Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman (BBC2), starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as the would-be peacemaking heir to an Israeli family’s arms fortune, is a rare example of British TV taking on one of the riskiest subjects for a weeknight drama: the Israel-Palestine conflict.
I say risky, because Israeli and Palestinian history and politics aren’t subjects that are familiar to British audiences, and which will produce reliably high viewing figures – they’re not Nordic Noir, or The Great British Bake Off.
Israel/Palestine is also perhaps the archetypal topic on which venturing a comment can lead to frenzied justifications, backtracking, and speedy regrets, as reporters and many celebrities found during in a summer which saw Israel launch devastating attacks on the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge. In a way, it’s surprising that The Honourable Woman made it onto our screens this summer at all, and wasn’t held back for a less volatile time – although perhaps someone made the calculation that it’s a show which might benefit from being topical (as it did).
Beyond news programmes, Peter Kosminsky’s Channel 4 drama The Promise (2011) has been the only recent UK programme to take on Israel/Palestine (although see our member Anna Bernard’s 2012 article ‘Consuming Palestine’ for a survey of Israel/Palestine in British theatre and American popular culture, where it’s more prominent).
So, while The Honourable Woman isn’t about our topic of Jerusalem as such, it’s worth thinking more about how it represented Israelis, Palestinians, and the conflict, given its level of influence, which will have been extended by viewers seeking deeper explanations for the recent increase in tension (and, I’d less charitably suggest, hoping to look clever in the pub).
The Guardian, which examined The Honourable Woman in weekly ‘episode recap’ posts, praised the series heavily, declaring it ‘the most satisfying TV show in years’. Commenters in the long threads have also been generally positive. While some elements of the show felt promising, and initially seemed to connect in interesting ways to real-world scenarios, I eventually found myself agreeing with Luke Baker, of Reuters:
In early episodes, the aims of Nessa’s company, the Stein group, appeared to pose some fascinating and fraught questions.
The company had been founded as a weapons manufacturer during the early years of Israel by Nessa’s father, but Nessa hoped to atone for this by redirecting its funds into projects for peace. These included the introduction of broadband to the West Bank, and the creation of academies in the West Bank and Israel.
Were Nessa’s motives idealist, or cynical? By using Palestinian contractors to construct the network, which once finished would aid Palestinian education and economic development, her projects would materially improve lives at the same time as reducing Palestinian dependence on aid. It might seem like she was on the right track.
Yet critics of these projects, such as the architect Eyal Weizman, have highlighted the ‘humanitarian paradox’, through which material improvements to Palestinian lives risk delegitimising central Palestinian political claims, such as the right of return (2010, 205).
The Palestinian lawyer and writer Raja Shehadeh also writes in Occupation Diaries (2012, 43) about the risk of Palestinians themselves becoming distracted from necessary resistance efforts by improved living standards and economic development. He calls these ‘a policy of anti-insurgency, not dissimilar to that pursued in Northern Ireland.’ In the light of this tension, Nessa’s actions had a compelling ambivalence early on, as we tried to figure out where she stood.
Nessa herself, too, was a highlight. Along with her aide Frances, her Palestinian translator and sometime friend Atika, her brother Ephra’s wife Rachel, and a number of women in MI6, Nessa was at the head of a group of well-drawn and mature women characters that helped the programme to ace the Bechdel test and put most other TV offerings to shame, even if some of Nessa’s decisions towards the end of the series seemed a little odd. A slight disappointment was that Nessa’s affection for Atika wasn’t reciprocated, but feminist TV fans can’t demand everything at once.
A larger disappointment was the two extended and harrowing rape scenes. To me, and others on the Guardian comment threads, both were excessively long, with the first shot in what seemed like an unnecessarily lingering way. Even taking into account the centrality of the first scene to the show’s plot, these scenes felt typical of the way in which strong female characters are ‘punished’ on screen, while strong male characters are not.
Discussions of balanced representation also came up on another inevitable topic: Israelis and Palestinians. From reading the Guardian threads and discussing the programme with friends, The Honourable Woman seemed to have been widely received as politically neutral. However, I’m not convinced that this was the case.
In fact, I wonder if the reception of the programme as unbiased tells us something else about how Palestinians are usually represented: namely, that this is so appallingly bad that a hint of sympathetic representation in The Honourable Woman was enough to make the series seem admirably neutral. I also suspect that the ‘scientific’ and highbrow settings of government and MI6 offices, the intricacy of the plot, and the careful, stylish filming encouraged viewers to place a ‘trust’ in the neutrality of the series that it didn’t merit.
While Atika was a sympathetic and compelling character for much of the series, Palestinians didn’t come out of The Honourable Woman well. Even Atika caused us to question much that we had previously known about her, when she revealed her participation in a tangled and bloody plot to use the Stein siblings in an attempt to gain tacit American support in any future Palestinian bid for statehood.
Palestinians were variously represented as corrupt, backward-looking, and obsessed with revenge. Their homes were dark, low-ceilinged, urban warrens, fringed by miserable scrubland and desert, while Nessa’s rapist, following his attack by Atika, became a classic ‘baddie’ through his scarred face, according to the disablist cultural trope which equates disfigurement with evil.
Worse, Palestinians had a perverse obsession with contaminating Jewish ‘blood’ through Nessa’s rape and her subsequent forced pregnancy, following her kidnap in Gaza. Yet watching The Honourable Woman in the context of an increasingly active anti-miscegenation movement in Israel, it felt like Blick was attributing this perversity to the wrong side.
It was impossible to escape the fact that the main characters we were asked to sympathise with were the Stein family and their longtime friend/business partner Shlomo. In contrast to the Palestinians depicted, the Steins are cultured, attractive, witty, and wealthy, and live in light houses with high ceilings and lush gardens.
Crucially, the difference between the two sides was figured in terms of the representation of family. Palestinians were lone actors, or their family ties appeared so poisoned by national ideologies that a father could ask his son to commit rape, while the Steins were depicted as a family unit which had been disrupted through Kasim’s kidnap.
If, as we gradually learnt, there was something rotten in Ephra’s perfect household, it was at least a complex and modern combination of lies, adultery, and an ancient philosophical dilemma about the clash between family loyalty with legal and public responsibility, rather than a regressive obsession with bloodlines and grudges.
The inclusion of a far-right Israeli group – the ‘Samarian Defence League’ – was an interesting move, hinting at a more ambivalent attitude to Israeli society, and suggesting its own potential to produce terrorists. Still, the group played a minor role, and as the Guardian’s mishearing of their name as the ‘Sumerian Defence League’ indicated, I’m not entirely sure that their aims would have been widely understood by British viewers unfamiliar with the terms ‘Judea and Samaria’, which are used by the Israeli right to refer to the West Bank as an integral part of Israeli territory.
Ultimately, the series wasn’t really about Israel and Palestine, but Britain and America, manipulating events from a distance, and dropping bombs from drones. While this might not exactly be an inaccurate representation of British and American foreign policy, by the end of the series, the number of twists and turns contrived by external agents seemed to show a lack of faith in the Israel/Palestine context to be interesting enough in and of itself.
The suspicion remains that some of the praise for the series, particularly in the lengthier Guardian comments, might be more about the viewer’s self-fashioning as ‘worldly’ and sophisticated enough to appreciate a drama about the ‘complicated’ Middle East, than it is about the programme itself. This was a regular spy drama – enjoyable, stylish, and tense, nonetheless – with Israel/Palestine as an exotic backdrop.