In my blog ‘From Horror to Hope’ last Saturday, I suggested that to enable Israel and the Palestinians to forge a lasting peace after this war, each side would have to acknowledge and then put aside the other’s history and start their relationship afresh. I did not anticipate the BBC, two days later, starting ‘an occasional’ series of history lessons that have already begun to rewrite history.
Today in the 5 o’clock news bulletin on BBC Radio 4, Evan Davis introduced the series by admitting many listeners knew little about the history of the region and hence we would all be led through the history over the coming weeks by a historian, James Barr. Mr Barr, about whom one must assume the BBC has carried out due diligence, has written a number of books, one dealing with Lawrence of Arabia, another the conflict between Britain and France over carving up the middle-east, and a third which, among other things, tried to establish who armed the pre-State Jewish ‘terrorists’, the Haganah.
So, Jews of Israel and the world, prepare yourselves for your new BBC inspired history! Apparently, the BBC suggested that Barr should start with the Balfour Declaration. No, said Barr, he should start with the Ottoman Empire in 1517 when they conquered Jerusalem. Nothing was mentioned of millennia of Jewish self-government in Israel. One is left with the impression that 1517 was almost the start of Jewish history on this tiny strip of land, the size of Wales. Barr noted that at the time of the conquest of Jerusalem there were ‘just a few’ Jews living there mainly in little settlements engaged in experimental agriculture. Barr then jumped almost 200 years to World War I, stating that while it was still being fought the British Government issued the Balfour Declaration so that, through the Jews, they and not the French could get control Palestine and hence routes to India. He went on to say that the Balfour Declaration had little to do with Zionism. This is a questionable statement. It is well known that both Balfour and Lloyd George were intensely religious Christians who supported the establishment of a Jewish National Homeland in Palestine on religious grounds. Barr made the point, which nobody denies, that the establishment of a future homeland for the Jews should not affect the rights of the people already living there. It was, according to Barr, after WWI that Jewish immigration really got started because the British had been given the mandate to run Palestine and facilitate Jewish immigration. Today’s episode ended arbitrarily in 1930.
Today’s broadcast, which remains available on the BBC’s web site for about a month, completely disregards the long history of Jewish Israel from the time of Abraham. Throughout the entire broadcast no mention was made of the time of the Patriarchs, Jewish enslavement in Egypt and Moses and the Exodus back to Israel, the history of the Kings of Israel and the Prophets of Israel, the expulsion to and return from Babylon, the Roman occupation, the Jewish wars against the Romans, the Roman expulsion of the Jews, Masada, Bar Kochba and so much more. This is an understandable oversight. Afterall, the period to which I am referring only lasted 3438 years. Easily missed when compared to the 315 years covered by the program.
Alternative history is not a new phenomenon to the Jewish people. While I would not imply intent on the part of the BBC or Mr Barr, they must stay alert to their heavy responsibility for accuracy and impartiality in support of peace in the region. Others who author alternative histories of the region cannot be so relied upon. The alternative history put forward by the Palestine Authority run by the ‘President’ of the Palestinians, the holocaust denier Mahmood Abbas and attempts by the PA to have the UN and its agencies re-write history undermine trust. In referring to Mr Abbas as a holocaust denier I am merely repeating the assertion of the BBC itself when they reported ‘Outrage over Abbas’s anti-Semitic speech on Jews and the Holocaust’ on September 9th 2023.
For the record, BBC please note the Ottoman empire was for a long time a haven for Jews, including in Palestine. By the end of the 16th century, less than 100 years after your comment that there were just ‘a few’ Jews in Palestine, the Ottoman Empire had the largest Jewish population in the world, with 150,000, compared to Poland’s and non-Ottoman Ukraine’s combined figure of 75,000. The First and Second Aliyah brought an ever-increasing Jewish presence to Ottoman Palestine from Russia during the final decades of the 19th Century. By the time of the Balfour Declaration, and the end of World War I, after which you purport Jewish immigration to Palestine really got started, there were already close to 100,000 Jews in the country.
Palestine had many masters throughout history, and Jews lived there during each regime. These included Arabs, Assyrians, Babylonians, Crusaders, Egyptians, Fatimids, Greeks, Mamelukes, Persians, Romans, Seljuk and Turks. The Ottoman Empire ruled most of the area for 200 years from 1517 to 1917. At no time before the Oslo Accords of 1993 was any part of what was pre-1948 Palestine or post-1948 Israel or indeed any other place ruled by people calling themselves Palestinians.
None of this is to deny that there is now a Palestinian people, that the endless wars between Arab States and Israel, and now a minority of Arab States and their terrorist proxies such as Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, have been contained rather than peacefully resolved and that as a consequence legitimate Palestinian aspirations have not come to fruition. People of good will on both sides are trying to find a way to resolve the issues, end the occupation and establish a Palestinian State alongside and living in peace with Israel. They deserve the support of the media.