Filming Israel/Palestine: The Honourable Woman

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).

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Sayed Kashua has left Jerusalem

Photo: Aviram Valdman/The Tower

Sayed Kashua, until recently one of Jerusalem’s best-known resident contemporary writers, has left the city for good, with his wife and children. He has moved to the town of Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, two hours from the nearest big city, Chicago.

While Kashua is not as famous outside Israel as other Hebrew-language novelists such as Amos Oz or David Grossman, his books have been translated into fifteen languages, and he is a popular writer within Israel, as well as being a well-known public figure.

Kashua has written four series of the television show ‘Arab Labor’, an acclaimed sitcom about a Palestinian family living in Israel and their attempts to assimilate, in an echo of Kashua’s own background as a Palestinian citizen from the predominantly Arab Israeli town of Tira, who moved to Jerusalem in his early teens. Kashua also has a regular column for the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and for the Jerusalem magazine Kol Hair.

Following the murder of the 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir in Jerusalem in July, an attack which was widely seen as a revenge killing for the kidnap and murder in June of three teenage Israeli settlers hitchhiking in the West Bank, and the upsurge of anti-Arab violence and demonstrations in the city at this time, Kashua made his decision to leave.

He elaborated on his decision in his Haaretz column, which was reprinted by The Observer two weeks into the recent Israeli assaults on Gaza, which at the time of writing have paused in a temporary ceasefire.

Kashua stated that his hopes of Arab-Jewish coexistence, which he attempted to contribute to through writing about Palestinian experiences in Hebrew for an Israeli audience, had been crushed. As he records in the article:

‘Twenty-five years of writing in Hebrew, and nothing has changed. Twenty-five years clutching at the hope, believing it is not possible that people can be so blind. Twenty-five years during which I had few reasons to be optimistic but continued to believe that one day this place in which both Jews and Arabs live together would be the one story where the story of the other is not denied. That one day the Israelis would stop denying the Nakba, the Occupation, and the suffering of the Palestinian people. That one day the Palestinians would be willing to forgive and together we would build a place that was worth living in.

Twenty-five years that I am writing and knowing bitter criticism from both sides, but last week I gave up.’

Michelle Campos article for Middle East Research Information Project provides a longer historical view of segregation and discrimination in Jerusalem, and an insightful reading of the changing position of Palestinians in Israel depicted in Kashua’s TV series, from its first season in 2007, to the most recent, in 2013.

As she notes, and has been discussed in accounts of the Ottoman period, Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods were mostly mixed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Their gradual segregation began around the time of the 1930s, introducing a continuing move towards division that was consolidated in the war of 1948, and again in 1967.

Kashua’s decision came not just in response to recent violence, then, but was also the result of practices intended to squeeze out Israel’s Palestinian population with a longer history, which, as Kashua has sadly concluded, his attempts to bridge communities as a Palestinian writing in Hebrew cannot overcome.

In his latest column for Haaretz, Kashua recounts the banal irritations of his family’s new life in America and his attempts to navigate a complicated university bureaucracy.

He also describes his children’s requests to go home, to which, he tells us, he responds: ‘We are home, sweetie’.

Hannah Boast

CFP: ‘Remembering Jerusalem: Imagination, Memory, and the City’, London, 6-7 Nov. 2014

Remembering Jerusalem: Imagination, Memory, and the City
6th-7th November
King’s College London

Organised by the AHRC-Funded Research Network ‘Imagining Jerusalem, 1099 to the Present Day’

Keynote speakers: Professor Anthony Bale (Birkbeck), Professor Eyal Weizman (Goldsmiths).

Further keynotes TBA.

Perhaps the world’s most iconic city, Jerusalem exists both as a physical space and as a site of memory, ideas, and re-memberings. In art, literature, film, and history writing; in acts of public and private worship; and in communities across the globe, memories of Jerusalem have, for centuries, been created, invoked, and relived. This cross-period, interdisciplinary conference invites paper and panel submissions on the theme of Jerusalem and Memory, c. 1099 to the Present Day. Topics may include, but need not be limited to:

– techniques of memorialisation / techniques of memory
– place, space, and memory
– souvenirs, mementoes, and memory aids
– the materiality (or immateriality) of memory
– memory and sensation
– memory, land and environment
– memory and warfare
– memory and governance
– forgetting, false memory, and fictional remembering
– narrative and memory
– memory and the archive
– national, local, and transnational memories
– memory and community
– ethnography as remembering
– ritual, repetition, and performance
– sacred and secular memory

The organisers are particularly keen to receive panel submissions which address a shared theme across more than one discipline and/or historical period.

Abstracts of c. 300 words for single papers and c. 1000 words for panels consisting of three papers should be sent to imagining-jerusalem@york.ac.uk by 1st July 2014. For more details or inquiries, please contact the same address or visit the Network website: https://jerusalems.wordpress.com/

This conference is organised by the lead members of the Network: Dr Anna Bernard (KCL), Dr Michele Campopiano (York), Dr Helen Smith (York), Dr Jim Watt (York), and the Network Coordinator, Hannah Boast (York).

Download the Call for Papers.