The Promise

A week ago I promised a posting on adverbs and how they can clog up our writing but day after day I’ve put it off. So I’m going to write about broken promises instead.
We’ve been watching a four-part drama called The Promise which ended last Sunday. It was set in two time periods with the story of a granddaughter in our time going to Israel to find the Palestinian family her grandfather knew in 1947. We thought it was probably one of the best, if not the best, TV dramas we’ve ever watched.

Local actors, both Jewish and Arab, were used.

On the last episode I started getting tense a quarter of an hour in and by the end, two hours later, was ready to explode in tears. The story of the Jews and Palestinians in the last sixty years beggars belief; that Britain was one of the causes of this intractable conflict is not something we ever discuss.
It was an incredibly brave production, filmed on location, and it gave the Jews a hard time. Let’s be clear, by ‘Jews’ is meant the hard-line Zionists – , in 1947, the Irgun – bent on clearing the whole of Palestine for Jewish occupation. That ‘clearing’ in the last episode involved throwing tear gas or smoke bombs into homes in an Arab village then machine-gunning anyone who ran out, women and children included. It would not have happened if the British had not suddenly withdrawn and left them all to it (at which point, Len defects and takes the consequences of dishonourable discharge, leading to a bitter future life that Erin inherits).
Len poses with Mohammed's family, a photo which leads Erin to the goal of her quest.

Most dramas bend over backwards to be fair to both sides (unless they’re about Ireland, of course, in which case we Brits have to watch with our heads hung in shame). This one didn’t. This one stayed true to history, because when the Brits moved into Palestine to oversee the formation of the new State (a period known as ‘the British Mandate’), they were on the side of the Jews. Many, after all, including  Len, had been present at the liberation of concentration camps like Belsen. But during their time in Palestine, the British soldiers found their allegiance shifting to the Arabs. Len’s own allegiance shifts when he finds his Arab servant being abused not by Jews but by his own comrades. He tears them off a strip and then befriends Mohammed, and the story begins.
It was inspired by a letter the writer-director, Peter Kosminksy, received from a British veteran of the period, which led him into eight years of research and writing.
Each week we watched the credits carefully. Credits for the actors were unreadable (no Baftas there, then, but we’ve given the drama best film, best actor, best supporting actor, best screenplay, best music, best casting, best everything – except the credits, blue on a black background, I ask you) but we were more interested in the production credits. Countries involved included Australia, France and Israel. Israel. Wow.
In an interview Peter Kosminskysaid that on location in Israel the crew were Israelis, as were the Jewish and Arab characters in the drama. He said he didn’t have to get state approval for what he was doing, but he sought the approval of the Israelis – both Jewish and Arab – involved in the production and got it.
‘I ended up feeling there was nowhere else to shoot this. It brings a verisimilitude – one visible, one invisible. You have the real physical elements – the terrifying wall for example, the white stone, the Bauhaus architecture, and you have the invisible – the relationships between the Israeli Jews and Arabs in the cast. There was a scene where a Jewish actress plays a Jewish settler, who has a screaming match with a Palestinian woman played by an Israeli Arab. It was a very hostile scene, it felt tense. At the end they wanted to be photographed together as actors. [Peter Kosminksy in an interview].

But over and above the horror of the political story, we had Erin’s personal story (I noted her name and didn’t miss the irony), of her emotional distance from her mother, who in turn was emotionally distant from Len, now an old grandfather paralysed in a hospital bed. No one could do insolence better than Claire Foy, the actress who played Erin  – she made me cross and angry with her so what must it have been like for her poor mum?
Erin by the wall in modern-day Israel.

But in the end Erin comes home, gives mum a proper hug at the airport and then goes to see grandad. It was his diary that had guided her journey, his life she had uncovered, a noble, heroic life as a sergeant in the British army, loyal to his friend, Mohammed, to whom he had made a promise which proved impossible for him to fulfil. Erin does what she can. Her journey takes her to Hebron, Haifa and, of course, Gaza, in her search for anyone related to Mohammed. When she comes home, she goes to the hospital to tell her grandfather what she has done. His response is a slight movement of a finger against her hand, and a tear rolling down his cheek.
And that’s when I cracked up.
My Dad was in the 8th army and fought in Palestine. And he fought in shorts. That really struck me in the final episode, the Brits fighting in shorts. They looked so vulnerable with their bare knees, like Hoplites in kilts.
I went to Israel as a young woman in the 80s to do a job of picture research for ‘The Cultural Atlas of the Bible.’ I met Israelis and Palestinians in their homes and, like Erin, fell in love with both. When I came home, my mum was waiting for me at the airport, which was not something I’d expected. I knew this story and up until the final episode thought I should have written it (the one I did write lies in the proverbial drawer somewhere, wherever that drawer might be); but I couldn’t have written that last episode.
‘Don’t shoot the dog!’ I cried out, but he did. Not flinching, as we discussed the other day, from the dramatic moment. Children shot, women abused. And then the really powerful story of Erin’s friend, Eliza. For what has taken Erin to Israel in her gap year is that Eliza, who has dual nationality, has to do her stint in the Israeli army and Erin’s going to stay in the family home. When it comes to the show-down in Gaza, Erin has to face Eliza who is now fully playing her part as an Israeli soldier. It’s an awful moment, and they rode it beautifully. Just from a glance exchanged you could tell that their friendship was going to survive this horror.
So, back to boring TV and doing a lot of knitting. Cartloads of accolades and shiny prizes to all those involved, although I rather suspect that Kosminsky at least is above such things, as those who are truly worthy tend to be. After all, it took him eight years to write and produce this, and you don’t do that for trinkets and baubles. It should be compulsory viewing for every child on the planet.
It can still be seen via Channel 4

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. As a Jew, I take a slightly different viewpoint. Sure there was the terrorist group, the Irgun, but there was also the Hagganah, the Jewish defence who had pitched battles with the Irgun (never mentioned). Then the FENCE. It was shown, never a word why it was there, and the effect: only one suicide bomber since it was built. Incidentally over 90% is a 3 metres high wire FENCE, not the wall shown. Never a mention of the 80+ jewish medical personel ambushed and killed by the Arabs in 1947 on their way to help folk in nearby settlements. And only THREE killed by a suicide bomber in a crowded cafe! Sadly, I cannot see peace in the area, not when Abass of the PA refuses to recognise Israel as a Jewish State, when the children are taught to hate the Israelis, and Hamas vows to destroy all Jewish identity in the area. Christians should also be afraid, witness the recent murder of a Christian Govt Minister in Egypt, the recent massacre of Coptic Christians there, the murder of Christians in Iraq, Gaza, and forced departure from the West Bank, Sad times indeed, but shows ‘The Promise’ WAS biased.

  2. Brian, thank you so much for adding your knowledge to the debate. I did feel the drama was biased but having read the interviews with Kosminsky I can see his reasoning, to follow what was true for the character, Len, rather than be politically unbiased and fair to all.
    It does raise the question of what novelists are at liberty to do, ranging from mere taking of sides at one end of the spectrum to skewing history at the other.
    To achieve real human characters, you have to show the good in the bad guys and the bad in the good guys, like the yin yang symbol. There are no clear-cut victors and victims, just a mess of humanity more or less getting it all wrong.
    Homer rather showed the way, being a Greek whose sympathy lay with the Trojans. It’s a good stance to take.
    Did Kosminksy fail? Perhaps, despite all his explanations. I certainly felt uncomfortable with the weight of blame put upon the Jews, while not enough was made of the suddeness of the British withdrawal perhaps. But as a drama, I thought it was a brilliant success in that it built up the tension for 8 hours without a moment’s respite. And it was brave.
    I’ve checked on the ‘barrier’ and found this: ‘The barrier is a fence with vehicle-barrier trenches surrounded by an on average 60 meter wide exclusion area (90% of its length), and an 8 meter tall concrete wall (10% of its length).[1] ‘ (Wikipedia).
    I’m afraid as a dramatist one has to show the wall.

  3. I have been to Israel, ironically as a guest of the IDF as I was researching the early days of the Israeli Airforce for a book, still to be finished. I met English Jews who fought in 1948, when the Arab armies tried to destroy the fledgling state. I met Weissman, the President, who flew for the RAF. I went to several Kibbutz, and met POOR Jews who work for each other, and share everything. Where the film failed, was to (deliberately) portray the Jews are rich, and the soldiers bullies, whereas the Palestinians were poor, kindly, with not a nasty bone in their bodies. What DOES worry me is that this plays into the hands of the vicious anti-Semites and Israel haters. Sadly, I have found the worst Jew haters are JEWS, and can name those in the Arts, academia etc. Yes, the acting, and filming was brilliant, and I was hooked, but how I wish a fairer memory had been left in the mind of viewers.

  4. I think you’re right and images were used to give a false picture of 1947-8. When I was in Israel, I met several Jews like Paul, but the majority were older, wiser and kept their heads down, and were on friendly terms with neighbouring Arabs. Where it got frightening was in settler territory on the West Bank.
    But the short answer to your points is: get writing! Finish your book on the Airforce and write a novel.

  5. I think we can close this discussion and just HOPE there can be a peaceful Palestinian state side by side with a SAFE Israel, but I have grave doubts, given the basic attitude of both Fatah (Abass) and Hamas.
    I shall write that book about the Israel Airforce, but do have two childrens books out ( At the moment I am writing-and still researching- a WW2 book about a 15 years old rear airgunner (based on truth).

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