BBC WS radio programme on Hebron omits vital background

The September 14th edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Heart and Soul’ was titled “Hebron’s Cave of Sacrifice“.

“Abraham of the Old Testament, or Ibrahim of Islam, is a vital figure across Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

His prophetic fame, arises from the story of his offering of one of his sons to God, because He commanded him so. God however, spared the son and a sacrificial lamb was offered instead.

In the city of Hebron, are the Caves of The Patriarch [sic] where Abraham is said to be buried and above them stand a Mosque and Synagogue where Jews and Muslims pray. It is an uneasy understanding between two communities that share this ancient city and this home of worship.

Lipika Pelham explores Hebron, the caves that are central to it and the faith of the people who live in this tense, disputed city.”

While Lipika Pelham went to great lengths to present differing versions of the story of Abraham as equally valid narratives, her use of language when describing her visit to Hebron was distinctly less impartial. Areas of Jewish residence in Hebron were exclusively described as “settlements” and the people who live there “settlers”, while Pelham chose to use the Jordanian political terminology for the area in which the city is located. [emphasis added]

“I’m in Hebron in the West Bank – an ancient city at the centre of the religious, tribal and political dispute which dominates this part of the world and far beyond.”

“The current political conflict goes back to 1968; just under a year after Israel occupied the West Bank.”

“He [Abraham] settled in Canaan which included the area we know now as the West Bank, with Hebron at its centre.”

“…Hebron, where some 800 Jewish settlers live in gated communities guarded by about three times as many Israeli soldiers, right at the heart of Palestinian neighbourhoods.”

“Step outside of Beit Hadassa and Avraham Avinu settlements, walk through the checkpoints and turnstiles and you are in a typical Middle Eastern souk.”

Describing the Cave of the Patriarchs, Pelham misrepresented the mission of the security forces stationed there to prevent terror attacks.

“Heavily armed soldiers are guarding the entrance to the Jewish side to make sure that visitors are not Palestinian or visibly Muslim. On the left are the wide stone steps into the Ibrahimi mosque – also watched by Israeli soldiers.”

When Pelham visited a museum, listeners heard an account of the 1929 Hebron Massacre which whitewashed the fact that “violence broke out” because of incitement by Arab leaders against Jews and gave listeners to understand that the death toll in Hebron alone was the total number of Jews murdered “all over the country” while highlighting the fact that people who did not describe themselves as “Palestinian” at the time stepped in to help their neighbours. Notably, the record of the ruling British administration was erased from Pelham’s account.  

[14:19] “The story ends with massacre in Hebron of the Jews in 1929. This was a watershed moment in Jewish history as the riots ended the continuous Jewish presence which had lasted in Hebron for millennia. In August 1929 violence broke out all over the country. Sixty-seven Jews were murdered and over a hundred wounded. Bodies were mutilated, 350 Jews were saved by their Palestinian neighbours. During the Passover of 1968 when the Jews reentered Hebron…they wanted to reestablish a Jewish presence in the West Bank city. So in a way, the reality of hostility and separation really started then.”

Perhaps most significantly, listeners to this programme around the world were denied an explanation of the 1997 agreement which brought about the division of the city into two areas – H1 (80% of the city) under Palestinian Authority control and H2 (20%) under Israeli control.

[19:30] “In this tug of war over who Abraham belongs to and who should live in the city of the patriarchs, life goes on on both sides as it has been since the 1997 Hebron Protocol. It followed one of the bloodiest events in Hebron’s current history. In 1994 Baruch Goldstein turned a machine gun on Muslim worshippers in the Cave of the Patriarchs. The Jews and the Muslims until then prayed together in the Mosque-Synagogue without the barriers and checkpoints.”

In other words, in her entire 27 minute report about “this tense, disputed city” Lipika Pelham did not bother to clarify to BBC audiences that Israelis live in specific areas of it because the Palestinians agreed to that arrangement over twenty years ago.

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Superficial BBC WS report on PA’s latest UNESCO stunt

As readers may know, the old city of Hebron is on the agenda at a UNESCO conference that opened this week.

“The meeting will run through July 12 and debate contentious issues like a Palestinian motion to deny Israel sovereignty over Jerusalem and have the West Bank city of Hebron designated as a “World Heritage Site in Danger.” […]

Given the Arab nations’ automatic majority in international forums, the Palestinian proposal is likely to be accepted. […]

The Tomb of the Patriarchs could become the third cultural site on UNESCO’s “List of World Heritage in Danger” that is registered as located in the “State of Palestine.” The other two are the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem and the “cultural landscape of Southern Jerusalem,” around Battir.”

