PBS Breaks Mold With Middle East Documentary

Living up to its name, the Public Broadcasting Service, PBS aired a five-hour documentary in late January entitled The Fifty Years War: Israel and the Arabs that marked a departure from an earlier pattern of severely biased Middle East documentaries. The first major project of its kind in six years, the joint BBC-WGBH production traced the turbulent events of the last half century since the founding of the modern nation of Israel.

In the 1980’s and early 90’s PBS came under intense criticism for a score of propagandistic, anti-Israel documentaries. Days of Rage, Letter from Palestine, Israel: The Covert Connection, and Journey to the Occupied Lands were among broadcasts whose gross partisanship, inflammatory charges and indifference to factual accuracy were documented and publicized by CAMERA and served to convince many viewers the network was incapable of producing objective programs about Israel.

While The Fifty Years War was not without problems, its detailed account of a complex subject was, in the main, carefully rendered, factual and balanced. Presenting events primarily from the vantage of statesmen, military experts and individuals involved in key events, the documentary gave viewers a picture of competing regional and great power interests and the recurrent violence that made Israel’s rebirth and survival precarious.

Given this choice of perspective, however, the opening segment was startling for its omission of key information. There was no mention of the legal foundation for Israel’s reconstitution as a nation in the modern era, which had been affirmed in international law by the League of Nations decades before the United Nations partition vote. Nor was there mention of the delays in Israel’s establishment engineered by hostile British colonial policies, delays that proved deadly for Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe who might have been saved. Nevertheless, the producers’ coverage of the period leading up to Israel’s declaration of independence, and the Arab war that ensued in an attempt to destroy the new state, included valuable interviews and footage. It was also notably free of the discredited "new historian" perspectives that cast Israel as having been born in original sin and as having possessed significant military might in 1948 against far weaker Arab opponents.

Thus, former Israeli president Yitzhak Navon tells of Israelis initially having no aircraft or tanks and virtually no guns in the face of the invading armies. The PBS commentator also notes that advancing Arab armies overran Israeli villages, expelling or killing the Jewish inhabitants. What is made clear explicitly is that Israelis were fighting for their survival. The documentary includes maps of Israel and the surrounding states that trace the routes of attacking Arab armies. Ironically, such basic historical data is often obscured or distorted in many references about the period.

Nor was Israel cast, as it so often is, as the singular cause of Palestinian Arab difficulties and displacement. A lengthy segment on Deir Yassin, for instance, despite including a questionable claim of Israeli atrocities, offered a more historically nuanced portrayal of the battle than is usually provided in media accounts about this oft-cited episode. The Arab village strategically located on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road was overrun by Jewish forces in 1948 and more than a hundred Arab villagers were killed. While Palestinian Arabs have termed the event a massacre and have focused on it as emblematic of alleged Jewish policy, the PBS account includes interviews with Jews and Arabs present at the village who tell a more complex story. That deaths occurred is undisputed, but the calculated attempt by Palestinian Arab leadership at the time to magnify and distort the occurrences in an attempt to draw in neighboring Arab armies is also described. As Arab interviewees recount, instead of attracting those armies, lurid and false claims of Jewish atrocities frightened Palestinian Arab villagers throughout the area, who fled by the thousands.

While the documentary presented footage and commentary on Palestinian refugees, it made no reference at all to another group of refugees, the 800,000 Jews forced out of Arab countries where they had lived in centuries-old communities. Omitted as well were the numerous atrocities committed against Jews during the 1948 war.

In covering the 1967 war, the producers seemed excessively at pains to exonerate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser for the grand failure of his 1967 war-mongering. Underplaying, for example, his virulent rhetoric against the Jews and Israel that whipped Egyptian public opinion into war fever, PBS refers to "popular hatred of Israel which Nasser did nothing to discourage." But the presentation of the war again provided valuable interviews and footage of key American, Arab and Israeli statesman. A view of Cold War maneuvering by America and the Soviet Union offered insight into the vulnerabilities of Middle East nations during the period. Once again, Israel’s perilous circumstances were clear.

The documentary’s coverage of the emergence of the PLO was generally balanced, though here too there appeared to be some tendency to downplay the group’s terrorist record. Despite reporting some attacks against Israelis, including at Ma’alot, Kiryat Shemona and Munich, there was no mention of the terrorism inflicted worldwide, against tourists at airports in Rome, Vienna, Athens and elsewhere. Similarly, the PLO’s key role in destabilizing Lebanon after the organization was driven out of Jordan was unmentioned. PBS reports simply that in 1975 "civil war broke out in Lebanon." Civil war broke out because the PLO had established a mini-state in the south of the country, challenging the sovereignty of the nation and unsettling the delicate political balance in the government between Christians and Muslims.

In the period of the Oslo negotiations, The Fifty Years War offered detailed, behind-the-scenes interviews with participants to the discussions. The sensitivity of the meetings, and the ebb and flow of difficult debate, is made evident.

Despite the problems noted, as well as a number of others, it is clear the network undertook to present a serious, careful history. That is a refreshing change, and all too rare in today’s media coverage of Israel and the Middle East.

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