Even though it is a work of fiction, The Promise—a four-part miniseries that aired last month on Great Britain’s public-owned but commercially sponsored Channel 4—is a strong candidate to redeem the perpetually abused category of reality TV. Weaving together the story of Len Matthews, a young sergeant serving in British Mandate Palestine in 1946, and his granddaughter Erin, a restless visitor to modern-day Israel, the series, eight years in the making, was shot entirely on location and features long stretches of dialogue, without translation or subtitles, in Hebrew and Arabic. Despite the occasional clunky plot turn and the artful cinematography—Israel frequently looks like a wild and oversaturated field of color hastily doodled by Matisse—the show often delivers the sort of emotional blows we associate not with television but with real life.
Which, Israel being the subject matter, is guaranteed to make some people mad. Amir Ofek, the press attaché at Israel’s embassy in London, told the Israeli press that the show is “an attempt to demonize Israelis” and the worst example of anti-Israeli propaganda he’d ever seen. Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, England’s premier Jewish publication, one columnist argued that the series’ script could have been written by Fatah. The institutionalized Jewish community in England issued strongly worded press releases. Pundits in Israel shrieked. By the time the show had finished its run, more people had read about The Promise than had actually seen it.
That’s a shame, because contrary to these howls of discontent, the show is a rare and riveting example of telling Israel’s story on screen with accuracy, sensitivity, and courage. It begins with Erin (Claire Foy), a recent high-school graduate, visiting her dying grandfather in the hospital in London 2005. The old man, we’re led to understand, had gone through life being somewhat of a sod, but then Erin finds his diary. In a series of flashbacks, we learn that Grandpa Len (Christian Cooke) had been among the liberators of Bergen-Belsen. This is conveyed via raw and harrowing documentary footage of the camp’s aftermath; seeing the skeletal corpses piled up, we understand every tormented line wrinkling Len’s handsome face.
But the plot soars once Len and Erin arrive in Israel, each in his or her own era, he as a rosy-cheeked British soldier and she as a contemporary tourist, reading the diary and doing her best to retrace her grandfather’s steps. After we see Len injured in the 1946 attack on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Erin meets with an old Israeli who, as a member of the Zionist paramilitary group Irgun, was one of the attack’s perpetrators. This genial septuagenarian tells Erin that having lost his entire family in the Holocaust, he was happy to fight for the Jewish homeland by any means necessary. Erin—like presumably many viewers—finds the attack noxious, but the old man’s version of events is emotional and intelligent, ripe with the nuances that make Israel both deeply appealing and hopelessly complex.
The show’s writer and director, Peter Kosminsky, walks this tightrope of evenhandedness remarkably well. One moment we follow Erin as she survives a Palestinian suicide bombing and wanders, bleeding, through the corridors of a hospital packed with disfigured, writhing victims. The next, we follow her to Hebron, where the suffering of the Palestinian population—largely imprisoned by a small and vitriolic community of Jewish settlers defended by a large military force—is acutely felt. The same is true for Len, shown in pre-State Palestine between 1946 and 1948, as his sympathies shift between the Jewish underground operatives fighting for independence and the local Arabs with whom the Jews vie for land. To Kosminsky’s credit, nothing and no one in the series is simple, and even the most zealous characters are allowed moments of humanity, a few good arguments in support of their cause, and a few moments of grace.
One such moment comes toward the end of the series, when Erin, looking for one of her grandfather’s old acquaintances, makes her way into Gaza. Through a complicated set of circumstances, she ends up spending the night with the family of a female suicide bomber who had exploded herself in Tel Aviv the previous day. Erin is woken up in the morning by determined-looking members of the Israel Defense Forces (the show is set before the IDF’s withdrawal from Gaza in August of 2005), who inform her that the house, per Israel’s policy of combating terrorism, is slated for immediate demolition. Erin is angry—she doesn’t see the point of punishing the family for the actions of their fanatic daughter—and decides to chain herself to a post in an attempt to block the soldiers’ path. Enter Eliza (Perdita Weeks), Erin’s best friend and now a young IDF soldier serving in Gaza. Throughout her visit to Israel, Erin had been staying with Eliza’s family, supporting her friend—a dual citizen of England and Israel—as she finished her basic training. A plausible plot twist puts Eliza in the same condemned house with Erin, and a fierce dialogue unfolds between the two women. Erin weeps for the Palestinian family about to be rendered homeless; Eliza makes a compelling argument that reminds Erin—and the viewers—of the atrocities of terrorism and of Israel’s right to defend itself. What the English audience sees, then, is two young English women, one wearing a kafiyah around her neck and one in a tight olive IDF uniform, each making her point emotionally and eloquently, each convincing.
Viewed through the much narrower prism of the professional propagandist, however, it is not difficult to see why someone might take offense with the show. Several of Israel’s highly questionable practices are shown here accurately and unequivocally. In Gaza, for example, Erin and a local Palestinian child are grabbed and used as human shields by soldiers searching a nearby house; this controversial practice has been repeatedly deployed by the IDF in Gaza and the West Bank for the past decade or so. Similarly, the portrayal of Hebron’s Jewish settlers as violent aggressors is unflattering but not inaccurate. But as he’s done in his previous shows—about the radicalization of British Muslims, the lead-up to the war in Iraq, and other deeply controversial and multilayered subjects—Kosminsky never allows these harsh truths to steal the focus away from the story. Watching the show, audiences are likely to care as much or more for Erin’s personal drama—the beautifully mundane tale of a young woman emerging from the cocoon of childhood, blinking, blinded by sex and family and other impossibly bright lights—as they do about the morsels of reality planted here and there throughout the plot. This, perhaps, was what reality television was meant to be all along: edifying but never preachy, entertaining but seldom silly, a lesson in history and current events that realizes that for anyone to care, facts and emotions must be given equal footing and the opportunity to clash with each other for the viewer’s sympathy.
For the most part, and despite the vocal criticisms, English audiences seemed to embrace the show and its complexities. More than a million and a half people, or a strong showing of 7 percent of the television-watching audience, tuned in to The Promise, and there was occasional praise from across the political spectrum for the show’s even-handedness and thoroughness. If The Promise gets what it deserves, it will be given an airing here and in Israel, injecting a note of artfulness and subtlety into a debate too often dominated by the shrill.