Published on November 5th, 2013 |
by Usman Butt
The Myth of Exile?
The BBC finally broadcasted Ilan Ziv’s ‘controversial’ documentary on Sunday evening entitled ‘Searching for Exile: Truth or Myth’. The documentary, which was meant to be broadcasted last April as part of BBC Four’s history of Archaeology season, explores one of the most important components of Jewish history and identity. The notion of Jewish exile from Jerusalem in particular and Judea/Samaria/Palestine/Israel generally. One dominant narrative asserts that The Jews in biblical Palestine revolted against Roman rule, in what became known as the Jewish wars. Following the revolt the Romans crushed the rebellion and destroyed the Temple Mount (The holiest site in Judaism), before forcing the Jews into exile throughout Europe and the Near East.
The spiritual sense of exile has been one of the central concepts in Judaism, but in the late 19th and early 20th century, this narrative took on a new meaning. With the birth of Zionism the exile was not only treated as a historical reality, but a physical state that Zionism would end by returning the Jews to Palestine. Once they had ‘returned’ they would set up a Jewish homeland and state, which is todays modern Israel. Early Zionist and later Israelis, poured significant resources into Archaeology trying to look for evidence of their ancestry and the narrative that accompanied it. This was vital for the pioneers of Israel as Archaeology was seen as a way of justifying not only their presence, but also the existence of Israel and the removal of the Palestinians.
The trouble is that Archaeological evidence did not confirm this narrative, leading many to question it. The origins of modern European Jews is a hotly debated topic; as early as the 1950’s writers such as Arthur Koestler speculated that the origins of the Ashkenazi (European) Jews lay not in Palestine or the Near East, but in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Many in Israel are today unaware that significant Jewish kingdoms existed outside the region and that Judaism used to be a proselytising faith. It tried to convert people and Koestler suggests that the Ashkenazi were in fact European converts to Judaism and not the descendants of exiled Palestinian Jews.
Although not a new idea, the debate was pushed-aside and many Israelis continued to abide by the exile narrative. This was important because if they weren’t the descendants of Palestinian Jewry, then what were they doing in this land? But this debate came to the centre-fold again when Shlomo Sand published ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’ in English in 2009.
He originally published the book in Hebrew, however he only began to receive controversy once it was translated into English. Sand expanded on Koestler’s thesis arguing that the ‘exile’ never happened. He speculated that the descendents of the biblical Jews might be today’s Palestinian Muslims and Christians. This line of argument has clear implications for Israel and many saw the translation of this book into English as an attempt to delegitimize the State of Israel internationally.
This is the backdrop that Ilan Ziv’s film comes from. Although he does not take the same line that Sand’s does, he nevertheless tries to unravel the narrative of exile as taught to him in Israel. He sees the narrative as a central part the Israel-Palestine conflict and he sought a critical re-examination of it. He also makes ties with how the exile narrative is told and how Palestinians discuss their own exile in 1948. It doesn’t state that Palestinians are the descendants of biblical Jewry, however in the film there is a scene where he goes to a Palestinian Muslim village in the Galilee, Northern Israel. In the village, Muslims go to pray at an ancient tomb of a local saint, the catch being that this saint is a Jewish Rabbi. This alone forces the viewer to ask a number of questions.
However, the rights to the film in the UK were bought by the BBC who scheduled to show it last April. According to Ilan the BBC executives were very keen on the film and he received praise for it. The BBC came into possession of the film six-months before the scheduled broadcast last April but, one week before it was due to be broadcast the BBC got jittery and began demanding last minute edits. The edits were substantial and Ilan was unable to do most of them before the broadcast. The BBC then pulled the programme claiming that it did not fit the format of the Archaeology season. Ilan felt the decision was political and he blogged about it here. The film had been broadcast in other countries and this only made the BBC’s decision more peculiar.
It took intense campaigning from Ziv and pro-Palestinian groups, before the BBC finally agreed to show it, albeit edited down from the original internationally shown edition. This was an important decision because not to have shown it would have brought into question the BBC’s commitment to diversity of opinions and free speech. The film does not resolve the question of exile but it does introduce a new audience to the question.