BBC’s ‘Panorama’ grinds its axe on Jerusalem’s light rail


Last Friday the 24th BBC’s ‘Panorama’ aired a program of unprecedented bias attacking Jerusalem’s light rail.  Titled ‘the train that divides Jerusalem’ it painted the train as being a new element in the conflict over the holy city.  “On the anniversary of last summer’s brutal conflict in Gaza, film-maker Adam Wishart visits Jerusalem and rides the city’s controversial new train. Only nine miles from start to finish, some hoped it could help heal divisions between Israelis and Palestinians, but as Wishart discovers, it has only deepened the sense.”  The program can be watched here.  Although the program had elements of truth to it, it’s false connection of the train line to a marginal movement to rebuild the temple and its frequent distortions make it worth analyzing.

I’ve been a frequent traveller on the train and have covered its launch and the subsequent violence it was subjected to last year in the wake of the murder of Mohammed Abu-Khdeir.

In 2011 on the eve of the opening of the Jerusalem Light Rail I went to Beit Hanina and Shuafat to interview residents about what they thought.  One resident who runs a butcher shop felt that train had been built through the neighborhood because it was the shortest route to get to Jewish communities beyond it, like Pisgat Ze’ev.  “It is for Jews, not for Arabs..that is why there are only two stops here.”  Many residents spoke with optimism about it.  “It will make our lives easier,” said one.  Asked if they felt it would cause tensions with Jews and Arabs riding together some mentioned that in the days before the Intifada the 25 Egged bus line used to run in the neighborhood.  Some hoped it would increase the business with Jews who would come to shop.

The light rail line

The light rail line

A personal problem with the past

From the start of the BBC documentary it was clear that the narrator, Adam Wishart, was more interested in wrestling with his own internal Jewish and Zionist demons than in providing an interesting discussion of the rail line or Jerusalem.  He begins the program by burnishing his credentials as a “British Jew” who would “ride the train, a journey into the heart of a city that feels more divided than ever.”  Is a British Jew more qualified to analyze the train than say, a Hindu train engineer?  What if Mr. Wishart was an Irish Catholic or a Mormon?

His Jewish background frequently serves as a point of reference to grind his axe on the train.  “When I was first here on a Zionist education course as a teenager…they didn’t have such things.”  By the end of the program it becomes clear the real reason for making this documentary: “My journey has been heartbreaking. When my grandparents campaigned for the state, they hoped for a place of tolerance, refuge and equal rights for all…I can’t believe this is the place they dreamt of all those years ago.”  So it’s really about his life story, his “Zionist youth group” and his grandparents supposed dreams for the state of Israel.  His view of Israel is firmly anchored in what happened 31 years ago.  He claims that his “Zionist friends” weren’t rushing to rebuild the temple, but now he meets Jews who are.  He claims that when he first came to Israel with his Zionists “they didn’t introduce us to any Palestinians.”  His real problem is not the train line, but what some camp counselor didn’t do 31 years ago.  So now he seeks to make up for it, by exploring the train through those lenses.

It’s a problem to hire a documentarian so steeped in a personal struggle with Zionism and his own ancestors and youth experience.  It’s unfortunate Wishart had a certain type of experience, or that his ancestors cared about Israel, but there is no reason to burden current Jerusalem with what did or didn’t happen back then.  They should have made a documentary about Wishart’s life and how he struggles with his sense of Israel and Zionism and being a “British Jew,” rather than pretending any of this has anything to do with the real Jerusalem.

Focus on conflict

From the beginning it is clear the program isn’t really about the train, but rather the train is a stand-in and easy foil to talk about obscure extremism in Jerusalem.  “My first stop is Damascus Gate…divided by religious rivalry.”  For ‘Panorama’ the concept is to find conflict.  Even though 99% of Jerusalem is peaceful and people go about their daily lives, the concept is to focus on the 1 percent who are extreme or violent.  In order to present a narrative of conflict and violence the program goes to the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif, the site of Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.  This has nothing to do with the train line.  The Temple Mount was a scene of tension for years.  In 1969 a deranged Australian tried to burn down Al-Aqsa.  In 2000 Ariel Sharon’s visit was widely considered to be partially to blame for the outbreak of the Second Intifada.  Even in the period of the Mandate Hajj Amin al-Husayni used fears of Jewish designs on the mount to whip up tension.

Wishart finds a woman named Rivka Shimon who he presents as part of a growing movement of Jews who want to rebuild the Temple; “now some want to completely rebuild the temple on what they call Temple Mount.”  He takes the viewer up to the compound around the Dome of the Rock; “Once Jews only came as far as the Western wall…now 1,000 Jews a month enter the courtyard, the heart of this Muslim place of worship…Rivka thinks she has a right to be here….within minutes of Rivka’s group arriving there is protest.”