Of course this is far from the first time that UNESCO has been exploited for politically motivated denial of Jewish history since the Palestinian Authority joined that UN body in 2011. As in previous cases, professionals have not recommended adoption of the PA’s latest proposal.

“UNESCO experts have warned the Palestinian Authority that it has overly focused on Hebron’s Muslim history at the exclusion of the Judeo-Christian heritage in its request that the West Bank’s city’s “Old Town” be inscribed on the “World Heritage in Danger” list. […]

The PA’s written proposal had focused on Hebron’s “Old Town” history from the Mamluk period of 1250 and onward, which includes the Tomb of the Patriarchs, whose Herodian structure houses both Jewish sanctuaries of worship and the Ibrahimi Mosque. […]

“This means that the association of Hebron with Jewish and early Christian societies is given little recognition, and Tell Rumeida [an area of Biblical Hebron] and other sites are excluded from the boundaries,” the report continued.” […]

This is the third time in a row that ICOMOS has failed to recommend a Palestinian Authority proposal for inscription on the “World Heritage in Danger” list; it rejected both the 2012 proposal to put Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and 2014 request to place the ancient agricultural Terraces of Battir on the list.”

However, that professional view is once again unlikely to have any influence over the politicised proceedings at UNESCO, which is why Israel did not cooperate with the ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) process.

On the past occasions in which the BBC has produced coverage of PA proposed UNESCO resolutions concerning Israel it has consistently failed to provide its audiences with the relevant information concerning the long-standing Palestinian campaign to erase Jewish heritage and history as part of its tactical delegitimisation of Israel. 

Israel freezes Unesco ties for ‘denying Jewish holy sites’ – discussed here

Unesco passes contentious Jerusalem resolution – discussed here

Jerusalem reference found on ancient wine ledger – discussed here 

So how did the BBC World Service present this latest story to listeners to ‘Newshour‘ on July 2nd? Presenter James Coomarasamy introduced the item (from 14:07 here) as follows:

“A UN committee is beginning to consider a Palestinian request to classify the old city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank as an endangered world heritage site. Israel is opposed to the plan.”

With no further explanation, Coomarasamy then gives an inadequate introduction of his sole interviewee, describing an activist in a ‘peacemaking’ group as a tour organiser.

“Eliyahu McLean runs regular dual-narrative tourist visits to Hebron.”

McLean begins by noting that Hebron is “an ancient city” with “at least four thousand years of history” before clarifying that “it’s a holy city to Jews, Christians and Muslims”. He goes on:

“It’s the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. It’s a centre of the Palestinian economy. It’s also the burial place of our shared ancestor for Jews, Christians and Muslims – Abraham. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Leah and Rebecca; all buried in Hebron.”

Coomarasamy then asks a question which might appear less relevant to an item supposedly discussing a proposal to designate part of that city as a world heritage site but nevertheless, listeners do get to hear about a subject – the Hebron Protocol – which is all too often absent from BBC reporting on that city.

“An ancient city but what has its modern history been like?”

McLean: “…It’s also a very divided city. It’s one of the most divided cities in the holy land and if not the world. Here we have a Jewish side of the old city of Hebron and you have a Palestinian side. Now Hebron itself was divided as part of the Hebron Accords in 1997 signed by Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu with Bill Clinton presiding. Israel negotiated the withdrawal of 80% of the city. So 80% of the city has been handed over to the Palestinian Authority and that is now called H1 – H for Hebron 1. H2 – 20% of the city – is still controlled by Israel and the Israeli army. Within that 20% there are about twenty to thirty thousand Palestinians and about 1,000 Israeli Jews living there.”

Coomarasamy: “What is life like for both those communities?”

McLean: “H1 is a thriving metropolitan city; there’s industry, there’s three universities, there’s hospitals […] Now within the old city is where there is tensions and conflict. In the old city you have the Tomb of the Patriarchs. I’m Israeli and I help run a weekly dual-narrative tour to Hebron and we take travelers from around the world to go to Hebron and for half a day I hand them over to a Palestinian guide and they hear the Palestinian narrative of victimisation, of occupation. They feel that they’re living under oppression; violence by settlers, violence by soldiers. The Israeli Jews who live there feel that they’re not just occupying and stealing other people’s land – Palestinian land – but that the Jews in fact have an ancient historical connection. In fact Jews lived in Hebron from ancient times; from the time of Abraham through the Roman period, into the Byzantine early Christian period, early Islamic period, the Crusader period. Throughout all of these periods there was an ancient Jewish community that always lived side by side with their Arab Muslim cousins in peace and harmony.”

