• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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Channel 4 Explores Jerusalem Conflict

Jewish settler leader: “I’m a racist”

Palestinian archaeologist: There was a Jewish temple, but I can’t admit it

Greek Orthodox Patriarch: Conflict with laity to be resolved in less than a year

On Saturday there was a very interesting documentary on the UK’s Channel 4, entitled Battle for the Holy Land: Jerusalem and presented by British politician Paddy Ashdown. Ashdown spent several months talking with Jewish and Palestinian groups and officials, and the programme explored the reasons for some of the strife in the city.

Ashdown had some criticisms of current Israeli policies, and the reaction has been predictable. Carol Gould, a Frontpager and former ITV Drama Executive, has written one particularly hysterical response:

Once again a British television programme has taken the complex and tragic story of Israel and turned it into a polemic about the endlessly victimised Palestinians and those brutal, hate-filled, despicable Jews…[P]rogramming bordering on the criminal because the extreme bias against Israel and Jews could very easily incite young Muslims to attack Jewish targets after watching two hours of ‘bad Jews, racist Jews, violent Jews’ and their relentless campaign of pillage against helpless Palestinians.

Ashdown’s perspective was indeed critical of Israel – but, as he also showed, he didn’t say anything that’s unheard of in Israel itself: former Jerusalem city councillor Meir Margalit complained of “racism in the municipal policy”, while Gershom Gorenberg spoke of the need to pursue peace rather than territory.

One of Ashdown’s interviewees was Aryeh King, who runs one of the most aggressive organisations that seeks to squeeze Palestinians out of East Jerusalem through Jewish settlement (I’ve discussed him on this blog before – Aaron Klein of WorldNetDaily has given him sympathetic coverage, ignoring his links to the Israeli far-right). King explained to Ashdown that

…I’m a racist. I must be a racist in order to protect my future.

Apparently, if such a statement reflects poorly on Israel this is somehow Ashdown’s fault for reporting it, rather than King’s for uttering it

Also providing a bit of poor PR for Israel was Gabi Barkai, an archaeologist from Bar Ilan University. One of Barkai’s jobs is sifting through the rubble created by the Islamic waqf’s disastrous excavation at the Temple Mount in 1999, which – either through design or recklessness – ruined an archaeological site containing artefacts from the First and Second Temple periods (and much else besides). Ashdown was sympathetic, but he also raised the question of how Israeli excavations near the Mugrabi Gate had been conducted. Barkai’s response:

I don’t like your attitude and I don’t like this conversation at all, I’m sorry to say.

Ashdown also met the leading Palestinian archaeologist at the waqf (His name was something like “Yousef Nachey”, but it didn’t appear on-screen). A rather unimpressive figure, when asked about evidence for the ancient Israelite and Jewish Temples, he would only admit to a “complicated architectural development” on the site in pre-Islamic times, prompting Ashdown to observe that

I think you’re saying as an archaeologist, a temple was here, but as a Palestinian within the politics of Jerusalem I can’t admit that.

His response was:

Maybe, yeah.

Of course, such “temple denial” does nothing to help “Palestinian politics” since a) it’s cranky pseudo-history that debases the discourse and even Islamic theology (why does the story have Muhammad ascending to heaven from that spot in the first place?) and b) it implicitly accepts the argument that the existence of the ancient Jewish Temple bolsters Israeli claims for hegemony.

Ashdown also explored the dispute within the Greek Orthodox church between the Palestinian laity and the Greek hierarchy, which perhaps reached its nadir in 2005 when a prime site in East Jerusalem was sold off to an Israeli settler group (as blogged by me here). Ashdown met the new Orthodox Patriarch, Theophilos III, and asked him about Palestinian demands for a greater presence within the clergy and decision-making processes. Theophilos denied there was a problem, but at the same time that he was working to improve matters:

I don’t think that this is the problem, we are working on this. We’ve already started…it’s very soon.

…Within a year or so, you think?

Less than that.

That’s one to keep an eye on.