In part one of this post we began looking at two contributions from Jane Corbin to the BBC’s extensive Balfour Declaration centenary coverage: a filmed programme first aired on BBC Two on October 31st under the title “The Balfour Declaration: The Promise to the Holy Land” (available for a limited period of time in the UK here, transcript here) and a written article that appeared on the same day in the ‘features’ section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page under the headline “The Balfour Declaration: My ancestor’s hand in history“.
While both reports repeated themes seen in additional BBC coverage such as incomplete presentation of the entire text of Arthur Balfour’s letter, on the other hand they did present audiences with a very rare glimpse of the grave consequences of British restrictions on Jewish immigration.
Filmed: “In 1939, the British Government bowed to the pressure of the Arab revolt, drastically restricting Jewish immigration. The immediate consequences were to be disastrous for the Jews. The timing could not have been worse. Hitler’s Final Solution was soon to come into devastating effect.”
Written: “Leo was bitterly disappointed at the British cap on Jewish immigration and I visited Atlit, one of the British internment camps, with 80-year-old Rabbi Meir Lau. He spent two weeks here when he arrived in Palestine as an eight-year-old survivor of Buchenwald extermination camp. Many other refugees were turned back – to Europe.
“It was against humanity after six years of horror,” he said, shaking his head in sorrow as we walked along the rusty barbed wire fences. “Where was the nation of the United Kingdom then? Lord Balfour would not have believed it.””
Both reports informed audiences of the Arab refusal to accept the 1947 Partition Plan but in the filmed report Corbin provided a debatable motive for the ensuing attacks by Arab states.
Filmed: “…but the Arabs would not sign up to the UN plan. All-out war followed, as Arab armies from neighbouring countries invaded in support of the Palestinians.” [emphasis added]
In her written report Corbin presented a whitewashed portrayal of events:
Written: “But Arab countries refused to sign up to the UN’s plan and, in the violence on both sides that followed, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced to flee the new State of Israel.” [emphasis added]
Corbin’s filmed report inaccurately portrayed the PLO as having begun its life as a terrorist organisation after – and because of – the Six Day War rather than three years before any ‘occupation’ existed.
Filmed: “The occupation sparked an armed struggle by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, under its leader, Yasser Arafat. Exiled from Palestine, the PLO carried out hijackings and bombings on the international stage. They killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Israel sent hit squads to hunt down those responsible.”
Equally inaccurate was her portrayal of the Western Wall:
Filmed: “Israel insists that Jerusalem, the site of their holiest place, the Western Wall of the temple, must be their eternal undivided capital.” [emphasis added]
Her description of the al Aqsa Mosque was no less misleading:
Filmed: “The great mosques of Islam are here, too…”
Corbin presented a highly simplistic portrayal of the failure of the Oslo peace process to achieve its aim which refrained from adequately clarifying that negotiations continued after Rabin’s death and completely airbrushed the Palestinian Authority initiated second Intifada out of the picture.
Filmed: “Despite the hopes, the peace deal was quick to unravel, under pressure from extremists on both sides. The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas rejected the peace deal and set out to undermine it by bombing Israeli buses. And Yasser Arafat’s security forces failed to prevent the attacks. […]
Two years after the agreement, a Jewish extremist opposed to giving up land for peace, assassinated Yitzhak Rabin. […]
The Oslo Accords are the closest I’ve ever known to the kind of peaceful ideal that Balfour and Leo Amery had for Palestine. But for me, despite the progress made, the death of Yitzhak Rabin spelled the end of the Oslo peace process…”
Written: “The optimism created by the historic handshake on the White House lawn between the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was shattered when a Jewish extremist assassinated Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the PLO’s chairman Yasser Arafat failed to stop suicide bombings launched by the Islamist extremist group Hamas.”
In typical BBC form, Corbin amplified Palestinian messaging by telling viewers of the filmed report that there is one prime “barrier to peace”: Israeli communities in Judea & Samaria and parts of Jerusalem.
Filmed: “Well, it may not look much but I’m actually now crossing over from Israel into the West Bank where the Palestinians live. And here, an even greater barrier to any peace deal has emerged: Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian land. Since Oslo, Israel has more than tripled the number of settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There are now more than 500,000 Israelis living in around 140 settlements. Heading north, I’m on my way to an Orthodox Jewish settlement called Tappuah. The international community considers all Israeli settlements illegal. It’s very different today than when I first came on the West Bank 30 years ago. So many more Israeli settlements on all the hills around and so many more Israeli settlers.”
While viewers of the filmed report got some insight into the issue of Hamas’ refusal to “ever recognise Israel’s right to exist” based on their conviction that Israel is “Arab” and “Islamic” land, readers of the written report saw nothing at all on that topic.
Corbin’s take-away messaging in both reports, however, completely ignored the uncompromising approach of Hamas and additional Palestinian factions as she promoted a narrative of equivalent blame for the absence of peace that completely failed to address the century-long key issue of the basic Arab refusal to accept Jewish self-determination in the region.
Filmed: “I do believe that Leo Amery was right when he thought violence wasn’t inevitable here. It resulted from the wrong political decisions. And I think that still holds true today. For me, what’s needed is the kind of vision that Oslo brought. Strong and inspired leadership, a leap of faith on both sides. And without that, there’s a danger that time is running out. The bloodshed and intransigence will make peace impossible for decades still to come.”
Written: “Was Leo’s vision that Jews and Arabs could live and prosper together in peace doomed to failure and was violence inevitable? These were the questions I wanted to answer when I came to Israel again this time. […]
Leo never thought violence was inevitable here. He believed it was the result of wrong political decisions and the bloody and unpredictable events of history – as I discovered myself after the Oslo peace agreement.
Now there is a danger that extremism and intransigence on both sides will make peace impossible for decades still to come.”
Like most of the rest of the BBC’s Balfour Declaration centenary coverage, these two reports by Corbin promoted the narrative that implementation of that declaration was incomplete. In the filmed report Corbin even went so far as to describe its intention as “[t]he Balfour vision of Arabs and Jews living together in the same country”.
While the Balfour Declaration’s commitment to the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people was eventually realised (some might say despite the best efforts of the British mandate), Corbin made no reference at all in either of her reports to the fact that part of the territory originally assigned to that purpose was subsequently made over by the British (with League of Nations approval) to the creation of the Arab state known today as Jordan.
Another very significant omission in both of Corbin’s reports – particularly in light of her repeated references to Palestinian refugees – is the subject of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim lands: people whose rights were also supposedly safeguarded by the Balfour Declaration but whose existence and story has barely been acknowledged in the BBC’s coverage of this centenary.