BBC’s ‘History of Syria’ erases ancient Jewish community, distorts Six Day War

On March 11th 2013, an hour-long documentary entitled “A History of Syria with Dan Snow” was broadcast on BBC Two. An accompanying article under the heading “Syria’s priceless heritage under attack” appeared in the Magazine section of the BBC News website on March 10th. 

Readers familiar with the history themselves will no doubt have noticed that in Dan Snow’s extensive portrayal of the rich tapestry of ethnic groups making up Syria  throughout its history, one particularly ancient community was conspicuous by its absence. No mention whatsoever was made of the centuries-old Jewish community of Syria, either in the television programme or in Snow’s written article which featured the city of Haleb (Aleppo)  - home to Jews for millennia and formerly one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world – very prominently. 

Towards the end of the film (at 57:32 in the version above), Snow informs viewers that: 

“Between eruptions of violence, there is actually a long-standing tradition of tolerance and opposition to extremism in Syria.”

That portrayal of course airbrushes out the persecution of Jews in Syria completely, as well as their subsequent flight from the country. 

Another no less amazing bout of airbrushing – especially coming from someone with a background in modern history – appears at 34:23 in the above video when Dan Snow tells his audience:

“In 1967 [Hafez al] Assad was Minister of Defence when Israel launched a series of strikes against Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The Israelis humiliated Arab forces and took control of part of Syria; the Golan Heights.”

Snow of course fails to inform his audiences that the Golan Heights can only be considered to have been “part of Syria” for a maximum of 45 years before 1967, but it is his one-liner on the subject of the Six Day War which in particular stands out as a blatant breach of BBC Editorial Guidelines on accuracy. 

Children in an air-raid shelter at Kibbutz Gadot during an attack by Syrian shell fire, April 1967

Viewers are given no inkling of the events leading up to that war; indeed they might reasonably conclude from Snow’s account that Israelis simply woke up one morning and decided to attack three of the surrounding countries. Snow avoids any mention of the Arab League project to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River (the source of Israel’s main water supply at the time) and the relentless Syrian attacks upon Israeli communities below the Golan Heights during the years preceding the Six Day War.

He completely ignores the build-up to the war, including Egypt’s massing of troops in the Sinai and its expulsion of the UN forces from that area, after which Nasser informed the Arab world by radio that:

“As of today, there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel. We shall exercise patience no more. We shall not complain any more to the UN about Israel. The sole method we shall apply against Israel is total war, which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence.”

A Syrian tank in its fortified position at “Tawfik”, Golan Heights, dominating Kibbutz Tel Katzir and the Jordan Valley.

Likewise Snow fails to mention the massing of Syrian troops in the Golan Heights on May 18th 1967 and the bellicose statement made by Hafez al Assad two days later: 

“Our forces are now entirely ready not only to repulse the aggression, but to initiate the act of liberation itself, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. The Syrian army, with its finger on the trigger, is united….I, as a military man, believe that the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation.”

The closure of the Straits of Tiran on May 22nd 1967 – a clear casus belli, as noted by President Lyndon Johnson at the time – is also ignored by Snow, as are the subsequent almost daily statements put out by Nasser.

“Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight,” (May 27th 1967)

“We will not accept any…coexistence with Israel…Today the issue is not the establishment of peace between the Arab states and Israel….The war with Israel is in effect since 1948.” (May 28th 1967)

Kibbutz Daphna (foreground) and Kibbutz Dan as seen from the “Tel Azaziat” fortifications, Golan Heights.

“The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel…to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. Today they will know that the Arabs are arranged for battle, the critical hour has arrived. We have reached the stage of serious action and not declarations.” (May 30th, 1967 – following the signing of the defence pact with Jordan.) 

While Israel did indeed launch pre-emptive strikes on the Egyptian air-force on June 5th 1967, that was of course far from either the beginning or the end of the Six Day War as Snow so erroneously implies. 

This is far from the first time that the BBC has broadcast or published politically motivated historically revisionist versions of events surrounding the Six Day War. This blog post from CMEW regarding a complaint already made to the BBC about Snow’s above statement suggests, however, that the BBC chooses to remain bunkered in its ahistorical view of those events. 

It is high time for the BBC to ensure adherence to its own Editorial Guidelines on accuracy and impartiality with regard to this subject and to cease the advancement of political narratives under the guise of “history”. It is the BBC’s self-declared role to contribute to audiences’ knowledge of the world – not to seek to manipulate viewers’ political opinions regarding the Middle East or any other region.




