BBC Airs Searching for Exile Documentary

Sunday evening finally saw the broadcast on BBC Four of an hour-long cut of Ilan Ziv’s documentary Exile: A Myth Unearthed, under the title Searching for Exile: Truth or Myth? The programme was previously due to have been broadcast in April as part of the channel’s archaeology season, as Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery, but, as I discussed at the time, it was pulled from the schedule at the last moment for reasons that seem to have been related to concerns about content. Ziv himself objected to the “Archaeological Mystery” title, which he suggested had been an attempt to “sneak” the program into the schedules without attracting controversy.

There may have been an element of “sneaking” in the eventual scheduling; BBC Four documentaries on a Sunday evening are more usually repeats, and the programme was up against particularly popular shows on other channels. The BBC also decided to forestall complaints with a accompanying discussion called Searching for Exile: The Debate, in which BBC religion journalist Edward Stourton talked with Ziv and three historians.

The documentary touched on a number of issues: how to interpret and assess the writings of Josephus; evidence of a continuing Jewish presence in the Galilee after the Bar Kocha Revolt; and the use of archaeological human remains from the Bar Kocha period in modern Israeli nationalism.

Particular emphasis was placed in the programme on the city of Sepphoris in the Galilee, which took no part in the revolt of 70CE (in which  Jerusalem was destroyed), and which flourished after 135CE; its remains were subsequently subsumed under the Palestinian village of Saffuriyya, which was itself destroyed during the 1948 conflict.

However, we get to 1948 via a short discussion of Leroy Waterman’s excavation of Sepphoris in 1931; we’re told that Waterman was a “devout Christian” and that his interest in the site as location for Jesus’ sermons meant that for him the village was “barely visible”. The programme goes on to say that as the ancient city was revealed it “devoured” the village; this is an odd suggestion, given that Waterman was there for only two months and that archaeological excavation at the site did not resume until 1983. We’re also told that the history of the village is “barely mentioned” in the way the site is currently presented; that may be a legitimate complaint, but it’s not at all clear what that has to do with the excavation on 1931.

Referring to the Palestinians who were forced to leave in 1948, the narrator then asks:

Is it possible that some of these refugees are distant descendants of the Jewish population of Sepphoris who were never exiled?

No direct answer is forthcoming (although see below); instead, we move on to a short section on a nearby rabbi’s tomb that is treated as a holy site by local Muslims.

The debate that followed featured Ziv in conversation with Sacha Stern of UCL, Francesca Stavrakopoulou of Exeter University, and Joan Taylor of King’s College London. The discussants were civil and proceeded through a process of saying “I agree with you, but…”, and it turns out that the answer to the clunkily binary “Truth or Myth?” title question is actually “it depends what you mean.” Taylor in particular thought Ziv had underplayed the the impact of the conflicts in 70CE and 135CE.

Ziv’s answer to the “Is it possible..?” question posed in the documentary, though, was something of an anti-climax:

There’s no evidence, and I think anthropologically it’s crazy to make that kind of assertion.

However, Stern’s overall assessment was that:

…your film may be regarded with suspicion by some viewers, and they might consider it to be controversial or problematic; and it might well be for people coming from certain perspectives. But what I would really would invite everyone to do is to try and look at the message of your film in a positive light, as a positive attempt, not to be destructive, or not to spoil people’s narratives but rather an attempt to try and create something positive, to create some sort of way forward in the situation that we are [in] today, based on a rethink about our past… A challenge is always intended to be contrustive

Rather than the denunciations that can be found on some sites – and the BBC’s initial panic back in April – this seems to be a sensible and grown-up way to proceed.

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