last week, and the showings will continue through April 26.

The cast of 'The Promise.'
Photos courtesy of Emil Harel

The idea for "The Promise" came to Kosminsky in 1999, after the BBC screened his series "Warriors," which deals with issues facing peacekeeping forces in Bosnia. The director received a letter from a veteran of Britain's armed forces thanking him for the film, and proposing that he direct a series about British soldiers in Palestine. "Nobody remembers us," the veteran complained.

Kosminsky took up the challenge, and while researching the series, he stumbled upon some strange parallels between the Mandate period and the present day, he told the Observer a year ago, citing as an example the IDF's policy of demolishing the homes of suicide bombers. Kosminsky had always believed house-demolition to be a modern tactic, he said, but testimony provided by British veterans made clear to him that the British deployed similar responses in dealing with right-wing partisans from the Jewish Yishuv.

This is not the only putative parallel evoked in the series. "The Promise" draws parallels between terror acts carried out by members of the Zionist underground in the late Mandate period and terror strikes by Palestinians in Tel Aviv coffee houses. He also compares the Holocaust and the Nakba, or "catastrophe" - the Palestinians' term for what happened to them when the state of Israel was founded in 1948.

Hostility toward Israel

Amir Ofek, the press attache at the Israeli embassy in London, expressed reservations when the series was first screened in Britain. Speaking with the Jewish Chronicle, Ofek claimed the series "creates a new category of hostility toward Israel." He said that in 15 years of work on press affairs, he had never seen such a film in Western media.

"I am aware that there is artistic freedom, but this is the worst thing I've seen," he said.

Britain's Channel Four, which broadcast the series, rejected the criticism, and declared the series a "welcome addition to British television's coverage of this tragic conflict."

Viewers and critics tended to agree. The series enjoyed high ratings and critical praise. Rachel Cooke wondered in the Observer whether Kosminsky's 11-year project was worth the time. "I think it would have been worth it if it had taken him twice as long," she decided. "'The Promise' ... is the best thing you are likely to see on television this year, if not this decade. It is not only that it is so exciting, moving, and full of exquisite performances; it's also that the extraordinary detail and thoughtfulness of it - the sheer scale of the canvas on which its director works - subtly imparts so many emotional and factual truths that you feel your own allegiances, whatever they may be, suddenly shifting uneasily, sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis."

Kosminsky, a British resident of Jewish descent, said the series "deals first and foremost with Britain, and is designed for Britain." Thus Israelis will likely identify small inexact details, and they also will likely feel find the narrative to be problematic. (It is depicted via different perspectives, primarily through the eyes of those who ruled here in the past. )

As the series' makers claim, impressions of "The Promise" depend upon the viewer's political outlook. Yet the series also features controversial, dramatic moments not focused on local politics - for example, the fourth part intertwines the heroine's dream about incest with the historical narrative, though the purpose of this plot twist remains murky.

Parallel plots

'The Promise' is a collaborative British-Israeli production featuring Israeli actors such as Itay Tiran. It opens in Britain with Erin (Claire Foy ), who discovers a diary belonging to her elderly grandfather. Erin and her close friend, an Israeli who grew up in London (but whose parents live in Israel ), embark on a trip to Israel, and the friend enlists in the Israel Defense Forces.

The plot unfolds in two separate but parallel directions: the present decade, and the British Mandate period. The second of the two plots features the story of the grandfather, Len (Christian Cooke ), a British soldier who falls in love with a local Jewish woman and whose life later becomes intertwined with that of an Arab family.

Due to the fact that the Cinemateque is screening the series in separate showings (each screening is the length of a regular film ), it is doubtful that many Israelis will see the entire series. The first part includes archival footage from Bergen-Belsen; this is the only historical documentary footage used in the series, and it serves as the historical foundation for understanding the rest of the series' events.

From the concentration camp, the series jumps to the present. Erin joins her friend on a prolonged visit to Israel, even as her friend spends most of her time in the army. Erin lives with the girl's parents; "while you learn how to kill people, I'll be at the pool," she tells her friend."

Accustomed to Britain's media coverage of life in Israel, Erin is surprised by realities she encounters. (She is almost as surprised as Israelis who view this episode will be. ) Her friend's wealthy family - the friend's brother Paul is played by Tiran - lives in Caesarea, in a villa with a swimming pool, right by the sea.

"This is paradise," exclaims Erin, who expected to encounter a different sort of home in a war-torn country.

The friend's family, whose members travel with Erin in the business class section on the flight from Britain - which, of course, is customary for young people who are about to enlist in the IDF - is not the only one living in a villa with a pool. That lifestyle is evidently attributed to most Jews living in Israel. The two friends travel from the Caesarea villa to Tel Aviv, where Erin suffers an epilepsy attack in a club. Young Israelis in the disco convulse with laughter as her body writhes on the floor.

This first episode romanticizes Israeli discourse. The son, Paul, a Peace Now activist, upbraids his father's liberal outlook, claiming that it perpetuates the conflict. It is as though the spectrum of politics among Jews in this country runs between the Meretz and Hadash parties.

Paul, who served in Hebron during his IDF service, exposes Erin to the conflict's sordid realities by taking her on a trip to the territories. In the sequences in the first episode dealing with the British Mandate, no Palestine is to be found. In contrast, in today's Israel, which is all about death, a Tel Aviv cafe looks like a cage surrounded by security forces. There are as many security guards at the cafe as there are at an airport.

As it happens, the cafe filmed in this sequence is located in my own neighborhood; it has never looked the way it is made to appear in "The Promise."

Erin subsequently visits Hebron, and then the Gaza Strip. She sees examples of collective punishment, and is perturbed by the aggressiveness of a Jewish settler in Hebron. Furthermore, the apathy of IDF soldiers toward suffering in the Palestinian territories offends her.

Meanwhile, in the British Mandate sequences, the Palestinian voice begins to surface, albeit in a muffled tone. Irgun and Lehi acts of terror are shown in grisly detail; the climactic event in this period is the Deir Yassin massacre, carried out in an Arab village by the Irgun and the Lehi militias shortly before the start of the 1948 war.

In the series' finale, Erin reads the final page of her grandfather's diary, recalling his term as a British soldier. This could be the moment that outraged the Israeli diplomat: "We left the Arabs in shit," the grandfather writes. But what about the Jews and their state, which is drowned in blood, and for which they've fought so bravely, he wonders. Three years ago he would have given them all they had asked for, the grandfather opines; they deserved that, after what they went through. Now he's not so sure.

"The Jews have their 'precious state,'" he writes, but it has arisen through "violence and cruelty to its neighbors. I'm not sure how it can hope to thrive."