Where did Jeremy Bowen learn the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict?

In May 2008 – at the time of Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations – the BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen produced a documentary entitled “The Birth of Israel” which was broadcast on BBC 2. Anyone who watched that programme then will surely not have forgotten its numerous instances of playing fast and loose with carefully selected nuggets of history – as was pointed out at the time by Honest Reporting  and others

Below is the first part of that documentary (the other parts can be seen here). 

At 05:55 Bowen says:

“In 1897 the Zionist movement in Europe met and declared that it wanted to found a state for Jews in Palestine. Two years later the Arab mayor of Jerusalem begged them to leave Palestine alone and warned there’d be an Arab uprising if they didn’t. After the meeting in 1897, two Rabbis were sent to Palestine to see what the country was like. They reported back – the bride is beautiful, but she’s married to another man”. 

Bowen’s two Rabbis are nameless and he provides no factual evidence for his tale – which is designed to show that the early Zionists knowingly ran roughshod over an existing indigenous Arab population and thus to ‘prove’ the ‘original sin’ of the founding of Israel. 

So where did Bowen get that story from? Here is a passage from the introduction to Avi Shlaim’s 2001 book entitled “The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World”. 


So possibly Bowen had been reading the new historian anti-Israel polemicist Shlaim – the man famous for declaring that “the job of the historian is to judge”. Or perhaps his reading matter came from one-stater Ghada Karmi, who also used the same theme in her 2007 book entitled “Married to Another Man“.


What is Karmi’s source for story? Earlier this year some light was shed on that question by Shai Afsai, writing in the journal ‘Shofar‘. Dr. Ghada Karmi3.JPG

“Where did Karmi get this story from? For some time, she did not respond to e-mails requesting information on her source, but in 2010 she furnished this reply: “The story’s origins has caused me problems. I got the citation from Avi Shlaim at Oxford, who gave me a reference for it, which turned out not to be correct. I then searched hard for the source and have come up with a blank. I fear it might be apocryphal, much as I had not wanted that. Sorry!” She later added that Shlaim told her “the story had appeared in a book by Muhammad Hassanein Heikal. But it was not there.” “

So Karmi’s source is Shlaim, but she cannot verify the quote attributed to the two nameless Rabbis. And what of Shlaim’s source? 

“As with Karmi and Pagden, Shlaim provides no source for the “married to another man” story he tells, despite there being twenty-one pages of notes at the back of The Iron Wall. Responding to a question about his source, Shlaim wrote in a 2009 e-mail that it was Mohamed Heikal’s Secret Channels (1996). This book is listed in Shlaim’s bibliography, along with two other works by Heikal, a prominent Egyptian journalist, author, and commentator, who was the editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram for many years, as well as an adviser to (and mouthpiece of) Egypt’s President Nasser. In Secret Channels, Heikal writes:

‘Herzl convened the first World Zionist Congress, which brought together Jewish representatives from many countries. It was held in Basel, Switzerland on 23 August 1897 and is regarded by Jews as a landmark in the creation of the state of Israel. The World Zionist Congress was created with the aim of establishing “a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.” After the Basel conference the rabbis of Vienna decided to see for themselves what Herzl was talking about, and sent two representatives to Palestine. A cable sent by the two rabbis during their visit became famous: “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.” It was a message Zionists did not wish to hear, and the inconvenient husband was never acknowledged.’

As with Karmi, Pagden, and Shlaim’s accounts, no source for the Viennese expedition and its “famous” cable is provided in Heikal’s Secret Channels. In fact, the book has no endnotes at all, nor does it contain a bibliography, which raises the question of how Shlaim could consider Secret Channels an adequate source for the veracity of the “married to another man” story.”

Regardless of whether Bowen’s source was Karmi, Shlaim or anyone else, the bottom line is that he either elected to repeat this myth to millions of BBC viewers without checking the veracity of the quote or that he knew that it did not come from a reliable source, but chose to use it anyway.  

But at least we now have some idea of the sort of ‘history books’ upon which Bowen’s Middle East expertise is based. 

BBC sidesteps Hamas terrorism and oppression in order to advance a narrative

Here’s a real tear-jerker of a story from BBC 2 ‘Newsnight‘ reporter Tim Whewell. Entitled “Unusual jobs highlight restricted choices of Gaza youth“, it appeared in the Middle East section of the BBC News website on December 11th

There is also a film version of the report, entitled “Life as a teenager on [sic] the Gaza Strip”, which appeared on the BBC’s flagship news programme ‘Newsnight‘.

