Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Promise

Like buses, you wait for ages then 3 come at once. That's what it feels like with TV dramas on Sunday nights. If you want a nice golden glow of Victorian nostalgia then 'Lark Rise to Candleford' leaves you with a warm feeling of 'niceness'. If you want an edgy realistic drama set in contemporary Israel, then The Promise is outstanding (more on that in a moment). Or there's 'Being Human', the rather gory but intriguing story of a vampire, some werewolves and a ghost sharing a house in Barry, South Wales. (The basic premise of the drama is: what does it really mean to be human? Answer: to have a physical body, to love, to grow old and to die.)

'The Promise', though, has been my drama of choice these last 3 weeks. It concerns the current relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel, playing out a contemporary story in parallel to that of the post-Second World War British mandate in Palestine. It has captured the very nuanced and complicated situation that existed then and now in a way that is rare in TV dramas these days.

The story is of a girl, Erin, who visits an Israeli friend who is just doing her national service. Erin has taken her grandfather's diary from the 1940s and has discovered that he was serving with the British forces in Palestine. As she reads the diary she discovers more about her grandfather, and more about the people around her in modern Israel.

When I first visited Israel in 1981 I quickly sensed the very real legacy of the treatment of Jews in 1930 and 40s Europe. 'Never again' was, and still is, the popular cry. Armed soldiers are everywhere, and I was initially shocked to find myself standing next to a soldier with a machine gun on a bus in Jerusalem. I remember seeing a group of soldiers relaxing at a swimming pool, with their guns neatly lined up against the wall, never far away in case they were needed quickly. The other thing that commuicated a sense of nervous unease was the amount people smoked. 'Like chimneys' would be quite an accurate description.

The Jewish freedom-fighters, the Irgun, were terrorists in their day and they were much more fiercely anti-British than they were anti-Arab. The British were stuck in the middle - as they have often been in overseas conflicts, trying to protect the Arab majority (and their own oil interests) while at the same time granting limited asylum to Jewish refugees fleeing Europe.

The Promise has very carefully brought out the differences in status between Israeli Arabs, such as those living in Nazareth, and the West Bank Arabs, who are denied Israeli citizenship and who suffer the daily indiginity of having to pass through the so-called Peace Wall to travel from their homes to their work. Not only that, but they suffer the illegal occupation and development of their land.

The typical Israeli Jewish argument about settling in Israel is that when the Arabs had it to themselves they did nothing to develop the land in 2000 years. But since 1948 the Jews have worked tirelessly to bring about an Isaiah-like transformation of the desert into a place of fruitful abundance. That may be so, but it ignores the fact that the Arabs were living there first. Just because you can do a better job with the land doesn't give you the right to take it from someone who you might describe as lazy.

The Promise isn't just pro-Arab propaganda, though. It describes the real fear that many Israeli Jews feel, and the belief that they have a right to live in their own land in safety and in peace - shalom as the bible would express it. The only thing lacking, so far, in this drama is any reference to the religious aspect of the situation. But perhaps that is refreshing, as the Israel/Palestine conflict is often portrayed too simplistically as a Jewish/Muslim problem.

This has been a TV drama that has been almost unique in its careful portrayal of a complicated political and historical problem. My only irritation has been with the central character, Erin, who has absolutely no idea of the consequences of her action, and thinks the world revolves around her; in other words, the typical surly teenager. With one more episode to go I hope her experience makes her grow up.

'Lark Rise to Candleford' may be a nice way to end a Sunday, in the same way as eating toast and marmite sitting by a log fire, but 'The Promise' brings us back to reality in a way that both entertains and informs.

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