The Promise is a 4 part BBC miniseries portraying, in the words of producer David Aukin, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict “as it is seen through British eyes.” Each episode is divided between the point of view of Erin, a young woman from Leeds spending the summer in modern day Israel/Palestine, and  the flashbacks of her grandfather, Len, a soldier in 1945 British Mandate Palestine. The first episode was shown Wednesday, November 16th at the JCC in Manhattan as part of the Other Israel Film Festival.
I’m sure Claire Foy, who plays Erin, gets this all the time, but she looks like a cross between of Rory Gilmore and that Kirsten Stewart person from the Twilight movies. Moving on. The episode begins with Erin’s discovery of her grandfather’s diary, kept during the British Mandate, in his apartment. Her mother tells her to throw it away, but Erin keeps it, and after informing her mother that she’s going to Israel for the summer with her friend Eliza, who’s beginning her army service, she begins reading it on the plane, starting with his account of liberating Bergen Belsen. Then we see a lot of black and white  footage from the camp. Or rather, the audience did. I kept my head down and scribbled. “I wish everyone could see what I’ve seen,” writes Len.
Eliza, Erin’s friend, has dual Israeli/UK citizenship, and her parents live in Caesaria, in a crazy house with glass everything and a giant pool. They take a walk on the beach wearing white and drinking wine and the whole thing makes me think of folks who own houses in the  Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard. “It’s like paradise,” Erin tells Eliza. “It’s not what I expected.” “You thought we lived in bomb shelters,” Eliza says. Cue a montage of Eliza and Erin cavorting in the streets of what looks like Tel Aviv-shopping, sitting in cafes, Erin gawking at the sight of a soldier’s gun, and then, in a night club, where Erin passes out and has a seizure.
Meanwhile, in British Mandate Palestine (BMP), Len is told by an army commander that “These Jews see returning to be this place as the fulfillment of the promise of Gd,” but that the Arabs see things differently. The goal of the army is to get both parties to live together peacefully, “like the meat in a sandwich.” (The creepiest simile ever used to refer to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?)
A moving scene follows of Jews jumping from an arriving ship into the water, and being greeted and pulled to shore by British soldiers. There’s a woman with a skeletal face, her wet hair clinging to her head, slogging towards land. The camera lingers on her for a minute too long, or maybe I just imagine that. We learn that there is a quota on Jews entering the country, and when Len tries to smuggle a woman through, he’s reprimanded.
Erin and Eliza, clad in her IDF uniform, drive to her army base to begin training. The front entrance is blocked by Peace Now protestors. As they drive to the other entrance, Eliza tells Erin that her brother is one of them. “I know you think it’s idyllic, but it’s total bullshit,” she says, admitting that she’s terrified of being the army. Erin proposes that if she really can’t take it, she’ll bail her out and they’ll run for the border. (Things I would love to see happen in a future episode.)
BMP: Len  is in some kind of swanky club, with other soldiers and  ladies and lots of alcohol, and he meets Clara, prompting me to worry that we’re going to see some sex really soon. (Spoiler: we do not.) Clara tells him that this is all propaganda, that she and many other women are being paid to entertain soldiers, and that “100,000 soldiers equals 100,000 opportunities,” and that he’ll undoubtedly write letters home to his family telling them about how well he’s being treated by the Jews of Palestine.
Len has a look of perpetual torture, which only gets worse when he’s ordered to attend a rally against the Jewish quotas, a project that Clara and her father are involved in, in civilian clothes. “Be a Jew for a day,” his commander tells him, urging him to get information on any insurgency the Jews might be planning. Clara, in the meantime, confesses to him that her mother met another man while in the concentration camp. “Not every concentration camp story has an unhappy ending,” she says.
Bon Iver. Bikini. Swimming pool. Erin floats around on a raft until she’s surprised by Eliza’s “insane” brother, Paul, who’s visiting his parents. Erin tells him about her grandfather, Paul tells her that his grandfather fought in the Irgun. Over dinner, things get a little American-Jewish community when we learn that Paul is an anti Zionist who believes Israel is a military dictatorship. Fight with parents about the occupation ensues. Eliza shows up in her IDF uniform and gun. Everyone stares. Later, Eliza tells Erin that once,  Paul was very hard core about the army, before he went to Hebron.
BMP: Len  attends the anti quota rally, and a man is killed whom the British believe to be an instigator. Later, some of his friends are killed in a shooting. It’s unclear who’s responsible, but in a move that I can only regard as insanely ironic, the remaining solidiers break into an Arab home in pursuit of the actual shooters. Clara’s father tells Len that he’s no longer welcome in their home, even after Len assures him that he’s on their side. “We may be stateless,” says her father, “but we are not stupid.” In the stairwell, Clara and Len embrace secretly.
That’s the end of the flashbacks. Erin and Paul travel to Ramle so she can see the graves of Len’s friends, and she freaks out when she sees the graves of two who aren’t dead in the journal yet. And then we’re in Paul’s car driving into the Territories. “I thought it was dangerous,” Erin says. “You’d rather be back by the pool?” Paul says, and she doesn’t answer. In Nablus, Paul speaks at a Combatants for Peace meeting, along with Omar, a former member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Erin watches, enraptured. She’s surprised to learn later that Omar is an Israeli Arab, and watches, horrified and confused, as Omar is stripped searched and detained at a checkpoint after confronting a solidier about his treatment of a Palestinian woman. “Welcome to Israel,” Paul says, as they drive away from the checkpoint after Omar has asked them to leave him there. “Isn’t it to stop the terrorists?” Erin wonders. Paul responds by showing her the separation barrier and explains that the goal of the checkpoints and the barrier is to force Palestinians off their land and into such a state of despair that they leave all together. He yells a lot. Erin looks confused and scared.
At the entrance to a cafe, a bewildered Erin gets searched by a security guard. She and Paul drink beer. She says she loves it in Israel, he says it’s because she lives in the safe world of his parents, who, he admits, are lovely people. He tells Erin that when he was little, his father took him to a border and pointed out the difference between Jewish and Arab land. “Look what they’re done with the land in 2000 years and look what we’ve done in 50,” his father said. Paul: “He was telling me that they aren’t as deserving as we are.”
On the way out of the cafe, Erin’s glance lingers on a couple coming in. Paul realizes that he’s left his wallet inside when they get to the car and tells Erin to wait. And then there’s a explosion in the cafe. End of episode one.
Are you still reading? Good. After the episode, there was a q/a in the Speakeasy cafe with Liel Leibovitz and producer David Aukin. The idea of the series began with a letter from a solidier who served in Palestine during the British Mandate, which inspired Aukin to portray the conflict through a British perspective. The series was shot on location in Israel/Palestine and the crew represented a cross section of Israeli society, which, according to Aukin, resulted in very real tensions and arguments.
In response to an audience member’s question about the source and prevalence of Britain’s anti-Israel boycotts, Aukin said, “There is no memory in the current British narrative about the Mandate. It doesn’t exist anymore. If anything, this film is anti-British. What we’re dealing with now are the seeds of what the British left behind.”
In case you’re wondering what happened at the end of episode one of The Promise, you can see the second episode this coming Monday, November 21, at the JCC in Manhattan at 7 pm. Episodes three and four will be show on Wednesdays, November 23-December 7th. For more information, visit http://www.jccmanhattan.org/cat-content.aspx?catID=2928&progID=24759.