LONDON — Within hours of the release of the trailer for the BBC’s new two-part primetime television program, “We Are British Jews,” a flurry of anti-Semitic comments were posted.
In the unprecedented program, set to air in the UK on Tuesday and Wednesday, September 4 and 5, the BBC sent eight British Jews to Israel. Produced and directed by a British Jewish woman, Lucie Kon, the programs were filmed against the backdrop of a rising wave of anti-Semitism in Britain and “fierce debate within the Jewish community about how it should best relate to Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians.”
But as the show’s trailer went live on YouTube Thursday, the clip’s comments section was filled with a stream of anti-Semitic vitriol.
“You can’t really be both Jewish and British simultaneously. It’s one or the other. Choose your tribe,” read one. “The goblin Queen of England is genetically Jewish. So is Prince Charles. So are the Rothschilds,” said another. Yet one more read, “If you love Israel so much, why don’t you move there?”
Kon, recognizing the massive differences of opinion among Brits, says she “felt passionately about making a series that would demonstrate that diversity and division facing the [Jewish] community today.”
The group of Jews is perhaps not as diverse as the producers would have liked: Half are in their 20s, while one is in his 30s, one is late 50s and two are in their 70s. There are no hardline anti-Zionists in the group; Kon says the challenge of casting was quite difficult.
“Perhaps the hardest to cast were the most religious and the most politically active,” Kon says.
“Many Orthodox Jews don’t watch television and some are suspicious of the media. A lot of those we spoke to were worried they might be taken out of context in the finished programs. At the other end, people who had spoken out against the government of Israel were equally skeptical,” says Kon.
The sole critical voice in the group belongs to Lilly, a 22-year-old Cambridge University social sciences graduate who volunteered in Palestinian refugee camps and spends much of the second program expressing her discomfort with soldiers and settlers.
Most of the other participants have a radically different response to Israel, the most dramatic of whom is Damon, 58, from Plymouth. Damon had never been to Israel before taking part in the programs, and is now planning his emigration to Israel.
Ella, 28, who has already made the move, shares Damon’s fairly right-wing attitude with regards to the Jewish state. In one scene in the second program, she and Damon walk out of a conversation with a Palestinian activist called Issa, who has the distinction of having been arrested by both Israel and Palestinian forces.
Damon told The Times of Israel that this scene was heavily edited and that he asked numerous times “for the scene to be expanded to reflect what he [Issa] said. He told us that all the Jews should be expelled from Hebron and that those who stayed should be tried as war criminals. I didn’t feel safe.
“We were in the middle of a Palestinian stronghold and the guy’s friends were all around, behind our camera crew. I didn’t feel it was the place to argue,” he said, adding that he received no response to his requests.
Hebron features strongly in the second program, where the group meets a settler leader, along with a Jewish activist named Tsipi who speaks emotionally about her father having been killed by a terrorist.
This meeting plainly had a strong effect on Ella, who said after the program that she was “surprised” by the small number of Jews living in Hebron and that Tsipi had impressed her as “an amazing woman who, despite her father having been killed in his sleep by a Palestinian, was still so willing for peace and she showed no hate.”
To lay the groundwork for the story, the group spends several days in Manchester, the UK’s second-largest Jewish community after London, where they introduce themselves to viewers and each other.
We meet Alan, who is “77, secular, and fond of a bacon sandwich,” and who, it turns out, actually lived in Israel from 1979 to 1986. And there is as well Sylvia, a semi-retired London kosher caterer and the de facto “grandmother” of the group.
Sylvia is observant, and has been the target of anti-Semitism — an assailant once threw an egg at her while she was out walking with other identifiably Jewish people. She is deeply affected when the group is briefed on hate crimes in snowy Manchester by local police, Community Security Trust leaders, and the owner of a local kosher restaurant which has been attacked on several occasions by arsonists.
“Proud to be British,” Sylvia said she has been to Israel many times — but never as a tourist. Sadly, her sister died in the UK within hours of the group arriving in Israel, so she does not appear in the crucial second episode.
We also meet Emma, a 20-year-old journalism student in Leeds, northern England — “the first Jew that many of my friends at university have met.”
“Hopefully this program will show that British Jews aren’t ‘other’ or different,” she says.
Through Emma’s contacts, the cast meets a group of Jewish Manchester University students who speak of their difficulty in organizing on-campus events. The meeting takes place during the annual Israel Apartheid Week, causing one cast member to lament, “They’re scared to be Jews in my Britain.”
The BBC crew attempt to film an interaction between the cast and some BDS activists, but the boycott supporters refuse to go on camera.
There is also some friction between Jewish denominations.
Emma, a Reform Jew, is not terribly happy to sit separately from the men when the group joins an Orthodox synagogue for the Purim holiday reading of the Book of Esther.
Later on in the show as the group visits the Western Wall, Emma dons a kippah and a tallit before praying — and is immediately shouted at by an American Orthodox woman, who says Emma should not be wearing men’s ritual garments.
“I have had experience of this negative reaction before,” Emma said. “While living in Israel last year, I would go for prayers with the Women of the Wall whenever I could. We were pushed, spat at, kicked, kettled [pushed into a corner and surrounded by security] and had Torah scrolls confiscated.
“But,” she adds, “the Kotel is not an Orthodox synagogue. It’s a site for all Jews. It’s 2018 — women should not stop other women from praying how they want to if it’s done respectfully and doesn’t harm anyone else.”
Perhaps the quietest member of the group is Simon, a 26-year-old creativity consultant from Manchester. He says he has “mixed feelings about being Jewish, and alongside that, mixed feelings about Israel.”
Simon confesses that “the most surprising thing to me was how seriously people see the issue of anti-Semitism in the UK. I hear about it a lot, see it on the news a lot, but I’ve never really experienced the ‘fear’ like I did the day we were at the hate crime meeting with the police.
“It still surprises me,” he says. “I’ve never really experienced anti-Semitism myself — or at least I don’t think I have. This series did make me start to wonder whether or not I have and I’ve just not been sensitive to it.”
Things wake up considerably in the second program, when the group goes to Israel, spending time on Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk and walking around the mixed Jewish and Arab city of Acre.
They meet a Palestinian named Fadi who tries to explain what it means to live on the other side of Israel’s security wall. Several member of the group are unreceptive, citing the drop in terrorist attacks on Israeli Jews since the barrier was built.
“If you don’t know someone,” says Fadi, “how can you open your heart to them?”
With this message ringing in their ears, the group move on to the flashpoint city of Hebron, meeting both Jews and Arabs. It seems to provide the most powerful impact for most of the group.
Towards the end of the show, director Kon springs a surprise — at the request of Lilly, the participant who has volunteered in Palestinian refugee camps — the group meet Rami and Bassam, two members of the Bereaved Parents Circle from opposite sides of the conflict, and each of whom has lost a teenage daughter.
It’s clear that the genuine friendship between the two men, and their lack of rancor, has a profound effect on the British Jews.
Simon, the most taciturn of the group, says, “Rami and Bassam, the two fathers we met in Jerusalem — to see those two having lost so much to the other side, and still have an open heart and ability to forgive, was immense.”
“[The fathers] broke my heart,” says a teary Emma. “When people talk about the conflict, I think they sometimes forget it’s not a trendy topic to put on placards, and that real lives are at stake.”
For London-based pro-Israel advocate Joseph, meeting the two men was overwhelming.
“I cannot find the words to explain how much their stories moved me,” Joseph says. “Afterwards, [Bassam and I] hugged, and as we stood gazing over the Temple Mount, we spoke of how one day, God willing, we’d be able to pray atop of the Temple Mount side by side, a Muslim and a Jew. Politics had divided us, but hope united us.”
Peace between Israelis and Palestinians, concludes Joseph, is “inevitable — we cannot fight forever. Bassam and Rami helped me to see that I can either be a catalyst for peace or a barrier to it.”
Helping the production company plan the itinerary were a raft of Jewish consultants in the UK, together with advisers in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“We wanted [the group] to engage with people some of them might see as their fiercest opponents, and hoped that by meeting each other, there would be insight that everyone could gain,” said Kon. “We wondered if this insight might make some of the group start to think differently about being British and Jewish and about how they relate to Israel.”
Nothing like this has been shown on British television before. Now, the crew await the critical verdict — from Jews and non-Jews alike. The trolls have already had their say.