Glaringly absent from that account is of course any mention of the murder of 67 Jews in the 1929 Hebron Massacre – the event that brought hundreds of years of Jewish life in Hebron came to an abrupt end.

Coomarasamy then finally asks a question related to the item’s supposed subject matter.

“So what are the claims then of the Palestinian Authority that the old city is an endangered place and it needs to be on the World Heritage in Danger list?”

Unfortunately, listeners do not hear a proper answer to that question.

McLean: “The UNESCO decision about making it a world heritage site should take into account not only the very valid and legitimate Islamic historical connections there but the Christian and of course the ancient Jewish connection. Now I think Israel is making a mistake not allowing in some of the committee members so they can see the reality for themselves because I believe that Israel has a valid, legitimate case to make that there is an ancient and legitimate Jewish history and presence that has nothing to do with endangering Muslims. It is true there are a handful of violent settlers who live there who make life miserable and ruin the reputation of the wider community and people that I know in Hebron, they condemn the action of a minority in their midst that do some violent things.”

Coomarasamy ends the item there.

“Hebron tour guide Eliyahu McLean.”

So although BBC audiences around the world do get to hear references to “violent settlers” who are supposedly “occupying and stealing […] Palestinian land” (despite their presence in Hebron being part of an agreement willingly signed by the Palestinian Authority), they do not actually get to hear anything about the substance of the PA’s latest UNESCO bid.

They are not, for example informed that on the PA’s list of complaints:

“…was the placement of security barriers by the Tomb of the Patriarchs and in Hebron’s Old City, as well as an attempt by Jewish residents of the city to purchase property. The Palestinian delegation also protested the use of tear gas in the Old City.”

Neither are they told that Hamas has a major foothold in Hebron, that the city has a new mayor who is a convicted terrorist or that dozens of terror attacks against Israelis have been carried out in the city: a fact obviously relevant to some of those factors claimed by the PA to be ‘endangering’ Hebron.  

And of course, as usual in BBC coverage of such stories, the all-important context of the Palestinian Authority’s repeated attempts to delegitimise Israel and erase Jewish history and heritage at the UNESCO forum is glaringly absent from this BBC World Service report.

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BBC Radio 4 history programme misleads on Hebron massacre

The November 18th edition of the BBC Radio 4 history programme ‘Spin the Globe’ focused on the year 1929, with part of the broadcast – presented by historian Michael Scott – relating to that year’s Arab riots in what was then mandate Palestine. The programme’s synopsis states:Spin the Globe 18 11

 “…in Palestine, there was an outbreak of rioting between the Muslim and Jewish population.”

The relevant segment can be found from 14:40 here.

Scott’s introduction to the item misleadingly leads listeners to believe that efforts to establish a Palestinian state were underway in 1929.

“…in Palestine, 1929 was the year in which the ongoing dispute over the establishment of a Jewish and Palestinian state escalated to new heights of conflict, as Dr Eugene Rogan of Oxford University explains.”

Rogan: “Well the events of 1929 really demonstrated the way in which religion could come to take nationalist overtones. If you look at the origins of the massacres that took place in both Jerusalem and Hebron in 1929, we have to go back to a series of seemingly benign incidents that took place in the summer of 1928 when Jewish worshippers raised a screen to separate male and female worshippers at the side of the Western – or Wailing – Wall. This was for Jewish worshippers a way to create a more conducive environment for men and women to come together to pray. But for Arab onlookers it seemed as though the Jews were trying to create an open-air synagogue at the Western Wall that they feared could be a prelude to claiming the Western Wall as a sort of privileged area for the Jews. It is a retaining wall of the Haram complex – the area of great religious importance to Muslims in Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa Mosque are both part of this Haram complex that overlooks the Western Wall so whatever happens to the Western Wall really proved to be a flash point to Muslim sensitivities as well.”

Notably, no effort is made to inform listeners of the very relevant issue of the significance of the Western Wall to Jews or of the fact that the Haram complex is also called Temple Mount – the holiest site in Judaism – or why that site is so important to Jewish culture and religion. The BBC’s style guide, however, clearly instructs that both terms should be used.

“Temple Mount – both words capped. Note that the area in Jerusalem that translates from Hebrew as the Temple Mount should also be described, though not necessarily in the first four pars, as known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (ie lower case ‘al’, followed by a hyphen – and never ‘the al-Haram al-Sharif’, which is tautological). The Arabic translates as the Noble Sanctuary.”

