Australian Jews complain to broadcaster about TV series ‘The Promise’

10 January 2012

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) has complained with the Australian broadcaster SBS about the British-made television series ‘The Promise’, which it says conveys anti-Jewish stereotypes. ‘The Promise’ was produced in association with SBS, ECAJ says. In a letter to SBS, the Jewish umbrella body alleges that the series “promotes, endorses and reinforces demeaning stereotypes about Jews as a group. All of the principal Jewish characters (and thus by implication Jews generally) are portrayed negatively and, ultimately, without any redeeming virtues. They are cast as variously cruel, violent, hateful, ruthless, unfeeling, amoral, treacherous, racist and/or hypocritical.”

The complaint adds that “The ancient libel that holds all Jews throughout history to be collectively guilty of killing Jesus has been segued into the equally ludicrous proposition that all Jews are collectively guilty of the wanton shedding of innocent blood, a staple of contemporary Palestinian propaganda. The series also panders to stereotypes about Jews being immoderately wealthy and having acquired their wealth unfairly.” The letter goes on to say that the “cumulative effect of these consistently negative portrayals of all of the principal Jewish characters and of the series’ numerous misrepresentations of the relevant historical background in a way that consistently casts Jews in a negative light is to demean Jews as a group.”

“The relevant historical events (and their misrepresentation) and the principal Jewish characters are vehicles for attributing negative traits to Jews generally across time and space. ‘The Promise’ utilizes and reinforces racist tropes about Jews that, but for a brief post-WWII respite, have been embedded in western civilization since pre-Christian times and are not in any way comparable to negative portrayals of other groups,” the letter states.

The four-part series ‘The Promise’, written and directed by British filmmaker Peter Kosminsky, tells a fictional story about Erin (played by actress Claire Foy, pictured left), an 18-year-old British girl who visits her Israeli friend Eliza, Eliza’s parents and brother Paul in Israel in 2005. Erin carries and progressively reads through the diary of her grandfather, Len, which describes Len’s experiences while serving as a sergeant in the British army in the 1940s.

First screened in the UK in February 2011 and in France in March 2011, critics and Jewish organizations in both countries condemned the series. Jonathan Freedland of the UK newspaper ‘The Guardian’ accused Kosminsky of using anti-Semitic stereotypes. The Board of Deputies of British Jews also complained, but Ofcom, the UK’s regulatory watchdog for the TV and film industry, said the program was not in breach of any of its guidelines. Kosminsky rejected the criticism, saying that his plot was based on interviews with 80 British veterans who served in Mandatory Palestine until 1948 and who he says had become more and more anti-Jewish during their service there.

In its complaint, which is backed up by a detailed documentation, ECAJ says that ‘The message to the audience is that the British (symbolized by Len) were implicated in depriving the Palestinians of their ‘rightful ownership’ of the country (symbolized by their loss of the key) in the late 1940s and accordingly the British, and the West generally, are now morally obliged to ‘restore’ ownership of the country to the Palestinians (symbolized by Erin returning the key to the Palestinian family).”

The letter adds that the TV series “does not even pretend to address the deeper historical justification for Israel’s existence as the State of the Jewish people. Nor does it portray (let alone question) the decision of the Palestinian leadership and the Arab League to use force to prevent the implementation by the UN of its resolution in favor of partition in November 1947.”

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Adam Cohen

Thu, 13 Mar 2014

I found the description of the Jewish people to be factually true , why can't the Jewish people except the fact of who they are and anybody that speaks out is labeled antesametic .

Ruth Hagan

Sun, 22 Jan 2012

I was disappointed to hear of - and then to read your own article outlining the objection that the Executive Council of Australian Jewry made to SBS's screening of what to many of us appeared to be a thoughtful and thought-provoking drama series, "The Promise". For a start, the claim that all the main Jewish characters were portrayed negatively is not true - Erin's friend's brother Paul, a very significant character, is one "hero" in the drama. Erin's (Jewish) friend herself, and her parents, are not one-dimensional either

I acknowledge that, as a non-Jewish person, there may have been some unfair aspects to the drama in relation to portrayal of Jews which I may not have picked up. However, it seemed to be far more nuanced than just negative portrayals of Jewish characters. There seemed to be an incredible dilemma for the British and the UN in those crucial few years after the war. The arrival, in Palestine of so many boats of European Jews newly liberated from the concentration camps - where else did they have to go after the Holocaust? The conflicted experiences and feelings of the "soldier-grandfather" about expanded Jewish settlement of Palestine were not just "anti-Jewish" sentiment. And wouldn't there have been some truly ruthless characters involved in the bombing and targetting of the British soldiers who were trying to keep the peace?

The main character herself feels on one hand, for the dispossessed Palestinians and on the other, for Jewish Israelis who suffer the killings and destruction reeked by the Palestinian suicide bombers. Her feelings of sympathy seem to wax from one side to the other, in the course of the narrative.

I myself did not read into the business about the key quite the same symbolism as the complaint quoted in the article. Dispossession cannot be denied - the historical record stands. But did the creation of the state of Israel really require the levels of dispossession of Palestinians in 1948 and subequently, and up to the present day.

I am a theology student (Christian) and I think Judaism has so much to teach Christianity and the broad secular Western world in its (what I perceive as) a much more multi-layered approach to faith, to God, to the questions of human life and the search for meaning.

But it really saddens me when a significant group such as the Council for Australian Jewry seems to assume that criticism of Israel and Israeli history automatically is anti-semitic. I would hope that there would be Jewish Australians who might be able to feel for the situation of the Palestinian people. Many Australians, including Jewish Australians, do not like aspects of the way our government "deals with" so-called illegal boat arrivals (refugees); we hold these views because we choose to imagine what it would be like if we were in "their shoes". Surely a film which encourages us to do that - to put ourselves in the shoes of Palestinians who have lost or are now losing their homes to the building of new Israeli settlements; in the shoes of those post-war newly freed Jewish Holocaust survivors; in the shoes of Israeli Jews (and Israeli Christians and Israeli Muslims) who have lost their loved ones in suicide-bombings.

Why is the message that true peace in the Middle East requires justice for all automatically anti-semitic? Jews living outside Israel surely have the advantage of NOT growing up with only negative perceptions of Muslims and the Palestinians - just as Palestinians living in the West can grow up without the truly anti-semetic language and stories of particular classroom textbooks in the Occupied Territories. Is it not possible as Jew living outside Israel to hold to a pragmatic view that making daily life so difficult for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, grinding a people's face into the dust, will never make Israel secure; that it will only kindle enmity against the occupier. How can there be peace without true justice - surely that is a message that the Hebrew prophets well knew?

I do not know all the ins and outs of the "deep historical justification for the Israeli state" - only that there is a deep geographical-historical association of Jews with Palestine; and the need for a safe place post-holocaust in the light of the broader centuries-old anti-Jewish actions (pograms etc). But I do find it disturbing when biblical arguments about the "promised land" are used to justify the trampling of rights of another people.

The situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories is certainly not simple - it is very complex and includes many injustices and crimes on both sides. But at least "The Promise" tried to engage with both sides - even if it didn't seem as balanced as it could have been, for some. It's the discussion and conversation that such a work can enable that is most important. A good start would be challenging particular aspects (inaccuracies etc) of the drama itself; taking the opportunity to educate rather than simply complaining.