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. 

37 comments on “Where did Jeremy Bowen learn the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict?

  1. What’s for sure is that the bride was already married to another man. The “land without a people for a people without a land” was actuallt populated by its very own people, the Palestinians, who were Christians, Jews or Muslims.

  2. Where did Jeremy Bowen learn the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict? Most probably in an excellent university, considering how successful he is.

    • He went to UCL – which believe me, has had enough dunces in its time. By the way, his daddy worked for the BBC and was, surprise surprise, a news reporter – I’m sure that had nothing to do with little Jeremy getting his foot in the door.

      • Interesting article! Not so interesting response to other posts with the usual playground antics and rudeness associated with some of the ‘regulars’ on this site.
        What does it amount to? Oh yes it calls into question a QUOTE! The standard torrent of nit-picking over the pitiful minutiae of a so-called debate.Even if the ‘QUOTE’ was pure invention it would not affect the narrative one iota.
        The point being that the intention of the Hertzl project was the subjugation of Ottoman Palestine plain and simple.
        A region inhabited by an Arab majority and Christian and Jewish minorities.
        furthermore there is ample documentary proof to show that many Zionists were aware of the potential demographic pitfalls and some that did counsel against it.
        Most of the arguments adopted herein subscribe to the ‘Land without people and People without a Land’ approach. Rather it is of piece with the corniest of ‘Western’ sagas where the Jews are the cowboys and the Arabs are the ‘pesky injuns’.
        And we all know what happened there.

        • There is ample documentary proof to show that the land was empty

          “The country is in a considerable degree empty of inhabitants and therefore its greatest need is of a body of population”.

          – James Finn, British Consul in 1857 –

          “There are many proofs, such as ancient ruins, broken aqueducts, and remains of old roads, which show that it has not always been so desolate as it seems now. In the portion of the plain between Mount Carmel and Jaffa one sees but rarely a village or other sights of human life.

          B. W. Johnson, in “Young Folks in Bible Lands”: Chapter IV, 1892 –

          “The area was underpopulated and remained economically stagnant until the arrival of the first Zionist pioneers in the 1880’s,
          The report of the British Royal Commission, 1913 –

          etc etc etc

          • Here are more two such items for Bowen’s scrapbook, these from British army officer Sir Charles Wilson (1836-1905), chairman of the Palestine Exploration Fund:
            In July 1899, as reported in the Jewish Chronicle (14 July 1899), he addressed the Fund’s Annual General Meeting in London, regarding his recent travels in the Holy Land:
            “The lecturer said that the face of Palestine was changing very rapidly, and the change was due to various causes. The tomb-hunter, who had done such infinite harm in Egypt, was abroad in Palestine and destroying its antiquities. Another change was brought about by a revival of medievalism, which showed itself in a scrambling for holy places. The amount of building of monasteries which had gone on in the Holy Land during the past twenty years was extraordinary. There was scarcely an eminence which was not occupied. Great harm had also been done to the antiquities of the country in this way. Thus the foundations of a synagogue which he had disclosed at Tel Hum [Capernaum], in 1865, had been covered up again. A great change had also been brought about in the landscape of the country, which was due to the Jewish colonies. He was quite unprepared for the extraordinary improvement that the Jewish colonies had effected, turning deserts into gardens and waste places into cultivated fields. Ekron, especially, furnished a fine example of what was done by proper cultivation. [Emphasis added.] As colonists, the Jews showed themselves to be the equal of any people in the world (loud applause).
            His visit to Moab and Edom had been a short one, but it enabled him to realise the main features of the country and its description in the Bible. He ascended Mount Pisgah, but, unfortunately, it had been raining, and the valley of the Jordan had been filled with steam, which obscured the view. The river Arnon, the northrn boundary of Moab, was the modern Wady-el-Mojib, which empties itself into the Dead Sea, about twenty-five miles south of Jericho. A journey along the high plateau brought them after a time to a plain, which must be “The Field of Moab,” mentioned in the Bible. One of the most interesting places in Moab was Kerak, where he came across an instance of the little care that the people of those parts evince for their dead. They let them lie about in the open to putrefy and be eaten by jackals. The Tomb of Noah, close to Kerak, was a place of pilgrimage much esteemed in the south of Palestine. Coming to the Biblical Tophel, the view of the Dead [Sea] from there was very beautiful. From the edge of the plateau they got an extraordinarily fine view of Mount Hor,in Edom. They entered Petra through the celebrated defile known as the Sik. They lodged in the Khasneh Phar’aun, the famous structure in which travellers sleep. From Petra they visited Mount Hor. Sir Charles exhibited on the screen a view of the interior of Aaron’s Tomb, this being the first photograph of the tomb that had ever been taken. They found a fragment of a Greek inscription in this tomb. The Turkish Pacha [sic] had mended the road all the way up to Mount Hor.”On 14 December1899, Sir Charles spoke on the topic “Palestine of Today” to members of London’s Camera Club at their premises in Charing Cross Road.