Unfortunately, Whewell’s selective and stereotypical treatment of the subject matter ensures that his resulting story has all the essential ingredients of a Victorian-era novel. Noble, poverty-stricken young people are unable to pursue their dreams due to being forced into dangerous manual labour in order to support ageing, invalid parents and numerous siblings. In the background is a shady, oppressive, all-powerful entity which controls their lives and shatters their hopes and dreams from afar. One can almost hear Tim Whewell channelling his inner Isabella Banks.  

In Whewell’s story, a young man is forced – against his will – to work 12 hour shifts in Rafah’s smuggling tunnels. Highlighted in bold in the side bar are Mohammed Ismail’s words:

“Have you ever seen anyone dig their own grave? While you are digging, the tunnel might collapse. It could collapse any time and kill you.” 

Not only does Whewell fail to provide proper context regarding the smuggling tunnels of Rafah, but he also distorts the history and facts. Whewell states:

 “The smuggling tunnels have flourished since Israel imposed its blockade, assisted by Egypt, in 2007, after Hamas came to power in Gaza.”

In fact, the smuggling tunnels have been in existence since the time of the Oslo Accords, but from the beginning of the second Intifada – i.e. for a good seven years at least before the partial blockade was introduced – they were used to smuggle weapons and terror operatives into the Gaza Strip in addition to drugs and contraband. Rather than the tunnels being a product of the partial blockade, they are actually one of its causes.

Whewell continues: [emphasis added]

“Although travel restrictions for people crossing the Rafah border were eased in 2011, the shipment of goods into Gaza remains blocked. All building materials must be smuggled, since Israel fears Hamas might use them for military infrastructure.”

We have previously noted here – in light of one of Jon Donnison’s attempts to promote the same theme – that the notion that “all building materials must be smuggled” is entirely inaccurate and a clear breach of BBC Editorial Guidelines. As pointed out two months ago: 

“In practice, thousands of tons of building materials are transported into Gaza on a regular basis and in accordance with their having been designated for a particular project. Thus we see, for example, that in June 2012 alone, 1,142 truckloads of building materials and 476 truckloads of ceramics and plumbing entered the Gaza Strip. 

As well as monthly reports, COGAT also issues more detailed weekly reports and so, for example, we can see that in the week September 16th to 22nd 2012, 155 truckloads of aggregates, 27 truckloads of cement, 4 truckloads of iron and 10 truckloads of glass, aluminum and wood profiles entered the Gaza Strip – ie a total of 413 truckloads of construction materials in one week alone. 

For a detailed look at projects in the Gaza Strip between 2010 and 2012, see this comprehensive COGAT report which includes details of 17 approved housing projects, 17 approved clinic projects, 70 approved new schools and 24 school renovation projects, 37 approved water and sewage projects, 14 approved road projects and 39 approved infrastructure projects – all since 2010.” 

Whewell – conveniently for his emotions-targeted story which goes on to include the abuse of narcotic-like painkillers – makes absolutely no mention in the written version of the use of those same smuggling tunnels to flood the Gaza Strip with military-grade missiles and other weaponry which is later used by terrorist organisations for the purpose of committing the war crime of deliberately targeting Israeli civilians. In the filmed version, a brief throwaway line of narrative says “weapons of course must be smuggled too” and Whewell informs his audience in a derisory tone that “a few rockets from here have hit central Israel”. 

Neither does he bother to include in his story the aspect of Hamas control over and profit-making from those tunnels or their export functions. Only in the film version is a brief reference made to the fact that goods smuggle through the tunnels are “taxed by Hamas, providing much of the government’s revenue”. The written report fails to include even that brief sliver of information. 

Instead, Whewell frames the narrative to be absorbed by his audience to include only hapless, poverty-stricken Gazans who have no choice but to operate smuggling tunnels in order to survive the ravages of the completely unexplained – but obviously evil – partial blockade. The decision made by Hamas and other terrorist organisations to turn the Gaza Strip into a launching pad for non-stop terror activities against the civilians of a neighbouring country has no place in Whewell’s narrative because it is one in which Palestinians have no agency and no responsibility for their situation.

That same lack of context for the partial blockade continues in his second story, which feature a young woman named Madeline Kullab who works in fishing. Again, sad tales of a beleaguered Gazan fishing industry are told, with only a bizarre and unexplained reference to what Whewell euphemistically terms “gun-running” – as though the problem were a few dusty old carbine rifles.

