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Empire, trauma and the Nakba: The making of The Promise

Channel 4's 2011 drama series explored the Nakba from the perspective of a British soldier stationed in Mandate Palestine and his granddaughter visiting Israel six decades later
The Promise also shows scenes where Jewish refugees arriving in Palestine were herded into enclosures not much different from the camps they’d come from (Channel 4)
The Promise also shows scenes where Jewish refugees arriving in Palestine were herded into enclosures not much different from the camps they’d come from (Channel 4)

On 24 November 1999, a former British soldier who had served in Palestine at the end of the Second World War wrote a letter to a television executive.

In it, he expressed his admiration for Warriors, a BBC drama about British peacekeepers during the Yugoslav Wars.

The elderly soldier, who had been in the parachute regiment, suggested that the BBC make a film about a “similar situation”: the one he had lived through in Palestine.

Jane Tranter, the executive, passed the letter on to the director of Warriors, Peter Kosminsky. To Kosminsky, then in his early 40s, it felt like a challenge. “I remember thinking that he dared us to do it,” he says, almost 25 years later.

After close to a decade of extensive research, during which Kosminsky and colleagues interviewed over 80 veterans of the British Mandate in Palestine, the idea contained in the soldier’s letter became a reality.

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In February 2011, The Promise was broadcast by Channel 4 in the United Kingdom.

With the 75th anniversary of the Nakba and the creation of Israel marked this month, the four-part drama is as powerful and prescient today as it was when it first appeared on television screens.

Middle East Eye spoke to Peter Kosminsky and lead actor Christian Cooke about the making of the show, the history and politics surrounding it, and the controversial reception it received, with Kosminsky, who is Jewish, branded an antisemite by pro-Israel groups.

Hidden stories

Written and directed by Kosminsky, The Promise tells two stories connected through time. With her grandfather dying in hospital, 18-year-old Erin (Claire Foy) travels from Britain to Israel with her friend Eliza (Perdita Weeks), who is returning to her family’s home to undertake Israeli military service.

Erin takes with her the diary of her grandfather, who went from liberating the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to Palestine, where he remained as one of 100,000 British soldiers up until the end of the colonial power’s Mandate on 14 May 1948.

As Erin journeys through modern Israel, the occupied West Bank, and Gaza, she acts as a guide to the viewer.

Through her, we get to know Eliza’s brother Paul (Itay Tiran), an Israeli soldier turned left-wing activist, and his friend Omar (Haaz Sleiman), a former member of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Palestinian armed group.

We meet Paul and Eliza’s wealthy parents, a former general turned leading liberal, and his wife, who live in a big house that backs onto the Mediterranean. We witness a Palestinian suicide bombing, Israeli settlers screaming at Palestinians in Hebron, the army clearance, and the destruction of a family home in Gaza.

All the while, Erin is reading her grandfather Len’s diary, discovering the young soldier behind the hospitalised man who never showed his family any love.

Len (Christian Cooke) arrives in Palestine and is soon thrown into the dark heart of the conflict for the territory, caught between Jewish refugees fleeing the horrors of Europe, the Arab population of Palestine, and the British-trained Zionist militias looking to rid the land both of its current residents and their former backers.

That story leads inexorably to the Nakba, or catastrophe, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by those Zionist militias to make way for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

In the year 2005, Claire Foy’s Erin, who has found a key inside her grandfather’s diary, is discovering that the past he was caught up in is not dead – it’s not even past. And she is trying to fulfil, finally, a promise Len made to a Palestinian and his family.

Erin's character, played by Claire Foy, acts as a guide to the viewer on her journey through modern Israel (Studio Canale)
Erin's character, played by Claire Foy, acts as a guide to the viewer on her journey through modern Israel (Channel 4)

For years after Kosminsky read the veteran’s letter, he worked alone on the project, which was simply called “Palestine”. It began life at the BBC but then, when the corporation got cold feet, it migrated to Channel 4.

The writer “didn’t know anything about the period when the British tried to keep the peace – I didn’t know much about the subject generally. But I did know about British soldiers.” And so, alongside extensive research, he says that he wrote the stories “from the perspective of the outsider”.

In interviews with over 80 other veterans of the British Mandate, two themes emerged, with Kosminsky telling MEE: “What I wrote was what I got from the veterans.”

The first theme, the writer-director says, was that “there was a general feeling that nobody back home wanted to hear much about it. That there had been this huge victory in World War Two, but we had 100,000 men under arms in Palestine and they had been kicked out by a collection of militants. It was humiliating.”

“The soldiers felt completely forgotten and abandoned when they got home. No one talked about it.”

In The Promise, that feeling of being forgotten – of embodying the shame of imperial withdrawal and all the darkness that went with it – inhabits the background. We know early in the series that Len has been changed beyond recognition by his time in Palestine, and we suspect that he has never been able to properly talk about it.

Christian Cooke plays the role of Len, a British soldier stationed in Palestine in the 1940s (Studio Canale)
Christian Cooke plays the role of Len, a British soldier stationed in Palestine in the 1940s (Channel 4)

Like his character, Christian Cooke is from Leeds, and the choice available to most working-class men at the time – go down the mine or put on uniform – was part of the extensive back story he created for Len.

Aged just 22 at the time, Cooke had been cast as Len’s best friend but ended up taking over from James McAvoy, who was originally slated to play the lead. This was the biggest thing Cooke had done, and the young actor felt insecure taking over from an established Hollywood star.

He plunged into his research, reading books like Cordon and Search, a parachute regiment veteran’s memoir of his time in Palestine, and speaking to a friend’s father who had served there. At a two-week training camp with The Promise’s military advisers in Syria, Cooke went full Daniel Day Lewis and asked his fellow soldiers if they could sit together and “talk about the war we had just fought in”.

For the actor, this meant a litany of different battles but it also, crucially, meant the liberation of Bergen Belsen, where at least 70,000 inmates were murdered by the Nazis.

In The Promise, we see archive footage of that liberation – British soldiers found 60,000 mortally ill prisoners and thousands of unburied corpses strewn across the ground.

We also see what happened to some of those Jewish refugees when they came to Palestine and were herded into enclosures not much different from the camps they had come from. The British were now trying to impose a limit on Jewish immigration to the colony, a position that put them on a collision course with the Zionist movement.

Cooke (L) and Kominsky (R) have said working on the film was the toughest work they have produced (Studio Canale)
Cooke (L) and Kominsky (R) have said working on the film was one of their toughest projects (Channel 4)

The other theme of Kosminsky’s interviews with British veterans emerged from this.

“The other thing they all said was that at the beginning, they had all gone over to Palestine being on the side of the Jews because of the Holocaust and what many of them had seen during the war,” says Kosminsky, who is Jewish and whose mother came to Britain from Vienna on the Kindertransport.

“They could understand why the Jewish people wanted a homeland and they thought: great,” he says. “But as they were harried and attacked by the Zionist militias their attitudes changed. Quite a few of them befriended Arabs. By the end of the war, all the British soldiers we spoke to had switched to being on the side of the Arabs.”

We see this in Len, who goes from forming a relationship with Clara (Katharina Schuttler), an intelligence agent working for the Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary group, to witnessing the massacre of over 100 Palestinians by that same militia at Deir Yassin.

Len is shocked and enraged by what the Zionist groups are doing, but he is also deeply frustrated by the British failure to do anything about it. As Cooke puts it: “Typical Britain, colonising and then fucking off when it’s not convenient anymore.”

Grandfather's trauma

This desperate frustration Len feels at not being allowed to protect Palestinians is one of the things that connects him to his granddaughter. The connection and parallels between the two characters, transported through time, are at the heart of The Promise.

“I was very interested in a relationship between a young girl and a much older person,” says Kosminsky. “I wanted to tell the story of how an 18-year-old girl sees dribbling embarrassment and then comes to see the young man inside… Dramatically, that was the main driver to me. To tell the story of how she fell in love with her grandfather.”

In bringing to life her grandfather, Erin comes to understand the trauma that has dogged him. “The whole show is about the after-effects of trauma,” says Kosminsky. This is the trauma felt by a British soldier who had been through the war and the end of empire, and the trauma that haunts Israel’s existence.

'I was trying to understand how a people who had been subject to some of the most horrendous persecution in history could then become persecutor'

Peter Kosminsky, director

“I was trying to understand how a people who had been subject to some of the most horrendous persecution in history could then become persecutors,” Kosminsky says, referencing the Holocaust and then the violent creation of Israel. It’s a motivation that calls to mind Edward Said’s famous line: “You cannot continue to victimise someone else just because you yourself were a victim once – there has to be a limit.”

In order to better understand this, Kosminsky - whose mother lost most of her family in the Holocaust - and his colleagues interviewed Irgun commanders, Israeli academics and the young boys and girls conscripted to serve in the modern-day Israeli army.

The production was shot entirely in Israel and was made by an Israeli crew. Both Kosminsky and Cooke say it was the toughest thing they’ve ever done. They also found that the Palestinians and Israelis they were working with were telling their own stories through The Promise – trying, in some way, to come to terms with their trauma.

Haaz Sleiman (L) plays the role of Omar, a Palestinian fighter turned peace activist (Channel 4)
Haaz Sleiman (L) plays the role of Omar, a Palestinian fighter turned peace activist (Channel 4)

In the series, there is a scene in which Erin goes to the home of Omar, the Palestinian fighter turned peace activist. Omar lives in Abu Dis, next to the 700km-long wall that separates Israel from the occupied West Bank, and which has broken up Palestinian communities.

The crew had scouted the area extensively and found someone who had a rooftop they could film a scene on.

“We turned up on the morning of the shoot, and the owner of the house came out and told us the IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] had visited him and said that if he let us film the scene, bad things would happen.” Kosminsky says. With each minute costing the production money, the crew scrambled desperately to find another location.

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“It turned out what we were doing was more radical than we realised,” Kosminsky says.

In one scene, based on a video of a real incident from Hebron, an Israeli settler screams abuse at a Palestinian woman.

After filming, the two actors asked for a photo of them to be taken arm-in-arm. “The image you’ll never see in The Promise,” the Jewish actor joked, as she held onto her Palestinian counterpart. “You know we don’t do this,” she told Kosminsky. “When we do this kind of thing we have Jews playing Arabs.”

Over the course of a long career in Israel, this was the first time she had acted with a “real Palestinian”.

In another scene, set in Gaza, an Israeli army unit uses Erin and a young Palestinian girl as human shields, enabling them to go in and clear the family home of a recent suicide bomber before it is destroyed. When he was filming the scene, it became clear to Kosminsky that the actor playing the part of the Israeli commander had recent military experience.

“Are you OK?” Kosminsky asked the actor at the end of the scene. “Not really,” he said. “Why?” “Because I’m a reservist. I have to do that kind of thing,” he replied. The actor was crying. The director asked him why he had taken on the role. “These things happen,” he said. “We need to confront them.” Likewise, one of the Palestinian actors in the scene had been subject to a house clearance. “It’s not difficult to improvise,” she told her director. “It’s our life.”

Mohammed, played by Ali Suliman, played a role that depicted aspects of his own life (Channel 4)
Mohammed (second left), played by Ali Suliman, said his role portrayed aspects of his own life (Channel 4)

Cooke also found life imitating art. The promise that comes to define the series is one Len makes to Mohammed (Ali Suliman), who works for the British as a servant. The two men get to know each other, with Len meeting Mohammed’s family, including his young son Hassan.

With the British in the throes of their hasty exit and Zionist forces closing in, Len persuades Mohammed to leave his Haifa home. The Palestinian gives his son the key to that home. Later, as Palestinian families desperately try and flee from the port at Haifa, Hassan will go missing and the key will end up in Len’s hands.

“I was doing a scene with Ali Suliman,” says Cooke, who struck up a friendship with the Palestinian actor and who talks with huge admiration about his films Paradise Now (2005) and Lemon Tree (2008). “It’s when he gives his son the key and I am about to drive away. I was sat in the street between takes and I said to Ali, who was affected by the scene, are you OK? And he said, ‘I have my dad’s key’. The thing we were doing was so much bigger than us. This actor was retelling his own history. It was really humbling. I think about it often.”

Death threats and stereotypes

Peter Kosminsky was born in London to Jewish parents. And yet when The Promise came out, he was accused of being an antisemite, with major Jewish groups and public figures firing broadsides at his series.

The Promise consistently demonised Jews, by using distasteful stereotypes and even comparing the actions of the Nazis during the Holocaust to those of Jews in mandate Palestine,” wrote the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

“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,” wrote the British Jewish author Howard Jacobson.

I am very proud to be Jewish. All Jews do not live in Israel. All Jews do not support everything it does

Peter Kosminsky, director

In Australia, the head of SBS, which broadcast The Promise there, was summoned to parliament. In Paris, death threats aimed at Kosminsky by pro-Israel groups meant that he had “two very large armed guards” with him at all times while promoting the film.

Asked today what reply he has for his critics, Kosminsky says: “I say shame on you, for devaluing the currency of racism. Because racism is a very serious matter, and my family can testify to that. So let’s not throw the accusation of racism around lightly.”

“I take real issue with being called an antisemite,” he says. “I am very proud to be Jewish. All Jews do not live in Israel. All Jews do not support everything it does.”

The Promise remains, though, a source of great pride for those who worked on it. “It’s the most important piece of work I’ve done,” Christian Cooke says.

“It was really powerful, an important story. And I don’t think people now are aware of that history, of the history of Palestine and British involvement. Its effects are still seen today and to do a piece of work that’s set at a pivotal moment in its history was amazing.”

About six months after filming had finished, Cooke found himself at a party in Los Angeles with Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, who had worked with Kosminsky on Warriors.

Cooke told him he had also just worked with the director on The Promise. Gruffud turned round and told him: “Congratulations. It will be the best thing you ever do.”

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