Last Friday, the BBC’s Panorama program aired a story on Israel that suffered from extreme bias – even by the low standards the BBC has become known for. It was emblematic of the surprisingly shoddy reporting about Israel and the Palestinians. One would think that – with the issue being so important – reporters would seek to cover the story better. Instead, they always provide the same clichéd dog-eared “Israel is bad, Palestinians are good,” narrative to sway their audience.
A documentary filmmaker- Adam Wishart – narrated the thirty minute program, which he claimed was about Jerusalem’s new light rail system. Ostensibly he set out to “ride the city’s controversial new train,” a light rail that runs nine miles from Mount Herzl in West Jerusalem to Pisgat Zeev in East Jerusalem. “Some hoped it could help heal divisions between Israelis and Palestinians, but as Wishart discovers, it has only deepened the sense,” claims the preface to the show.
From the start, it is clear the program was not about Wishart discovering anything; he came with a background and an axe to grind. He starts out by telling viewers he is a “British Jew.” Why does that matter? When the BBC does a documentary on India does it make sure to send a Hindu to do it?
Judaism and Zionism are important to Wishart, who notes “when I was first here on a Zionist education course as a teenager…they didn’t have such things [as a light rail train.]” It isn’t just his own Zionist demons that he is wrestling with, but those of his ancestors. “When my grandparents campaigned for the [creation of the Israeli] state, they hoped for a place of tolerance, refuge, and equal rights for all…I can’t believe this is the place they dreamt of all those years ago.”
It is a “heartbreaking” experience for him, as he claims that the city “feels more divided than ever.” But he hasn’t been to Israel supposedly for 31 years. Throughout the program, he refrences those old days. His “Zionist friends” weren’t rushing to rebuild the Temple, he claims, unlike today. “They [the Zionist course he took] didn’t introduce us to any Palestinians.”
It seems the documentary was thus a personal journey for the filmmaker, which might have made it more appropriate for a documentary about him, rather than an investigative report on Jerusalem’s light rail system.
From start to finish, the program is an attempt to portray Israeli Jews as fanatic and right wing, who want to rebuild a Jewish temple atop the Dome of the Rock and invade Arab neighborhoods to settle them. The train is the foil around which this story is wrapped, as if without the train, Jews wouldn’t be ascending the Temple Mount in such numbers or buying land in East Jerusalem.
Wishart claims that Jewish tours of the Temple Mount are a new phenomenon: “once Jews only came as far as the Western wall, now 1,000 Jews a month enter the courtyard [of the Temple Mount], the heart of this Muslim place of worship.” This is a false narrative.
It wasn’t until 15 years ago that non-Muslims were banned from visiting the Dome of the Rock, and we don’t know how many Jews did or did not come up to the site in the 2,000 years since its destruction. We do know that Jews often did not go past the Western Wall because they were not permitted to, or because of their own religious choices, not necessarily because they didn’t want to.
Wishard travels with the train to the Arab neighborhoods of Beit Hanina and Shuafat, where he claims “when I was first here more than 30 years ago, I was afraid to go to these eastern Palestinian suburbs; today the train has eroded the unease Jews once felt.”
What is that claim based on, except his own recollections and fears? When I first moved to Jerusalem in 2004, the first day I walked to Sheikh Jarrah and through the Arab neighborhoods. That was before the train. In fact, in the years before the Second Intifada, Egged buses operated in the Arab neighborhoods, and in the 1980s Jews not only went into East Jerusalem, but shopped in Gaza City and Bethlehem. Wishart might not have been one of them, but his documentary never bothers to do any fact checking.
The BBC documentary falsely ascribes a narrow right wing view to all Jews, just as it pretends all Palestinians dislike the light rail. In fact the light rail has been positive for the city, aiding Palestinians who work in West Jerusalem. It may be a source of tension sometimes, but many people ride it in relative coexistence. But the BBC didn’t want to tell this story. It wanted to fit a narrative of “conflict” into the pre-conceived biased view of its creator, and its audience.