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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Free access to Society and Space virtual theme issue on Israel-Palestine

The editors of the journal Society and Space have made available a collection of articles from their archives on the topic of Israel-Palestine, as part of a virtual theme issue.

As they write in the accompanying blog post, the articles cover topics including ‘geopolitics, sovereignty, citizenship, nationalism, environmental issues, urbanism, and more’, and ‘demonstrate the power of incorporating a spatial analysis into analyses of Israel-Palestine.’

The issue is free to access online until November 13 2014.

‘…they would fire into her stomach’. How tourguides narrate Palestinians in The City of David, East Jerusalem.

By Dr David Landy, Trinity College Dublin.

The ‘City of David’ is an illegal Jewish settlement in Silwan in East Jerusalem. As such it is a place of violence and tension, with local Palestinian resistance to their colonisation met with brutality by settlers and the Israeli authorities.

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David Be’eri, settler leader, drives his car into a stone-throwing Palestinian child in Silwan October 8, 2010. Photo by: AFP

Strangely, it is also a popular tourist spot with hundreds of thousands coming to see the archaeological dig there, as this was the original site of Jerusalem. I visited the site in order to find out how tours of the site portray local Palestinians. It has been claimed that Palestinians are erased in these tourist narratives, mirroring the de facto erasure practiced by the Israeli settlers who guide tourists around.

While this was one way Palestinians were dealt with, there were times when tours could not elide over their presence. For instance, when tours pass this ‘look-out point’, we were offered a panoramic view of part of Silwan. Row upon row of Palestinian houses were laid out before us, and it was impossible to ignore them.

How then were they dealt with?

The ‘look-out point’ in the City of David. Note the military terminology the site uses.

The ‘look-out point’ in the City of David. Note the military terminology the site uses.

Below is an anecdote from a tour I took. It illustrates one way Palestinians are narrated. On this tour, the Israeli tourguide used the place to tell us about the walls surrounding ancient Jerusalem. She chose a girl of about 12 or 13 from the mostly Jewish audience as a ‘volunteer’ and said ‘meet the hill on which we will build the City of David’.

Pointing to the girl she asked us, ‘If you are to defend your city, where would you build the walls?’ When someone correctly answered ‘high up’, she instructed the girl to raise her hands over her head as ‘walls’, something which made her look even more vulnerable, in need of protecting.

The guide then explained that we also need to protect the water source of our city, at the bottom of the hill, around the girl’s legs. Then she added, ‘we can’t build the walls low down around her legs because if we did, then the enemy on the other hill…’ – and here she pointed to where the Palestinian houses on the other hill were crowding along the slopes, and everyone’s gaze followed her finger and they nodded in understanding. ‘Then the enemy on the other hill, they would fire into her stomach’.

At the time, I was shocked by the visceral atavistic images this narrative evoked, the young woman on whom we build our Jewish city, the need to defend our vulnerable young (Jewish) women, and the casual relegation of un-named Palestinians to the role of the inevitable enemy threatening our citadel. It was a narrative which both elided over Palestinian presence and treated it as a threat.

The imagined ancient ‘City of David’.

The imagined ancient ‘City of David’.

In retrospect, the fact that nobody else was shocked was of equal interest. For key to narrating Palestinians as the enemy is doing so in a non-political, naturalised way which all could accept. And key to the naturalisation process is the sublimation of this enmity.

After all, the tourguides (and while on the lookout point I observed several guides doing the same thing, pointing to the Palestinian houses to illustrate the need to and the ways of defending the City of David) were only discussing ancient history. Palestinians were not named, were not mentioned. This rhetorical trick reminds me of how two of racism’s main carriers are the joke and the rumour, both modes of expression that allow the speaker to disavow the racism they are enunciating, as well as representing it as a commonsensical way of understanding of the world.

In like form, in this tourist site, such stories of ancient city walls protecting the citadel from enemies on neighbouring hills were used to make sense of the confusing ruins we were walking around in. But they had another purpose: these past stories of militarised history served to sublimate the present-day violence against the Palestinians in Silwan. Palestinians themselves were treated as ghosts, absent presences who were faintly threatening, from whom we, in our Jewish citadel, were presently safe.

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.

Imagining Jerusalem – reflections on our first workshop

Our first meeting as a network took place last month in York. We were really pleased to see our early hopes of making cross-period and interdisciplinary connections realised in some fascinating and thought-provoking conversations during the two days of the workshop, and hugely grateful to all the members who were able to make it, especially those who travelled long distances to join us.

I’ve tried to condense some themes from the workshop in the following post, but if you were at the workshop, please do comment with any further recurrent topics that you noticed. If you weren’t, we’d love to hear the ideas that you think we could explore in future.

We began the first day with 5-minute presentations from members on their interest in Jerusalem – an exercise that worked surprisingly well, with everyone keeping to time and offering some thought-provoking questions and ideas! This quick-fire conversation uncovered some interesting points of connection between different periods, geographical contexts and disciplines, and highlighted exciting new areas of research.

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