Howard Jacobson: Ludicrous, brainwashed prejudice

You can’t expect Ofcom to adjudicate between claims of dramatic truth and truth of any other sort

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So that's Passover almost done with for another year.

Except that Passover is never done with. To me it's the greatest Jewish festival because the story is so good. We sit around the Seder table and relate, over and over, as though we still can't believe it, our escape from Egypt. Every depiction of the Last Supper shows Jesus relating the same story.

There's a song Jews sing at Passover – "Dayenu". The word means "it would have been sufficient", or "enough already". It would have been sufficient had God only done this for us, and stopped there. Each verse records what he did next, insisting that that, too, would have been enough. It is written in the hypothetic-preconditional tense, imagining a lesser deliverance which we would have settled for, while at the same time acknowledging that we aren't out of the woods yet. As a boy I felt fraught during the Passover service because it seemed that even as we celebrated a narrow escape from one disaster, we were preparing for the next. A Jew has either to be ignorant of his history or mad to suppose that what has happened before won't happen again.

Myself, I wouldn't bet heavily on there being good times ahead for Jews. Anti-Zionists can assure me all they like that their position entails no harm to Jews – only witness how many Jews are themselves anti-Zionist, they say – I no longer believe them. Individually, it is of course possible to care little for Israel and to care a great deal for Jews. But in the movement of events individuals lose their voice. What carries the day is consensus, and consensus is of necessity unsubtle. By brute consensus, now, Israel is the proof that Jews did not adequately learn the lesson of the Holocaust.

Forget Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial is old hat. The new strategy – it showed its hand in Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children, and surfaced again in Channel 4's recent series The Promise – is to depict the Holocaust in all its horror in order that Jews can be charged ("You, of all people") with failing to live up to it. By this logic the Holocaust becomes an educational experience from which Jews were ethically obliged to graduate summa cum laude, Israel being the proof that they didn't. "Jews know more than anyone that killing civilians is wrong," resounds an unmistakably authorial voice in The Promise. Thus are Jews doubly damned: to the Holocaust itself and to the moral wasteland of having found no humanising redemption in its horrors.

It matters not a jot to me that the writer/director of The Promise is a Jew. Jews succumbing to the age-old view of them and reviling what's Jewish in themselves has a long history. Peter Kosminsky would have it that his series is about Israel, not Jews, but in The Promise Israel becomes paradigmatic of the Jews' refusal to be improved by affliction.

In a morally intelligent world – that's to say one in which, for starters, Jews are not judged more harshly than their fellows for having been despatched to concentration camps – The Promise would be seen for the ludicrous piece of brainwashed prejudice it is. Ofcom's rejection of complaints about the drama's partiality and inaccuracy was to be expected. You can't expect a body as intellectually unsophisticated as Ofcom to adjudicate between claims of dramatic truth and truth of any other sort. And for that reason it should never have been appealed to. That said, its finding that The Promise was "serious television drama, not presented as a historical and faithful re-creation", is a poor shot at making sense of anything. You can't brush aside historical re-creation in a work of historical re-creation, nor can you assert a thing is "serious television" when its seriousness is what's in question. A work isn't serious by virtue of its thinking it is. Wherein lies the seriousness, one is entitled to ask, when the drama creaks with the bad faith of a made-up mind.

I'm an art man, myself. Aesthetics trump the lot. And "seriousness" is an aesthetic quality or it's nothing. But you will usually find that bad intentions makes bad art, and bad art, while it might be solemn and self-righteous, forfeits the right to be called serious. From start to finish, The Promise was art with its trousers round its ankles. Yes, it looked expensive, took its time, was beautifully shot and well acted. But these are merely the superficies of art, and the more dangerously seductive for that. "Gosh, I never knew such and such had happened," I heard people say after one or other simplifying episode, as though high production values guarantee veracity.

One-sidedness is a failure of imagination; aesthetically, The Promise failed because it couldn't conceal the dramatic monotony of its bias. Just about every Palestinian was sympathetic to look at, just about every Jew was not. While most Palestinians might fairly be depicted as living in poor circumstances, most Israeli Jews might not be fairly depicted as living in great wealth. The family life of Palestinians, when it was not rent with fear, was loving and considerate; family life among the Jews consisted of spitting words of violence against Arabs and callous socialising around a pool built on appropriated land. Juxtaposition counts for much in art, and when every juxtaposition – of beauty, wealth, humanity, kindliness, suffering – favours one party to the conflict at the expense of another, the simplicity of view begins to show itself in uninventiveness and repetition. Though I, too, have found Palestinians to be people of immense charm, I could only laugh in derision at The Promise every time another shot of soft-eyed Palestinians followed another shot of hard-faced Jews.

As for the politics, they were as transparently simple-minded as the casting. An act of violence carried out by a Palestinian was shown to be no different in motive and ambition from an act of violence carried out by a Jew, but the same understanding was not extended in the other direction, though if A resembles B, then B must resemble A.

But then of moral equivalence of any sort, except when anti-Jewish propaganda required it, The Promise was bare. Therefore, I say to Ofcom, no, the drama was not serious. It only looked serious because it said what the consensus says. The truth is now nailed to the floor. Jews went through hell only to build a hell for others. Trying arguing otherwise and you are an apologist for that hell.

We have been here before. Dayenu: it would have been enough had God done no more than help us out the last time. But it won't ever be enough.

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