UK Jews Up in Arms Over Media's Israel Coverage

Relations between British Jews and the British media have fallen to a new low in recent weeks after three anti-Israeli documentaries were broadcast on the three leading television channels, Channel 4, the BBC and ITV. The BBC treatment of Jewish MP Kaufman's trip to Israel caused immense bitterness.

Relations between British Jews and the British media have fallen to a new low in recent weeks after three anti-Israeli documentaries were broadcast on the three leading television channels.

Six weeks ago, Channel 4 ran "Dangerous Liaison," about U.S.-Israeli relations, edited by Jacqueline Rose, one of the signatories to a petition calling on European universities to cut off scientific and cultural relations with Israel.

The BBC ran "End of an Affair" on the eve of the Jewish New Year, documenting Jewish MP Gerald Kaufman's reservations about Israel and its government policies, after he declared he would never set foot in Israel again.

And ITV ran "Palestine is Still the Issue," a film by John Pilger, one of the leading leftist writers in Britain. Israel was described as a violent apartheid state that had taken over Palestinian lands and that sadistically tortures Palestinians.

Rose's documentary did not stir much interest - her anti-American posturing is well known - but the BBC treatment of Kaufman's trip to Israel and Pilger's documentary caused immense bitterness.

Kaufman, a Jewish Labor MP and one of the best rhetoricians in parliament, was asked six months ago by the BBC to visit Israel to find out if his position had changed since he announced he would never set foot in the country again. He toured major cities and met Israelis and Palestinians, including senior officials. But he does not hide his negative feelings and opinions about the country.

"Not only has Jerusalem's unique skyline been raped," he says while touring the city. "But vast areas of the city have been taken over, infested by intolerant, ultra-orthodox ... self appointed guardians of the Jewish faith, [who] refuse to serve in the army that defends them. The Western Wall, a popular place for Bar Mitzvahs ... for me, my Bar Mitzvah was an initiation into manhood ... here they are holding their Bar Mitzvahs. They are not initiations into manhood, they are initiations into fundamentalism."

Pilger's film was commissioned a year ago by the head of the news department at ITV, Steve Anderson. Pilger was asked to prepare a documentary on the same subject that Pilger documented on film 25 years earlier. Pilger hired Ilan Peppe, an Israeli "new historian" as a consultant and the film opens with the following statement: "Twenty five years ago I made a film called `Palestine is still the issue'. It was about a nation of people, the Palestinians, forced off their land and later subjected to a military occupation by Israel - an occupation condemned by the UN and almost every country in the world, including Britain.

"But Israel is backed by a very powerful friend, the U.S. Nothing has changed in 25 years, if we are to speak of the great injustice here. What has changed is that the Palestinians have fought back. Stateless and humiliated for so long, they have risen up against Israel's huge military machine, although they themselves have no army, no tanks, no American planes, no gunships or missiles. Some have committed desperate acts of terror, like suicide bombing - but for Palestinians, the overriding routine terror, day after day, has been the ruthless control of every aspect of their lives, as if they live in an open prison."

He describes Operation Defensive Shield by saying that "Last April, troops and tanks of the Israeli army attacked Ramallah and other towns in occupied Palestine. This was reported as an 'incursion to stop terrorism.' In fact, it was also an attack on civilian life - on schools, offices, clinics, theaters, radio stations. This systematic vandalism is typical of one of the longest military occupation in modern times."

Pilger depicts Israel as capricious and sadistic. He described the course of events leading to the current conflict with the Palestinians without any mention of the Camp David and Taba conferences, or that before the current conflict, tens of thousands of Palestinians worked inside Israel. And he accuses the Jewish people of a conspiracy to manipulate non-Jews, to make gentiles believe that any criticism of Israel is a form of anti-Semitism.

Hundreds of angry telephone calls to ITV, led Michael Green, chairman of ITV's owner, Carlton Communications PLC, to tell the Jewish Chronicle that the documentary was "one-sided, it was totally unrealistic, but it was John Pilger ... it was factually incorrect, historically incorrect.... There's no doubt in my mind that this program is a tragedy for Israel so far as accuracy is concerned."

Jewish community leaders are in a quandary about how to respond. At first, Jewish community leaders considered pressing to get the shows dropped from the broadcasting schedule, but that was scotched for fear the pro-Israel lobby would be depicted as trying to gag criticism and censor what it didn't want heard.

Jo Wagerman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote to the BBC about "The End of an Affair," complaining that Kaufman not only condemned the policies of the government of Israel, but also made many offensive comments about Jews and the Jewish religion. Wagerman told the BBC that such remarks were contrary to the BBC's own Producers Guidelines.

The Board also complained to Carlton about "Palestine is still the Issue," saying Pilger made no secret of his support and sympathy for the Palestinian cause. In his complaint to the Independent Television Commission, Board of Deputies Director General Neville Nagler said the program portrayed "a one-sided view of the current conflict, focusing on Israel's alleged aggression and the plight of the Palestinian people. No effort was made to provide context or any kind of perspective from the standpoint of Israel."

"Pilger misrepresents Israels wars in 1948 and 1967 as though they were initiated by Israel. He effectively accuses Jewish people of conspiring to manipulate the non-Jewish world into believing that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism. In view of the totally one-sided character of this program, we expect that, in the interests of balance and fairness, Carlton TV should apologize and present a film of corresponding length which portrays the recent history of Israel in an objective and fair-minded manner."

Kaufman, who was ostracized at his synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, told Ha'aretz he had received hundreds of letters of support since the documentary was broadcast. The BBC said: "We listen to complaints very carefully but we are satisfied about the impartiality of our coverage which we view regularly. Kaufman was chosen because he is a Jew who also made a public vow never to return to Israel. So we though to see whether he would be willing to go back once more, to explore why he feels so critically about the country and whether he still holds his views."