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The Holy Land And Us: BBC Nakba series obscures ethnic cleansing of Palestine

The documentary hides the real villains: Western governments that left Jews with only one credible escape route from European antisemitism, by dispossessing Palestinians
The BBC, like the rest of the establishment media, continues to direct our attention away from where true responsibility lies for the slaughter at Deir Yassin (Illustration by MEE Creative)

The BBC’s The Holy Land and Us, a two-part exploration of Israel’s founding that concluded this week, has been what pundits like to call “brave television”. The first documentary featured testimony of a notorious massacre by a Zionist militia of more than 100 Palestinians, many of them women and children, in early 1948, weeks before Israeli statehood was declared

In a five-star review, the Guardian newspaper termed the programme “taboo-busting”. And certainly from a Palestinian perspective, it broke new ground on mainstream television.  

Unlike dozens of later massacres committed by Zionist forces that were hushed up, some of which were even worse, the atrocity at the village of Deir Yassin, just outside Jerusalem, was widely publicised at the time. In fact, the numbers of those slaughtered there were inflated, including famously by the New York Times, to more than 200 Palestinians. 

Simply identifying the Nakba as a historical event is now seen as an act of courage

In an age of newly available mass communications, both sides were happy for the already dreadful truth to be exaggerated. The Palestinians in the hope of attracting international attention and intervention; Israel’s founders in order to terrorise more Palestinians out of their homeland so that a Jewish state could be established more easily on its ruins. 

And yet today, paradoxically, hardly anyone knows about Deir Yassin - or the many hundreds of other communities from which Palestinians were driven by Israeli forces during a year-long act of national erasure. These are events Palestinians know as their Nakba, or Catastrophe.

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This is presumably why the BBC’s The Holy Land and Us seems so “taboo-busting”. Simply identifying the Nakba as a historical event is now seen as an act of courage, so completely has it been wiped from western consciousness - just like those hundreds of Palestinian villages. 

For 75 years, western politicians and media have barely acknowledged the essential context for understanding the so-called Israel-Palestine “conflict” - a context that, once stripped away, turns the story on its head. Palestinian resistance is falsely reduced to “terrorism”, while continuing Israeli violence becomes simply “retaliation” and “security”, as though the Palestinians started their own dispossession.

In this regard, The Holy Land and Us is a welcome exception. It does recall some of the missing historical context for today’s supposedly intractable “conflict”.

But at the same time, even as the BBC breaks its own self-imposed taboo, the programme-makers still manage to obfuscate and mislead.

Muddying the waters

The programme splits its story into two parallel narratives, separately featuring British Palestinians and British Jews pursuing their families’ connections to the events surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.

Although this satisfies the BBC’s remit for balance, it serves only to continue muddying the waters - and predictably in ways that benefit western establishments, and Israel, rather than truth and reconciliation, the programme’s ostensible aim. 

The Holy Land and Us presents the Palestinian and Zionist narratives as two sides of the same story. It is a tale of two peoples’ conflicting claims of suffering: the survivors of the Holocaust, and the victims of the Nakba. 

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And by turning these two historic traumas into a lachrymose competition for the western TV viewer’s sympathy, the Palestinians are set up to fail - just as they did in 1948 against the superior might of the fledgling Israeli army.

The BBC’s presentation of the 1948 story as a “Holocaust v Nakba” prize fight creates a false equivalence.

European Jews arrived in the Palestinians’ homeland, under British patronage, to terrorise, displace, and sometimes kill, Palestinians. The Palestinians, on the other hand, stayed where they were. They had nothing to do with a strictly European Holocaust. 

Israel’s creation, however, required that the Palestinians no longer stay put. They had to be ethnically cleansed, and they were, in military campaigns with names such as “Operation Broom”. There would be no Israel today without such operations, which is why Israel’s founding fathers set out their expulsion principles in a notorious document, Plan Dalet.

And yet the term “ethnic cleansing” is notable by its absence from the programme. And for good reason.

Ethnic cleansing

What The Holy Land and Us serves to do instead - in time-honoured tradition - is prop up a self-serving western myth: of an irreconcilable conflict between two nationalisms, Israeli and Palestinian. And once again, our primary sympathies are steered towards the set of victims whose story we know rather than the victims whose story we don’t. 

How The Holy Land and Us manages this is illustrated in the first episode by framing the heart-rending massacre of Palestinians in Deir Yassin with a story of the descendants of a British Jew, Leonard Gantz. As the Holocaust unfolds in the heart of Europe, Gantz chooses to leave London to head to then British-ruled Palestine to help build a Jewish state.

What this entails in practice is largely airbrushed by the programme, until tensions between Palestinians and recent Jewish immigrants like Gantz explode into civil war in 1948. Many Jewish immigrants, including those who had fled the Holocaust, took part in ethnic cleansing operations against the native Palestinian population.

Aided by western powers, they managed to drive out 750,000 Palestinians from the areas that would ultimately be carved out as a Jewish state - about 80 per cent of the Palestinian population living in those areas were expelled. One of the hundreds of communities destroyed in these operations was Deir Yassin.

Gantz does not take part in that massacre. His own role in the Nakba is mainly obscured. However, an old photograph shows him wielding a machine gun nearby, in an ethnically cleansed village called Jimzu. Its 1,750 Palestinian inhabitants were driven out of the embryonic Jewish state during the Nakba.

Gantz's son, Daniel, and grandson, David, are taken by the programme-makers to the site of Jimzu. There is something deeply distasteful about the way this scene is handled by the BBC. 

