Why did BBC let Simon Schama make “moral case for Israel” unchallenged?

A documentary by Simon Schama (center) tries to dress up Israel’s lies about its wall in the West Bank as facts. 

British Embassy Washington

“After the screening of [Simon Schama’s] sweeping five-piece [series] The Story of the Jews on prime time in Britain last month, no one will be able to say for at least another decade that the BBC has an inherent bias against Israel.”

So began an article in Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, last week as it interviewed Schama, the Zionist presenter of this “sweeping five-piece” series that ran on the BBC every Sunday evening in September.

It was not the telling of the story of the Jews that upset anyone. It was the fact that the BBC, which claims to be an impartial broadcaster, allowed Schama to use the final episode of this series to make what he called “the moral case for Israel.”

The Zionist historian was given an hour, unchallenged by anyone, to make his case for the Zionist state.

And, as Haaretz so triumphantly declared a few days later, “no one will be able to say for at least another decade that the BBC has an inherent bias against Israel.”

Even Schama himself, in the interview that follows, can’t seem to believe what the BBC let him get away with.

The Haaretz journalist, Anshel Pfeffer, puts it to Schama that it would appear the BBC seems to be on Israel’s side after all.

“ ‘I know,’ [Schama] says, laughing, ‘people were tweeting to me last night in amazement, ‘Is this the BBC?’,” Pfeffer reports.

“Romance and sunshine”

Unfortunately, this is the BBC. A publicly funded organization which gives over prime airtime to promoting the Israeli state — an occupying power — and which consistently fails to give a similar voice to those whose land it occupies, the Palestinians.

No wonder Schama was laughing in delight.

In the series’ third episode, titled A Leap of Faith, Schama sits in a café in Vienna, holding Theodor Herzl’s book The Jewish State and says to camera: “I am a Zionist and quite unapologetic about it.”

Two weeks later, Return, the fifth and final episode, was screened. Eight minutes into the program, Schama declares: “It was not just what the Nazis did to the Jews, but what everyone else failed to do, that made the moral case for Israel.”

The unapologetic Zionist then spends the next 52 minutes giving his take on the creation of Israel, his view of the Nakba, his opinion of Israel in the twenty-first century.

Of the kibbutz movement, built on the back of the destruction of Palestinian villages and the often violent displacement of their inhabitants, Schama says: “It was an irresistible blend of romance, social idealism, adventure and sunshine.” 

The settlements, whose presence and continued growth eats away at any hope for a Palestinian state, are “a source of affordable housing” for many Israelis.

Parroting Israel’s narrative 

The BBC and supporters of this particular episode will no doubt point to the fact that one Palestinian was interviewed during the course of its sixty minutes, and that Schama did not hide his irritation at the uncompromising attitude of the Israeli settler he spoke to.

But does that mean we should be grateful for these crumbs pushed our way? Or should we be insulted that this is the best the BBC can offer in terms of a Palestinian perspective?

Those who pay the license fee, and the wider global audience, should be asking the BBC: where is the documentary on Palestine, on its destruction, its dispossession, its ongoing Nakba? Where is the presenter who can unapologetically and unashamedly appear on the BBC and say he is pro-Palestinian?

Schama saves his strongest Zionist comments for the end. In the final seven minutes of Return, standing in front of a section of Israel’s apartheid wall, he describes how “it cuts Israel off from the West Bank.”

This program is all about the Israeli perspective. The reality is that the wall cuts Palestinians off from each other, from their land, from their livelihoods and, ultimately, from the outside world. But while Schama acknowledges that it “makes life for the Palestinians a daily ordeal,” his main concern is for Israel — that it is Israel which has been cut off.

Schama then goes on to parrot the official Israeli narrative, that the wall was built as a security measure to protect Israelis from Palestinian “terrorists.” He tells the viewer that “very few” people have been killed since the wall was built.

In actuality, 4,286 Palestinians have been killed between 2004, when construction of the wall began, and 2013. But Schama is not concerned with Palestinians or their deaths at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers. He is, of course, talking about the safety of Israelis only.

Unchallenged views

And then Schama says this: “I want to say, nobody, including me, ultimately has the moral right to say that shouldn’t have happened, the wall shouldn’t have happened. Before the wall happened, hundreds of people were dying every year from terrorist attacks; after the wall happened very, very few. In some senses, if you don’t live in Israel — I don’t live in Israel — you are morally obliged to be nearly silent.”

And there we have it — a self-declared Zionist telling the BBC’s viewers that they have a moral obligation to remain silent (or “nearly silent,” whatever that means) about Israel’s atrocities, its flouting of international law, its violation of human rights, all of them summed up by its apartheid wall.

Of course Schama wants us to remain silent. Just look at the ugly side of Israel which is exposed if we choose to speak out. No Zionist wants an unremitting spotlight shone on that.

And Schama is entitled to his view. But why is the BBC, a public broadcaster, allowing him to push those views unchallenged?

Where is the balance? Where are the pro-Palestinians telling the BBC’s viewers that the world has been silent for long enough and must now speak out against the injustices Israel is inflicting on the Palestinians? Where are the humanitarians explaining the reasoning behind the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign?

It is hard to imagine such views, critical as they are of Israel and supportive of the Palestinians, ever being expressed on the BBC’s airwaves. Instead, we are told to be silent.

“Moral quandary” 

Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, secretary and founding member of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, wrote to the program’s producer, Nick Kent, asking why the wall had been presented according to the official Israeli line, as a security measure, while its condemnation by the International Court of Justice had been ignored.

Kent defended the partiality of the presentation by arguing “that the heart of Professor Schama’s piece-to-camera is about the agonizing moral quandary the wall represents.”

