The BBC ‘s recent two-part documentary titled The Holy Land and us was commissioned to mark the 75th anniversary of Israel’s birth. Not unexpectedly given the BBC’s ‘pro-Palestinian’ reputation, the series did not focus on the miracle of Israel’s birth, its tremendous achievements in the face of perennial hostility – developing from Third to First World democracy, its ecological, medical and technological advances or its successful absorption of Jews from 120 countries. Instead the makers chose to focus on the 1948 impact of Israel’s creation on three Jewish and three Palestinian families.
The project was delegated to the production company Wall-to-Wall, which had made a similar series marking the 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan, with refugees from both sides telling their stories.
My organisation Harif first got wind of the planned Israel documentary when we stumbled upon a message left on the seldom-visited Facebook page of a Moroccan synagogue in London. A researcher for Wall-to-Wall was seeking a suitable candidate from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to take part.
The BBC documentary seemed to us to present a rare opportunity to convey the story of 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries and the injustice done to them – alongside the 20,000 Jews expelled from East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1948 war. Unlike Palestinian refugees fleeing a war zone, the non-combatant Jewish refugees from Arab countries were driven out by bombings and riots, coupled with Arab League persecution, simply for sharing the same ethnicity and religion as Israelis. Many left with a document stamped ‘one way – no return’.
The BBC brief was a tricky one: the film sought to feature a Jew living in Britain impacted by the 1948 creation of Israel: most Jewish refugees from Arab countries in Israel did not have relatives in Britain. Moreover, the chosen candidate would be taken back to his or her country of birth. This ruled out Jews born in Libya, Syria or Iraq, who are not able to return, or whose lives would be in danger if they did.
Luckily, Viviane Bowell fitted the bill: she was a Jewish refugee born in Cairo. She was 14 when her family was given two weeks’ notice to leave Egypt in 1956 with nothing; they were resettled in England. Aunts on her father’s side fled Egypt for Israel after 1948 along with 20,000 other Jews. In Part 2 of the programme, the camera would follow her back to Egypt and give the viewers a flavour of what it was like to be a Jew in an Arab country. She would trace her aunts’ journey to Israel, and be united in an emotional encounter with relatives she had never met.
Researchers came and went and eventually the series producer, David Vincent, contacted us. I was eager to impress on him that two sets of refugees – Jewish and Arab – emerged out of the same conflict, just as the war between India and Pakistan had produced refugees on both sides. I sent him links to background articles and films, and Vincent promised to circulate an electronic copy of my book Uprooted: how 3,000 years of Jewish civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight among the production team.
The three Jewish stories were to be those of the barrister and TV personality Robert Rinder; the Ganze family from North London; and Viviane. On the other side were three Palestinians. I was concerned that the format already reflected an in-built bias. If two sets of refugees – one Palestinian, one MENA – emerged from the Arab-Israeli conflict, the three Jewish cases ought all to be MENA Jews, particularly as there were more Jewish refugees than Palestinian ones. Moreover, there was a danger that the story of Rinder’s Holocaust survivor relative, set alongside the tale of a Palestinian refugee, would give the impression of Europeans intruding into Palestine, and that the Palestinian Arabs had ‘paid the price’ for European antisemitism. But I consoled myself that Viviane’s story would be told for the first time on prime time British television.
I tried to share my misgivings with Rinder himself, but he would not engage directly with me. Instead he referred me to the executive producer, Colette Flight. She was pleasant enough. In a brief telephone call, I thanked her for featuring Viviane, a Jewish refugee from an Arab country. In fact over half the Jewish population of Israel descended from these refugees. But Colette was not interested in Israel today, and seemed perturbed that not all the Jewish refugees had left in 1948.
Last September I received excited emails from Viviane. Filming was about to start. From Egypt, her aunts’ story would move to Brindisi in Italy, the first leg of their journey to Haifa.
But disappointment soon set in. At the last moment, the Egyptian authorities denied Viviane an entry visa. The story would have to start in Brindisi. Thus the programme failed to give the Egyptian backstory, and Viviane’s narrative lost much of its emotional power, while the Palestinians railed against the injustice of their uprooting. They were free to roam inside Israel, visit Arab villages and chat to Arab historians who, inexplicably, had not been displaced. Egypt, in contrast, had made it clear that did not want Viviane back. ‘One way – no return’ still held true in her case.
It seems that the producers toyed with the idea of substituting the Egyptian segment with photos of Jewish life in Cairo. I gave an archive researcher the names of Facebook sites and websites run by Egyptians Jews with plenty of old photos. The producers dropped even this solution: they said they could not source any archive material from Egypt!
A historian Viviane met in Brindisi says that her aunts could have been fleeing violence in Cairo. But the final film was heavily edited. Worse still, Viviane never got to tell her own story. Rather than explain that her family were expelled at two weeks’ notice as refugees, the programme said that she and her family ‘had left to start a new life in England.’
All this leaves us feeling let down. The story of the Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa was glossed over, Arab antisemitism left on the cutting room floor. Perhaps the producers worried that the truth would have introduced complexity into a simple tale of Palestine emptied of its ‘Arab natives’ by European settlers. Perhaps they feared an antisemitic backlash. At any rate, a golden opportunity was missed.
The Palestinian participants got multiple chances to emphasise their nakba (‘they fled or were forced to flee’), their loss of roots going back generations, their attachment to the soil. We heard phrases like ‘their lives were shattered’, ‘turned upside down’, tales of lost orange groves and demolished homes. The Jewish nakba got a single sentence ( ‘ more than 800,000 Jews emigrated or were forced to flee’) – added belatedly at Viviane’s insistence. Not a word about the loss of land, homes, businesses, shrines, heritage going back 2,000 years – an entire civilisation.
The BBC would like the forgotten Jewish refugees to remain forgotten.