Rogan continues:

“And here I think British handling of the Jewish screen at the Western Wall was very clumsy. The British responded with much too much force, created tensions in the Jewish community, provoked an Arab hostility that then led to fights and really between 1928 and 1929 a deepening of tensions between Muslims and Jews over religious sites of importance to both communities. And they blow up in the summer of 1929 when those tensions go from being a matter of fist fights to becoming really massacres.”

Scott: “Around 130 Jews and 115 Arabs lost their lives in a week of fighting in several cities across Palestine with many more people injured. But there were some stories of individual kindness that provided a relief from the bloodshed.”

In fact – contrary to the impression of equivalence created by Scott – most of the Arab dead were killed by British police trying to stop the attacks rather than in “fighting” between Jews and Arabs.

The item then returns to Eugene Rogan, who revealingly describes Hebron’s Arab community as “indigenous” whilst the Sephardi Jewish families who had lived there for centuries are afforded no such title.

Rogan: “It is in Hebron where I think the indigenous Arab community’s response was most humanitarian. The total population of Hebron was about twenty thousand in 1929 and of that between 600 and 800 Jews lived among a majority Arab Muslim population. In the riots of the 24th of August there were about 67 Jews that were murdered by the mob. But the striking thing was 435 Jewish residents of Hebron were actually sheltered by their Arab neighbours. So some two-thirds of the Jewish community was given refuge in apparently 28 Arab households and their protection was recognized by the Jewish authority at Hebron who wrote at the time ‘had it not been for a few Arab families, not a single Jewish person would have remained in Hebron’. So it’s worth remembering that these were terrible events of mob violence but that there were also people of good values who, coming from the majority population – the Arab-Muslim or Arab-Christian population – were as abhorrent of the mindless violence as were the Jewish victims of the massacres.”

Of course “not a single Jewish person” did remain in Hebron because even those who survived the massacre were evacuated from the city by the British and later efforts to re-establish the ancient Jewish community in Hebron came to an end in 1936 when further Arab rioting again caused its evacuation.

Those familiar with the factual background to the Hebron massacre and the Arab riots of 1929 in general will of course note that Eugene Rogan’s account completely erases one key factor: the role played by the British-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al Husseini in inciting the violence. Contrary to the impression listeners receive from Rogan, Arab “hostility” was not “provoked” exclusively by the clumsiness of British policies or “tensions between Muslims and Jews over religious sites” but by a long and organized campaign of incitement headed by al Husseini. Just days before the massacre in Hebron, for example, Husseini announced in a sermon that “anyone who kills a Jew will be entitled to the next world”.

“According to the Davar newspaper of August 20, 1929, incitement against the Jews was rampant, especially in the Jerusalem and Hebron area. Rumors were spread that Jews had cursed Islam and intended to take over their holy places; Muslims were told that it was their duty to take revenge. “Defend the Holy Places” became the battle cry.”

“According to Dutch-Canadian journalist Pierre Van Passen who was in Palestine at the time, fabricated pictures of Muslim holy sites in ruins were handed out to Hebron Arabs as they were leaving their mosques on Friday, August 23, 1929.”

The political motivations behind this very selective presentation of a key event in the region’s history are glaringly obvious. Coming at a time when the BBC is doing its utmost to avoid informing audiences of contemporary incitement based to no small extent on a theme of ‘threats’ to the same holy sites which is remarkably similar to that used by al Husseini in his campaign, the omission of any mention of that factor is particularly jarring.

The item moves on to the topic of the Shaw Commission with Scott informing listeners:

“The British government, who had the mandate in Palestine at this time and were thus responsible for maintaining law and order, responded to the tragedy by setting up the Shaw Commission to investigate the causes of the August rioting. A subsequent White Paper was published [the Passfield White Paper – Ed.] which wanted to limit Jewish immigration into Palestine: seen as one of the contributing factors to tension in the lead-up to the events of 1929. Yet what happened in Palestine had an impact too on British politics at home, as Professor David Cesarani of Royal Holloway highlights.”

Cesarani discusses the 1930 by-election in Whitechapel, finally informing listeners that:

“….Ramsey MacDonald sent a letter to Chaim Weizmann – the leader of the Zionist organization – effectively cancelling the White Paper, pulling back all of the gestures that had been made towards the Palestinian Arabs.”

Together with Scott’s introduction, listeners would be likely to interpret Cesarani’s account as meaning that Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine was not limited by the British after all. That, of course, is historically inaccurate and misleading.

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