The Shuafat station of the light rail damaged last year (Seth J. Frantzman)

The Shuafat station of the light rail damaged last year (Seth J. Frantzman)

Once Jews only came as far as the Western Wall?  Really?  Up until 15 years ago tourists could go into the Dome of the Rock.  Who are Wishart’s “Jews.”  What does he know about what Jews did in the 1920s?  He claims a Muslim woman he interviews is “right…Jews are allowed to visit but not pray on this site as part of an agreement.”  That is an unwritten status quo between the Israel police and the Wakf.  What does it mean it is “right”?  In order to fit the narrative to his “growing tension” theory, he claims that escalating violence led to police entering Al-Aqsa mosque last November.  That is true, they did enter it, but they also entered it today (July 26) to remove stone throwers.  Is it “escalating” and are there “thousands of Jews” going up to the Temple Mount that never went up before?  That was created to fit the narrative.  Jews went up to the Temple Mount before, it was always a source of tensions for hundreds of years; and nothing is particularly new.

Time to make the train line responsible for 1967

Next the documentary goes up to Shuafat and interviews a man named Walid Abu-Khdeir.  Throughout the documentary it is never clear who the Palestinians who are interviewed are.  Whereas the three Jews interviewed in the documentary; Arieh King, Rivka Shimon and mayor Nir Barkat, clearly have an agenda, the Palestinians are presented as average people.  There are no Palestinian officials in the show.  Walid is said to have had land confiscated from him.  As always the problems Wishart had with the city 30 years ago comes into play. “When I was first here more than 30 years ago, I was afraid to go to these eastern Palestinian suburbs, today the train has eroded the unease Jews once felt.”  Why is Wishart a spokesman for all Jews?  What does he know about Jewish visitors to Palestinian areas? Many Jews go back and forth to Ramallah and have for years.  He projects his own feelings of fear onto the entire Jewish world.  Just as he presents it as a “fact” that there is a growing movement supporitng the building of the temple, he presents as “fact” a feeling of fear among Jews.  But in actual fact in the 1980s more Jews went to Palestinian areas.  They used to go to Gaza City and Beit Jala.  Wishart doesn’t want to tell viewers about these days because he evidently doesn’t know about them.  And it wouldn’t fit the narrative.  The narrative is that the train line is bringing Jews to Arab areas.  He quotes the right wing city councilman Arieh King as claiming that “it [the train] helps to strengthen Jewish presence in areas Jews never passed through…now 20,000 go through in one day rather than 20,00 a month.”  Maybe that is true, maybe it isn’t.

Just as Wishart takes a few Jewish views and turns them into the views of all Jews, he does the same for Palestinians.  “The Palestinians see the train as part of this plan,” claims Wishart, arguing that all Palestinians see the train as part of a plan to make it impossible to divide Jerusalem.

Then the best bait and switch it made.  The documentary travels to Shuafat camp and shows the lack of services this area of the city gets; how it is walled off from the municipality despite the fact that its residents have Jerusalem residency.  Yes, Shuafat camp is a disgrace to the city.  But it has nothing to do with the train line.  The documentary contrasts the degraded circumstances of Shuafat’s crowded trash-strewn streets with the beauty of Jewish Pisgat Zeev. “The train makes permanent the expansion of Israel…this settlement is built like a fortress…I’m left wondering what is the purpose of the train, does its ultimate destination hold a clue, it goes around the refugee camp, the ultimate destination is 1,000 acres taken by Israel to build a beautiful suburb.”

But that’s putting the carriage before the horse.  Pisgat Zeev’s construction began in 1982.  The wall around Shuafat came in the 2000s.  The 50,000 residents of Pisgat Zeev have not grown because of the train.  The train has made it easier for them, and the residents in Shuafat and Beit Hanina, to get downtown.  Wishart wants to narrate it the other way around.  Yes, it is disgraceful that Shuafat Camp is treated the way it is, but it is not because of the train.  Remove the train and the camp still has a wall around it and disparities with Jewish Pisgat Zeev.

The documentary also turns the train line into a symbol of violence. “The train station became a target for Palestinian anger.”  The documentary mentions the vehicular attacks against travelers waiting at train stations. “Palestinians have targeted the rail line driving cars into passengers.”  That’s true that vehicular attacks targeted people along the train line.  But there were numerous vehicular attacks in the years prior to this.  The passengers became an easy target, not because the train causes tension, but simply because they were there.

The documentary falsely implies that Mohammed Abu Khdeir was killed because of the train line. “16 year old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was also walking near the train line…when he was abducted and murdered.”  Actually, and even the UK press reported this, he was abducted outside the mosque that his family attends, just meters from his house.  He wasn’t walking along the train line.  He was in his neighborhood where he would have been anyway, on a street corner.  The murders targeted him, not because of the train but because they had been cruising the neighborhood looking for someone to kill, according to reports. Claiming that the train has anything to do with these murders is as arbitrary as claiming that the existence of roads caused these murders.  Perhaps roads are the real problem?

When interviewing a woman whose husband, Haim Rothman, is in a coma due to the Har Nof, the documentary also tries to connect this to the train line.  Har Nof is not near the train line, but the program doesn’t bother to show a map.  The synagogue massacre was not connected to the train of course, it was part of the overall tension from last years Gaza war.  The killer was from Jebel Mukaber, not Shuafat.

Wishart is correct in noting that “the train station became a target for Palestinian anger.”  But that’s because any symbol of the state is a target.  Even in haredi neighborhoods any symbol of the state becomes a target during riots, usually dumpsters.  It isn’t because municipal dumpsters are “dividing haredim from secular people.”

Wishart spends another segment of the documentary on the Jerusalem Day festivities, when raucous crowds of Jewish youth march around Jerusalem.  It has nothing to do with the train either, but is pigeonholed into this narrative.  And then to cap it off Wishart connects it to “When I was here 31 years ago, even my most fervent Zionist friends weren’t rushing to build the temple, now the idea is gathering support from the mainstream, a member of the new cabinet supports the idea…if some Jews push much further this will be the last stand for the Palestinians.”   Who is this “mainstream” and who is this “cabinet member” who supports the plan to rebuild the temple?  The documentarian doesn’t bother to survey mainstream Israelis to see if his claim is true, or even find this un-named politician; because the concept behind this documentary is to take existing bias and channel “facts” into it. Thus Israeli Jews are presented as being Arieh King or Rivka Shimon, and Palestinians are presented as some children throwing rocks in Shuafat camp.

Even when translating the kids discussing the rock throwing the documentary can’t get it right.  A kid discussing throwing stones at “the Jews” at minute 17:40, which Panorama translates as “the soldiers.”  It isn’t the first time BBC was caught translating “Jews” as something else.  In a segment on Gaza they claimed that when Arab children say “yahud” they mean “Israelis”, when the word clearly means “Jews.”

What if the train had never been built through Shuafat?  What if the train is actually a symbol of coexistence?

The international media needs the Israel-Palestinian conflict to fill its news segments.  It is no surprise to see story after story commissioned to dissect little parts of Jerusalem.  But this documentary at Panorama is particularly biased and ridiculous.  What if the train had never been built?  If it had followed the highway that links Pisgat Zeev to Jerusalem then it would be called an “apartheid train” for not having any stations to service the Palestinian community. If it has stations then it is part of the occupation and cementing Jewish control.

What if the ‘Panorama’ hadn’t just interviewed people that fit the pre-conceived “conflict” narrative?  What if they had met with other Palestinians and Jews?  What about those people who are no all devotees of the Temple Mount or Palestinians who don’t think that the light rail is the source of all their problems.  What if they interviewed people going to work or coming home at night; not people involved only with “Jerusalem Day” or living in places not connected to the rail at all?  What if the Light Rail has far more coexistence than it does conflict, and that in fact conflict was the exception, not the rule?  What if he program interviewed the 99% and not the 1%?

Yes, it is true the light rail has been subjected to frequent stonings (an issue not mentioned in the program) and was a target. Yes, the city is divided and there is a conflict between Jews and Arabs.  Yes, the light rail makes it more difficult to divide Jerusalem, a fact cemented anyway by the creation of neighborhoods like Har Homa and Pisgat Zeev.  Yes there is tension over the Temple Mount and Shuafat is neglected.  But it’s not about the light rail.

It would be interesting to survey Palestinians living in Beit Hanina and Shuafat and see if they prefer the light rail be dismantled.  Maybe they do.  It is at least time the public demand documentaries represent a wider range of views than just the preconceived notions of the film-maker and that they not be primarily a personal exploration of the author’s own hangups about an experience decades ago.  It is fair to demand basic accuracy from documentaries and some facts.  If something is “mainstream”, let’s see some evidence.  Panorama’s light rail piece was a disaster. It should be a learning experience on how not to do journalism.

The Shuafat station of the light rail damaged last year (Seth J. Frantzman)

The Shuafat station of the light rail damaged last year (Seth J. Frantzman)

3 responses to “BBC’s ‘Panorama’ grinds its axe on Jerusalem’s light rail

  1. What an ELOQUENT piece of writing! Thank you. I am still awaiting a response from the BBC Complaints division [and the filmmaker] regarding this appalling anti Israel piece of propaganda. As at the time of writing – NADA.

  2. Pingback: Sacred victims: Are the foreign press victims of Israeli government incitement? | Seth J. Frantzman·

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