“But the ceasefire has already brought a small benefit to Madeline. Before, Israel – afraid of gun-running – only allowed Gaza’s fishing boats to go up to three nautical miles offshore. Now, the limit has been extended to six miles.”

There is, however, another story here which Tim Whewell could have chosen to tell but did not. In what is almost an aside, Whewell makes a brief reference to Madeline Kullab’s difficulties with the Hamas authorities:

“She has been going out to sea almost every day since she was 14, despite attempts by Gaza’s police force, run by the Islamist movement Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, to stop her working in an otherwise wholly-male industry.”

Western journalists often gravitate towards the same people and stories in this region – often guided in the ‘right’ direction by their local fixers. Thus a simple internet search shows that Ms Kullab has been making headlines at least since summer 2010. 

Here is an ITN story from August 2010 and here is another one from the same month in which we learn that Madeline “has just finished her training in fashion design at Gaza’s Union of Churches”. In August 2012 Madeline Kullab was featured in a Press TV report  and a month later she was the focus of an article by Yann Renoult on the International Solidarity Movement’s French website. According to that article, it seems that the naval blockade is hardly the Kullab family’s only problem. [emphasis added and here in the original French - the link can be translated.]

“La raréfaction des ressources halieutiques, conséquence de la minuscule zone de pêche autorisée, ne lui permet de ramener beaucoup de poissons. Mais pour son père, c’est Hamas qui leur fait le plus de mal.

Au début, certains pêcheurs refusaient l’idée qu’une femme puisse être des leurs. Même si quelques uns, des amis de son père, l’ont appuyé comme des frères, d’autres refusaient son choix ou l’enviaient pour son talent. Des rumeurs nausé abondes ont été lancées sur elle. On a dit d’elle qu’elle travaillait avec des hommes n’appartenant pas à sa famille, ce qui est interdit, et pire encore. Elle s’est fait dénoncé auprès des autorités, qui ont commencé à les harceler.

Pour son père, le Hamas est un cauchemar quotidien. Insultes, intimidation, mesures coercitives et injustes… Il s’est fait arrêter plusieurs fois, et Madeline a négocier avec la police pour qu’il soit libéré. La première fois, un officier leur a dit qu’il avait un document leur interdisait d’accéder au port, à la plage et de partir en mer, tout en refusant de le leur montrer. La deuxième fois qu’ils ont arrêté son père, elle a écrit une lettre demandant sa libération et la restitution de son permis de pêche et de navigation. Elle s’est tournée vers des organisations humanitaires qui sont intervenues auprès du gouvernement, qui a fini par renvoyer l’officier de police concerné. Pour se venger, la police continue à les harceler. Elle peut maintenant partir pêcher du port de Gaza, mais pas des plages au nord de Gaza, contrôlées par la police. Mais elle a retrouvé sa licence de pêche.

Après quelques années, la famille a pu acheter un bateau à moteur, mais il a été rapidement confisqué par le Hamas qui ne le lui a jamais rendu. Elle est donc retourné à son petit bateau à fond plat. Quand elle le peut, elle emprunte ou loue le bateau d’autres pêcheurs pour ramener plus de poissons. Sa cahute de pêche a été incendiée. Le Hamas trouve moyen de lui nuire jusqu’en mer. Son père explique que pour les pêcheurs qui partent des plages, le Hamas a mis en place des couloirs de 100m ces pêcheurs peuvent travailler. Cela correspond à l’emplacement des différents îlots de cahutes sur la plage. Chaque pêcheur se voit allouer un couloir dans lequel il doit pêcher. Le Hamas a refusé de leur donner la totalité de ces 100m. Ils ont été jusqu’à retirer son filet de l’eau, parfois à le détruire.”

It seems, however, that the story of Hamas’ harassment of Ms Kullab and her father did not interest the BBC’s Tim Whewell very much. Like Hamas terrorism and Hamas weapons smuggling, that story just does not fit into the narrative he is trying to advance to his audience.

The promotion of specific politically-inspired narratives through the blatantly selective use of information and the advancement of stereotypes can never meet the standards required of the BBC on accuracy and impartiality and that should clearly be a cause for concern to Tim Whewell’s editors.

But no less disturbing to them should be the fact that a campaigning organization such as the ISM – the whole raison d’etre of which is to discredit, defame and destroy Israel – is capable of being more open and honest about Hamas oppression of women than the BBC.