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.

6 Responses

  1. I tweeted this earlier but I only just noticed how good the headline is when some people retweeted.

    Well done!

  2. There’s plenty of archaeological evidence of a continuing Jewish presence in the Galilee after 70 & 135 – there have been many synagogues found there from the Byzantine & early Islamic periods. Jews seem to have been kept out of Jerusalem, for the most part, after 135, although they might have been allowed in for brief pilgrimages. After the Muslim conquest Jews were permitted again to live in Jerusalem (and I would guess the rest of Judea). A few Jewish families also lived even in Crusader Jerusalem, and a lot more after the Muslim reconquest by Saladin in 1187. The idea of the exile is definitely a theological theme in both Judaism and Christianity. It doesn’t seem to me that this documentary would really be covering new historical ground, but it might be a challenge to Jewish and Christian theology. But why would the BBC refuse to show a documentary on the basis of its theology?

    • Apparently zionist pseudo history is important to both Jewish and Christian zionists. It needn’t be for the former but many of them went ape over Shlomo Sand’s first book.

      This is from the Jerusalem Post:

      Zionist Federation

      “Sand’s agenda is to sever the historic link between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel,” said Jonathan Hoffman, co-chairman of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland,. “To promote that agenda his book ignores archeological and genetic evidence. At none of his three London appearances was there a historian or Jewish history expert on the platform to counter his distortions, evasions and sensationalism. The result will contribute to anti-Semitic discourse and incidents in the UK, already at a record level

      Board of Deputies of British Jews – mainstream Jewish representative organisation in the UK

      “Sand’s book represents another step towards the mainstream for replacement ideologies,” said Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. “Our history of exile and ghettoization has meant that the Jewish people are remarkably cohesive, genetically, culturally and religiously, and through the centuries the countries in which we have lived have had no compunction in designating us as Jews. It is Sand’s theory that is the upstart, rootless and incredible, not the history and collective memory of the Jewish people and our connection to Israel.”

      Community Security Trust – privately funded (almost privately owned) self-styled defenders of UK Jewish community

      Mark Gardiner [I think it should be Gardner], the Community Security Trust’s director of communications said,….., “There are many ways, often subtle, in which anti-Israel or anti-Zionist debate can have an anti-Jewish impact. However, a new anti-Zionist book by Tel Aviv University Prof. Shlomo Sand remolds the paradigm: with notions of Jewish peoplehood now under attack in the service of anti-Zionism. “The sense of common lineage, kinship and peoplehood that Jews around the world share and hold is a fundamental part of their identity, as perversely demonstrated by the splenetic accusations of ‘self-hater’ that are hurled by some Jews at others who do not toe the majority line. To deny this aspect of Jewish identity – perhaps more accurately to demand that for political reasons it be rejected – is surely to deny or reject something that is essential to our perception of Jewishness itself.”

      That’s three guys prominent in three different UK Jewish zionist organisations worrying about the implications for the zionist project of the idea that Jews do not have common ethnic descent. It’s a curious position for people who normally go out of their way to deny the racism intrinsic to the zionist project and the structure and policies of the State of Israel to, in this instance, jump through hoops to demonstrate a yen for racial purity.

      Given the apoplexy that greeted Sand’s book here, I think the recent zionist appointees to leading posts at the BBC are either at one with the three zionists quoted above or they at least want to appease them. Whatever the actual reason it is bound to be more political than theological.

  3. […] blogpost on the subject of the cancellation written by the filmmaker Ilan Ziv. In the comments to a separate blogpost included in the HP article, one notes the sprouting of conspiracy theories connecting the […]

  4. […] 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 […]

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