Tears of pride

It follows immediately after a British-Palestinian woman, Shereen, has heard gut-wrenching testimony of how members of her family were butchered in Deir Yassin by a Jewish militia, the Irgun. Two of its leaders, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, would go on to become prime ministers of Israel. 

In the early stages of the Nakba, the Irgun wanted a big, well-publicised massacre - prominently of women and children - to terrorise other Palestinians and put them to flight. That was one of the reasons for selecting Deir Yassin, in addition to its strategic location close to a road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

A Palestinian survivor of the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre during a memorial ceremony for the more than 100 Palestinian men, women and children who were murdered, 7 April 2005 (AFP)
A Palestinian survivor of the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre during a memorial ceremony for the more than 100 Palestinian men, women and children who were murdered, 7 April 2005 (AFP)

Shereen breaks down as she is told that a total of 22 members of her family were slaughtered by the Irgun.

But almost immediately the narrative switches back to Daniel and David, who learn of the exploits of Gantz in Jimzu, where Palestinian civilians were attacked, killed and expelled in Operation Dani.

Gantz's involvement in Dani, however, is presented by an Israeli historian who joins them simply as heroic. Anat Stern smiles as she announces that the empty site on which they are standing used to be “an Arab village”.

Stern concludes by telling the father and son they should “be proud” of Gantz for choosing to come to the region to fight, to a place he did not know, and that he “contributed to the creation of the state of Israel”. Daniel and David hug as they break down, too, though in their case in tears of pride.

Yet what is being prioritised and celebrated by the programme-makers is nothing less than the ethnic cleansing and slaughter of Palestinians

The Guardian’s reviewer calls this the “key moment” of The Holy Land and Us, writing: “Daniel’s pride and gratitude are profound, shared by millions and afforded the greatest respect by the programme.”

And yet what is being prioritised and celebrated by the programme - and, if the Guardian is any barometer, by at least some among western audiences - is nothing less than the ethnic cleansing and slaughter of Palestinians. Of innocents, who had nothing to do with Europe’s Holocaust.

The Jewish participants still seem to be cocooned from this ugly history, even while taking part.

In the second episode, Rob Rinder believes his great uncle was engaging in the Judaic principle of tikkun olam, or "repairing the world”, by becoming an armed member of a kibbutz, built to dispossess Palestinian tenant farmers close to Lake Tiberias. That same kibbutz, Sha’ar HaGolan, still bars all Palestinians from living in it, even those who today have a deeply degraded Israeli citizenship.

The Guardian review observes: “The Holy Land and Us follows British Jews whose family histories pivot around Israel and the impulse to defend it.”

But who were British Jews like Gantz “defending” Israel from? The only possible answer is the region’s native Palestinian population. “Defence” here refers to acts of ethnic cleansing.

Ongoing Nakba

It is hard to imagine quite how offensive this presentation of the events of 1948 must look to a Palestinian like Shereen - and how shameful it should be for the BBC, the Guardian and for us as viewers to celebrate it - had not westerners been conditioned to be so ignorant and insensitive. 

None of this is by accident. The BBC, like the rest of the establishment media, continues to direct our attention away from where true responsibility lies for the slaughter at Deir Yassin. It is not chiefly with Zionist Jews like Gantz or those who fled the Holocaust.

In fact, though the programme again obscures this point, the fact is the last place most of the Jews fleeing the European Holocaust wanted to end up was Palestine. Their destination of choice was the United States. 

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But just as with European leaders of that time, a mood of antisemitism among US leaders kept the doors locked to most of these Jewish refugees.

They came to Palestine because the region was viewed by the western powers as a dumping ground for an unwanted ethnic group. The “Jewish problem” could be solved by making the Palestinians pay the price instead, as Britain’s Balfour Declaration had proposed back in 1917.

And into the bargain, the West got a proxy, dependent, militarised Jewish state projecting western power into an Arab, oil-rich Middle East.

What the programme should have done was to highlight the real villains. It was racist western regimes that left European Jews with only one credible route of escape from western antisemitism: by dispossessing Palestinians.

Instead, The Holy Land and Us continues hero-worshipping Zionist Jews as ethnic cleansers.

When presented with these criticisms, a spokesperson for the BBC stated: "The series aims to consider both viewpoints and experiences of these events equally, as seen through the personal perspectives of the individuals taking part."

The same political trajectory continues to this day, even if Israeli Jews are ethnically cleansing Palestinians a little more incrementally than they did in 1948 and, again in 1967, when they seized the rest of historic Palestine. Israel is still there serving as an outpost of the West, projecting western power into Arab lands.

Palestinians call their experience as a people the “ongoing Nakba” for a reason. Their suffering and dispossession never ended.

Truth and reconciliation

The Guardian review asks an inadvertently revealing question: will this documentary about Israel and Palestine “make viewers on each side sympathise with the other?”

But while Palestinians can offer their sympathy to Jews over the crimes committed by Europeans in the Holocaust, sympathy is not what is required from Israeli Jews or from those, like Gantz’s descendants, who take pride in the Nakba.

They need to face up to the historic crimes committed to create Israel on the ruins of the Palestinians’ homeland, and the crimes that continue to this day to further dispossess and oppress Palestinians. That demands truth and reconciliation, not sympathy.

Will Palestinians have to wait another 75 years to hear the BBC concede that they live under Israeli apartheid rule, just as they have had to wait 75 years for the BBC to admit that the Nakba lies at the root of the Israel-Palestine “conflict”? 

For the sake of Palestinians and Israelis, let us fervently hope not.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Jonathan Cook is the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His website and blog can be found at
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