Incredibly, Kent seems to believe that an occupier can have a moral quandary about the systems it uses to oppress and maintain its occupation. And this is the point that Kent, and the BBC, just cannot seem to grasp — Israel is the occupier. It has built the wall to contain a people who refuse to accept their occupation and subjugation.

Call it containment or call it security, the simple fact is that there would be no need for a wall if Israel hadn’t stolen and occupied Palestinian land. That is the beginning of the current situation — the dispossession of the Palestinians.

The BBC needs to stop producing programs which ignore or skate over this beginning and which treat Israel as if it is the victim rather than the aggressor. Such programs, including this latest offering from Schama, are fundamentally dishonest.

And to proffer Schama as a presenter who can give an impartial view of Israel, from its origins to now, is also dishonesty on the BBC’s part. Schama has said he’s a Zionist. He is attached to this ideology and to Israel, and so any attempt to give BBC viewers a detached, impartial viewpoint is bound to failure as his plea for silence on the wall shows.

As Haaretz has pointed out, with Schama in gleeful agreement, the BBC has successfully proved that it does not have an anti-Israel bias. Let this public broadcaster now prove, with its next round of documentary commissioning, that it also does not have an anti-Palestinian bias. Balanced broadcasting, after all, demands nothing less. 




There is no such thing as impartiality. Despite its hackneyed, trite declarations of whiter than white, balanced information, when it comes to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the BBC is as biased as any other member of the mainstream media club. That's a fact of life. Except for one, big, undisputed, appalling difference: I do not have to pay Sky, AlJazeera, CNN, etc. if I do not want to. Yet, when it comes to the BBC, not only am I obliged to fund it, like or not, it is a criminal offence not to pay the annual licence fee that feeds such dysfunctional an organisation as the BBC. It's time we hold a referendum on the mandatory funding of the BBC. No guesses what side I will vote for.

Gart Valenc
Twitter: @gartvalenc


Actually Gart, you're only obliged to pay if you watch UK terrestrial TV live. I stopped paying a while ago as I was fed up with the state broadcaster's increasingly apparent political agenda. I still watch catch up on the iPlayer if there's anything interests me.


bbc has become blatant in its zionism this past year.not to forget syria etc


Excellent post, Robert. I do wholeheartedly believe that advocacy of Palestinians' rights and opposition to Israel's apartheid policies transcend race, religion & ideology; it's a question of human decency.

Gart Valenc
Twitter: @gartvalenc


Robert Cohen, the link you added does not address the issue. The linked blog only opposes Schama's call for "silence [by diaspora Jews]", not his "the narrative". Amena Saleem's post here points to the BBC's uncritical attitude. The post is not about a Jewish (Zionist/internal/moralistic/whatever) discussion, but about truthful reporting.


why do you call the article non zionist.?


To say, with a laugh, “I am a Zionist and quite unapologetic about it,” is as much to say, with a laugh, "I condone crime and quite unapologetic about it." And considering the magnitude of the crimes, the perpetrators and complicit by condoning are criminals of that magnitude. May all be brought to account.


free all political prisoners interned without trial, justice forThe people of Ireland and Paslestine


Schama wants to have his cake and eat it – to be a concerned liberal and a blood-and-soil chauvinist. Hence his bizarre and false distinction between the “Zionism of necessity” and its allegedly more brutal successor (the latter being to blame for the Wall, the settlers and all the other things that make for bad headlines nowadays). He avoids all the awkward truths of early Zionism – the expropriations, the “struggle for Jewish labour”, the adoption of population transfer as official policy... Anything that would make the Nakba appear a deliberate culmination rather than an unfortunate by-product of history – a Nakba, that is, “of necessity”.

In fact Schama's whole series is a shallow distortion, in which unexamined myths stand in place of analysis. Instead of monotheism as the combined achievement of the Near East and the Bible as Hellenistic philosophy, we get scripture trotted out as history. Instead of a dynamic young Judaism proselytizing across three continents, we get the hackneyed image of an exiled people travelling from one domain to the next. These just happen to be the bedrock myths of Zionism, alongside the racist mantra that Jews and non-Jews couldn't live side by side in modern Europe. In support of the latter he slanders both French republicanism and the Russian revolutionary movement, to say nothing of belittling the tragedy of Nazism.

We all deserve far, far better – Palestinians, Jews and the general public.


What does any of this have to do with Chia Pets?


The academic rigour of the historian demands that he or she be objective and trace the development of events through facts - all the facts. In his series for the BBC Simon Schama abandoned these requirements and has, in my opinion, damaged his reputation as a historian. He has also lost credibility as a humanitarian by choosing to ignore - certainly during the programme - the immense suffering which the colonisation of Palestine has brought to its indigenous people - the Palestinians.


Fortunately I don't watch the BBC. It's not a very good TV broadcaster (and that includes all four channels), and is controlled by the government (who's controlled by Israel and the USA), which makes it a very extremely biased broadcaster.
One good thing about missing the series, I avoided becoming sick. How can anyone defend Israel? That is anyone with a good conscience and any decency.
Too bad I have to waste good money paying a tax to watch TV (ah, license fee? no, just a way for this government to rip me off to pay for something I don't want and would never pay for!).


Not that it's got anything to do with Simon Schama, but... I do get fed up with people moaning about the licence fee. They always use the Thatcherite language of consumer choice. Don't you get it? The BBC is a public service – it belongs to the citizens of the UK. Whether you personally choose to watch it is irrelevant. The millions who do have the right to demand the highest standards and safeguards against political and commercial bias. Yes, the licence fee is regressive but that's a separate issue.

Amena Saleem

Amena Saleem's picture

Amena Saleem is a journalist and activist. She has twice driven on convoys to Gaza and spent seven years working for Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK.