The great betrayal

The issue of Israel has become a terrible fault line on the British left but liberal opinion may soo

Over a kibbutz breakfast of boiled eggs, fresh salad, olives, hummus and bread in the glorious spring sunshine, Valerie Chikly voices her frustration with the usual left-wing hostility towards Israel. "We are always compared to South Africa. It upsets me deeply," she says. The common cry of the outraged western liberal, that Israel is an "apartheid" state because of its treatment of the Palestinians, carries a particular barb for Valerie. She herself left South Africa 32 years ago to make her home in Israel. Armed with her socialist ideals, a hatred of apartheid and the belief that the Jews needed a homeland after the experience of the Holocaust, she set up home on Kibbutz Nir Eliyahu and has lived here ever since.

"Growing up in South Africa, growing up under apart heid . . . one of the reasons I left was I never felt comfortable there. Part of the thinking was that it was OK to believe the white man was a better person than the black man," Valerie says. She tells me she was convinced that Israel's problem was conflict, not racism. "Israel is always fighting for its survival. If we were able to make peace with the Arabs we would live together."

It is difficult to imagine a more idealistic, open-hearted lefty than Valerie Chikly. She still describes herself as a socialist and a committed kibbutznik, although privatisation and the nuclear family have replaced the original dream of communal living. She worked on a joint project teaching puppetry to Palestinian and Israeli children until one of her Arab students was shot during the second intifada. But the conflict has taken its toll, especially on the next generation. Valerie says her eldest son's time serving in the Israeli army has marked him. "I think his mistrust of Arabs is greater than mine. He has the experience of searching people and finding bomb belts on their bodies."

In Israel, the conventions of the generation gap are reversed, with young people often more hardline than their parents. Military service (three years for men, two for women) means that the younger generation has had experience of far more violent times. The Israeli consciousness is ingrained with death and violence. I will never forget the roll-call of more than 200 dead alumni from Herzliya High School, flashed up one by one on a cinema screen to the whole school during national remembrance day. I was a special guest on the occasion and was also shown a shrine to the dead, with photographs of each fallen soldier or victim of terrorism, which serves as a year-round reminder of the duty of each Israeli citizen to fight for the state's survival. I found the ceremony deeply disturbing - it also involved watching film clips of Israel's military legacy and performances by schoolchildren on the theme of war.

Yet still this does not answer the question: Why do liberals hate Israel so much? That was the question I found myself asking throughout my visit to the country this month.

As the great Israeli journalist Amos Elon wrote eight years ago in the introduction to his essay collection A Blood-Dimmed Tide: "Zionism was a child of the Enlightenment and the ideas of the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the need to separate church and state. Its aim was to provide persecuted Jews with a safe haven, recognised in international law, a National Home." Elon left Israel in disillusionment in 2004.

On the face of it, the answer to my question is simple. The British left hates Israel because it has abandoned its Enlightenment principles and set about the systematic oppression of a people whose land it occupies. The invasion of southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006 was a new low point that caused international outrage. For most people on the left in Britain, support for Israel is out of the question. Solidarity for the Palestinians is synonymous with the anti-American, anti-imperialist stance of the movement that opposed the war in Iraq. Thousands of people who marched in London against British intervention carried Freedom for Palestine placards, even though these were provided by the Muslim Association of Britain, an organisation of the Islamic religious right that supports the terrorist group Hamas.

Mike Marqusee, an organiser of the Stop the War Coalition, wrote in If I Am Not for Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew: "The blame for the misidentification of Jews as a whole with Israel lies principally with the Jewish Establishment, with the Zionists, with the Israeli spokespersons who justify every lawless, brutal act as a necessary part of the battle for Jewish survival. And with all those who've installed the cult of Israel at the centre of Judaism and Jewishness."

Victors and colonisers

The Israel issue has become a terrible fault line on the British left and betrayal is felt on both sides. Israelis I spoke to dated the breach to the 1967 Six-Day War, when the Jews of Israel turned from passive victims to military victors and colonisers. There is something in the argument that the left loves a victim and the modern Israeli does not fit the mould.

But there is more to it than that. The internet has flushed out a whole subculture of left-wing hostility to Israel that should make even Marqusee uncomfortable. This has a regular and willing outlet on the Guardian's Comment is Free website and the New Statesman also suffers from it whenever we publish articles on Israel. Postings on our blog casually link Zionism to fascism or South African apartheid. The language is so unpleasant that it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that many of the comments are driven by anti-Semitism.

I was travelling in Israel with a group of four other journalists as a guest of BICOM, a British organisation set up to improve Israel's image in the media. Not an easy task. The trip coincided with the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the state, a time for reflection and reassessment. It also coincided with the latest round of peace talks between Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. While we were there, hopes of peace faded even further. Olmert found himself embroiled in a political funding scandal that weakened his hand and a deal by the end of the Bush administration looks unlikely.

In four days we were given a crash course in the modern Zionist narrative of Israel. At Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust museum, our guide told us in no uncertain terms that a Jewish state was necessary because we in western Europe could not be trusted. We were introduced to government officials, politicians and senior military officers on the front line in Gaza and the West Bank who demonstrated the reality of the threat to Israel as they saw it. We visited Ramallah to meet a senior representative of the Palestinian Authority, but for the most part it was the Israeli case being made.

Propaganda aside, there is an Israeli case. And it is one the west, including the British left, ignores at its peril. At the police station in Sderot, a southern town of roughly 20,000 inhabitants less than a mile from the border with Gaza, Barak Peled stood next to a collection of several hundred rockets fired by Palestinian militants over the past few months. The attacks began in 2001, but intensified after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza three years ago. Most of the missiles were the home-made Qassams fired by Hamas, but each faction has its own makeshift devices. "Once it was stones and Molotov cocktails," said Barak. "Now look at it. They have brought the war to us." Even now the technology is moving on. Among the gruesome artefacts, Barak found the smashed fuselage of a Grad missile, Russian-designed but supplied by Iran.

Besieged by neighbours

This may be just so much Zionist PR, but the events are real and real people's lives are destroyed by the constant rocket attacks. No children play outside. A rudimentary siren system gives the people of Sderot 15 seconds to run to one of the bomb shelters dotted around the town. Sometimes it doesn't work.

Geut Aragon, a 34-year-old nurse, described how no siren sounded as her house was destroyed by a Qassam rocket in January. She, her four-year-old son and a neighbour's child were trapped in the rubble. The young mother still has shrapnel from the incident in her head. Asked about the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, she told me: "It was not a good idea. We knew it - you don't have to be very smart. We knew as soon as they pulled out we would be under attack."

Now, with the introduction of the Grad rockets, targets further inside Israel have come within missile range of Hamas, including the city of Ashkelon on the coast, which has already suffered a handful of attacks. Israel has always felt besieged by its neighbours, but today Iran poses a different order of threat. At the same time, a strategic alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas is causing concern outside Israel. The Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram has reported that Hamas is already developing a pilotless drone with the Brotherhood for use in Israel. Whether or not this is true, it is a sign of a growing nervousness about the rising military power of the Islamists.

One senior Israeli military source in the West Bank told me: "If we go back into Gaza, we know we will be facing a trained army. This will be a very different type of conflict from what we have seen before."

Iran is now a constant source of fear in the Israeli psyche. Mark Regev, spokesman for Olmert, said that Britain, like the rest of Europe, needs to wake up to the reality of the threat: "The governor of the Bank of Iran needs to understand that because of the nuclear programme, his daughter can't study at Cambridge."

There are all sorts of good reasons for the left to fall out of love with Israel. At the same time, it is quite possible to un derstand how left-wing Israelis feel betrayed by international liberal opinion. Valerie Chikly reads the international media online from her kibbutz, and says she has given up expecting support. "One of the reasons I came here was because of the Holocaust," she says. "I really believe we have to have our own country and we have to defend ourselves. Who else is going to defend us?"

But the threat from Iran - not just the direct threat of a nuclear bomb, but its support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah - gives the relationship a different dimension. For a long time Israel has been accused of crying wolf over surrounding countries that want to "drive it into the sea". Now it has a neighbour whose president has not only made that threat explicit, but who intends to develop the capacity to do it. In such a conflict, which has already begun for the people of southern Israel, on whose side will British left-liberal opinion be?

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile