The BBC: An Archaeological Mystery Story As Jerusalem Doc Is Pulled From Schedule

From the Commentator:

…A BBC documentary set to air last night has been mysteriously pulled from the broadcaster’s line-up and has so far failed to appear on its online iPlayer service. The programme, entitled, “Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story” was set to air on BBC Four last night at 9pm but was sharply pulled from the line-up in lieu of a programme called, “The Man Who Discovered Egypt” – a repeat of documentary about the British Egyptologist, Flinders Petrie.

The BBC told The Commentator over its audience participation telephone service that the film was initially brought in to “supplement” the BBC Four series on archaeology and history but that the station’s planning department decided at the last minute that the documentary would not “fit editorially”.

It seems odd that an editorial decision, presumably made some time ago, would suddenly be regarded as so poor that a new programme would need to be pulled from the prime spot at the last moment (in favour of a documentary from last year that was also repeated just last month).

The Jerusalem documentary was even featured in the Radio Times’ “pick of the day’s TV” for Thursday (page 103), where a certain James Gill wrote:

Archaeology is politics in the Middle East. The precarious balance of Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy sites in the ancient heart of Jerusalem is informed as much by what’s below ground as what’s above. Which is why evidence revealed here, suggesting that the Jewish exile from Jerusalem in AD70 may never have actually happened, has such severe ramifications for relations in the region. Long buried in the sands of Galilee and beneath the streets of Jerusalem, film-maker Ilan Ziv explores the archaeological challenges to the traditional narrative of the Jewish Diaspora, and asks what this means for both Israelis and Palestinians today.

Despite the film’s title, I suspect that it is concerned with a somewhat wider subject than Jewish exclusion from the city of Jerusalem either after 70 CE (debated) or after the disastrous Jewish revolt of 135 CE (generally accepted). The relevant issue, so far as any discussion of the Diaspora is concerned, is the extent to which there was a continuing Jewish presence in the wider area of Palestine after 135 CE. According to Doron Mendels of the Hebrew University (The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism, page 388):

According to [the Roman historian Cassius] Dio 580,000 Jews fell in battles. More Jews were killed, and many others were sold as slaves during the aftermath of the war… If we can believe later Jewish traditions, the Romans also enacted restrictive laws on the Jews in Palestine, such as the ban on circumcision and a prohibition against reading the Torah in the public. The result was an additional terrible blow for the Jews in Palestine, and the strengthening of the non-Jewish population of the country… Provincia Judaea became Syria Paleastina, and Aelia Capitolina was founded with a pagan temple in its midst.

The interesting questions, of course, are to what extent we can indeed “believe later Jewish traditions”, and to what extent the effects of the war and its aftermath really prompted Jewish inhabitants of Judea to go into exile, given that there was no decree actually expelling them. Certainly, a continuing presence in Galilee for centuries afterwards isn’t even a controversial prospect, as I noted here.

The BBC’s own blurb for Ziv’s documentary (the Radio Times is no longer published by the BBC) describes it slightly differently:

The exile of the Jewish people has played a central role in Christian and Jewish theology for nearly 2,000 years, even being mentioned in Israel’s national anthem and its declaration of independence. But what if the exile never actually happened?

This documentary by Ilan Ziv looks at new evidence that suggests the majority of the Jewish people may not have been exiled following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem and the catacombs of Rome, the film invites us to review and rethink our ideas around the exile, raising important ethical questions about its impact on present-day Middle Eastern issues along the way.

I’m generally very wary of attempts to use evidence from the ancient past to make points about modern Israelis and Palestinians (whatever the motive may be for doing so), but archaeological discovery does have repercussions for modern senses of identity and this seems an appropriate subject to – as the BBC says – “supplement” a series on archaeology and history.

The suspicion, of course, is that the programme has been pulled because some supporters of Israel find its premise to be objectionable, for political or religious reasons. Tom Holland, who made a controversial documentary on the origins of Islam for Channel 4 last year, writes on Twitter:

Unlike Channel 4, seems the BBC lacks the cojones to show a film exploring how religions fabricate their backstories: …
8:13 AM – 27 Apr 13


Though why it should be considered news that the Jews weren’t exiled from the Holy Land after AD 70, I have no idea.
8:14 AM – 27 Apr 13

Ilan Ziv has a blog here.

UPDATE: Ziv has now written about the controversy, and anyone with a serious interest should read his full account.

In summary, the cancelled documentary was supposed to be a re-cut of his film Exile.  The BBC sent him the re-cut a few days ago for his approval, and it was only by chance that he found out that the revised documentary was about to be broadcast. He asked for more time, and was told by the BBC that “we have decided to delay transmission until… you’ve had the chance to go through it in detail”. This is not the same as the “editorial fit” reason given to the Commentator and to other enquirers.


It was only when one of the programming executives called me, I realized that there were much bigger issues for her than my complaint about being pushed into an impossible schedule.

The program executive seemed genuinely shocked that a freelance employee hired by the BBC to take part in the re-versioning process called the film “propaganda”. When I asked if this unnamed person had specific examples to support such a sweeping charge, I was told  that she claimed that , “Everything was propaganda”.  And there was more.

An “unnamed” BBC insider who I was told “liked the film,” claimed that the film props up the myth of Exile “which we all know did not happen, in order to support his political analysis“.  I learned that the cut I was given was now irrelevant, since some internal review deemed one scène with the Palestinians to be “too emotive” and they were asked to cut it down.

Ziv adds that he did not like the new Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery name given to the re-cut:

…”Exile” of course is not about a mystery, neither it is limited to archeology or to Jerusalem. The name and the illusion that one can pretend that this film is just about archeology and its mysteries are at the core I believe of Thursday’s fiasco.

He believes that executives who liked the film decided to “sneak” it into the schedules with a neutral name, and when “caught” simply panicked.

Ziv informs us that the film has already been shown elsewhere – including at a Jewish festival in Toronto – and has been well-received, and that scholars had confirmed that the film does not contain errors or misrepresentations. He is also able to defend the film’s editorial integrity with a “detailed rebuttal” citing sources. Further:

Silencing this film is silencing a possibility of discussion, debate and re examination not of the current political stalemate but of the intellectual stalemate that contributes to it.