            Hosea, 14:7
            Again, a reporter from the Jewish Chronicle went along. This is is his précis of Sir Charles’s talk (JC, 22 December 1899):
            “General Wilson said that his first visit to Palestine was in 1864, when he went there at the request of Baroness Burdett-Coutts, who was willing to pay the cost of improving the water supply of Jerusalem. The Turkish authorities were willing that this should be carried out, but they demanded that £20,000 to £25.000 should be deposited with them. Of course this demand was not complied with, and nothing was done.
            During the last four or five years he had been Chairman of a Committee having a similar object and view. In the spring of this year he again visited Palestine, and it was a proof of the unchanging character of the Turks that the same demand was made as in 1864. In the thirty-five years Palestine had greatly altered. A most extraordinary change had been brought about through the cultivation of the plains, and this was mainly due to the Jewish colonies established in several parts of Palestine. [Emphasis added here and below.] In 1881, when employed in Asia Minor, he was sent by the Government to see what was going on in respect of the Jewish colonies. The colonists had suffered great privations, and the movement would have collapsed but for the munificence of Baron Edmond de Rothschild. What in 1865 were the most unpromising of sites, nothing better than barren sandhills, were now flourishing colonies. The manufacture of wines was one of the principal industries at the Colony Rishon le Zion; and he had tasted some brandy four or five years old, which was almost equal to the best old French brandy…. In one colony as many as 50,000 olive trees had been planted. Formerly, Palestine had been deforested; but now travellers came across whole forests of Eucalyptus trees which were a protection against fevers. Another improvement for which Jews should have the credit, was the better means of transport; in fact, the only good roads had been made by them. In the hilly country, too, the Jews had done a great deal in restoring the terraces. They had planted there mulberry trees, and the silk produced by the worms which fed on the leaves of the trees fetched prices as good as the silk sent from Beyrout….”

    • What people on this website do not want you to know: anyone who tries to contradict their marginal views is censored.

      Seems like they are annoyed at people who come with FACTS and who remind them of INTERNATIONAL LAW and HUMAN RIGHTS LAW.

      Israel is a democracy, where freedom of expression and freedom of the press are protected.

      Do Adam Levick and Hadar Sela feel unable to engage in an intellectual debate where some people contradict them using FACTS and FIGURES?

      It seems they do.

  3. Great research – as usual – Hadar.

    I saw this documentary listed on YouTube, but when I realised it was a Bowen job, I didn’t bother to watch it.

    • sprattyville – Even if the ‘QUOTE’ was pure invention it would not affect the narrative one iota.

      It goes towards the deplorable anti-Israel mindset of a BBC Middle East Correspondent who will lap up any narrative that is hostile to Zionism and present it as ‘known fact’ even if the source is a virulent anti Semite.

  4. Pingback: Where did Jeremy Bowen learn the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict? | Blogs about Israel aggregation

  5. Duvidl has been wondering for at least twelve years, since Jeremy started his present BBC job, how Jeremy’s own Hebrew/Arabic/Farsi/Yiddish lessons are coming along, if any.

  6. Even if Shlaim’s Heikakl reference checked out, a a prominent Egyptian journalist is hardly the most reliable reference for communication between rabbis. What language did they write that he was capable of translating? German? Hebrew? Yiddish?

        • All Ms Hadar Sela did here was to copy-paste an article from eng-anarchopedia… Great journalism, as usual!

          That’s probably why Bowen works at BBC and people here do not.

        • Dear Adam, get over it: Bowen works for BBC, you don’t, and you never will.

          Why not try to focus your life on something positive for a change? There is so much beauty in Israel, so many things to be done and built to help the Jewish state thrive and the Jewish people live in peace – why waste yours in this ridiculous jealousy against those who could make it to the BBC or the Guardian, while you could not? There are many other beautiful things in life for you to enjoy.

          • Well, all those ‘beautiful things in life’ don’t seem to prevent YOUR sad obsession with trolling on this site daily under your various identities.
            You don’t seem to realise that your writing has some particular characteristics that project through all your identities, much like the name ‘Blackpool’ running through different coloured sticks of rock, so that after just a few posts in each ID, it becomes obvious to all that it’s just you again. Sadly, for someone who (now) claims to be a ‘Real Journalist,’ none of these characteristics are actually the trademark of a GOOD journalist.

  7. The other husband would have been the Ottoman Empire and not the local Bedouin who never ruled the then very dilapidated region. There is no record of a people called Palestinian at that time living there. Known at that time as Southern Syria it was a vast swampland infested with Malaria and few population centres with a continuous Jewish presence since Moses brought them out of slavery.

  8. The eucalyptus trees of Nahariya, bear testament to the swamp – like conditions early pioneers found in this part of the Ottoman empire when they arrived.

    Palestinian pr seems not to worry whether their output is based in fact – if it gets the response they require, truth or fiction is equally acceptable, so someone like Bowen, who like his colleagues, Donnison and Danahar, appear to have gone native, are comfortable with whatever version of events best suits their friends – facts be damned.

  9. Let’s not lose the point here. The BBC Archives contain an uncorroborated slander relating to the birth of the Zionist movement. It is from 5 years ago. The BBC must:

    1, Correct it.

    2. Explain why a BBC ‘correspondent’, so obviously capable of lapping up any ‘information’ which in his opinion, ‘weakens’ Zionists, is still employed by them.

    Great investigative work Hadar.

  10. As Herzl was fairly anti-religious, it is unlikely that his chosen emmisenaries would be Rabbi’s. Further more, there was already a long-standing community in Jerusalem who they could have asked if they wanted Rabbi’s opinions. The story seems to be created by either a) someone so ignorant all jews are ‘Rabbi’s’ or b) someone who’s hatred encompases Judaism as well as Israel, so has to shoe-horn rabbi’s into everyanti-israel lie.

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