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The Guardian

The Holy Land and Us review – this taboo-busting look at Israel and Palestine isn’t afraid of controversy

By Jack Seale,

2023-03-14

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A documentary about Israel and Palestine that will make viewers on each side sympathise with the other? It’s an ambitious undertaking, but The Holy Land and Us: Our Untold Stories is a fine attempt at hitting that extremely narrow target.

As the title implies, this is not a programme about the occupation since the six-day war in 1967, the facts of which can be confronted or ignored. Its lessons, however, might ease the process of understanding certain immovable viewpoints on that part of the world. This two-parter looks at the formation of Israel in 1948 , when the aftermath of the Holocaust provided the impetus finally to grant the Jewish people the sanctuary of a homeland.

The Holy Land and Us follows British Jews whose family histories pivot around Israel and the impulse to defend it, but it states unabashedly that the creation of Israel came at grave cost to the Arab communities who had previously been the majority population in the area. This is what the Arab world calls the Nakba – “the catastrophe” – from which Palestinians have never recovered.

The term is taboo in large parts of the media; that The Holy Land and Us references it in its opening minutes is a sign that it is ready to face criticism and try to cut a path to the truth. Britons with Palestinian heritage also feature; representatives of both groups visit the region in search of their forebears’ legacy.

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Articulate and sensitive … Sarah Agha. Photograph: Tom Hayward/BBC/Wall to Wall

There is an element here of the celebrity-genealogy journey, since the leaders of the fact-finding mission are Rob Rinder – the star of Judge Rinder and a regular host of Good Morning Britain – and the actor and writer Sarah Agha. One might pause briefly to note that Britain has few famous Palestinians to call upon, but the unfamiliar Agha is a fine host and interviewer, articulate and sensitive, matching Rinder’s gift for marshalling facts without suppressing emotion.

Rinder and Agha have direct connections to the events of 1948. Rinder’s grandfather lost all his close family in the Holocaust in Poland before coming to the UK; had he not met Rinder’s grandmother, he would have gone to Israel. Rinder’s grandfather’s cousin did go to Israel and Rinder is keen to unearth his story.

The film states unabashedly that the creation of Israel came at grave cost to the Arab communities

Agha’s father represents the last of her family’s many generations who were born in Palestine; her grandparents were evicted from their home in 1948 and the village where they lived no longer exists. She wants to find it and to discover more about her most notable ancestor, the 19th-century dignitary Aqeeli Agha.

The presenters will continue their investigations next week, but their stories hit hard already. Having received a hostile reception from airport authorities upon arriving in Israel, Agha visits I’billin in Galilee, where she learns that her great-great-great-grand-uncle was a Muslim leader known for keeping local Jewish and Christian communities safe.

In Haifa, meanwhile, Rinder hears from a historian about how his grandfather’s cousin survived the Łódź ghetto, then Auschwitz and Mauthausen, arriving in Palestine a year later on a boat packed with displaced Jews. Rinder is stopped by tears as he reads the banner the ship flew: “We survived Hitler. Death is no stranger to us. Nothing will keep us from our Jewish homeland.”

More tears fall as two people who are effectively deployed as citizen journalists – after an initial meeting with Rinder or Agha, they are left to front scenes alone – arrive in the Holy Land.

Daniel, from London, knows little about why his father left the UK to fight in Palestine. He ends up standing on the site of a battle that took place in 1948, when Jewish troops repelled Arab forces and secured control of strategically important towns near Tel Aviv in the war that followed Israel’s declaration of statehood. Daniel, previously a reserved participant whose father “never spoke” about his military career, breaks down and sobs as he realises his dad risked his life to help create modern-day Israel.

This is the key moment. Daniel’s pride and gratitude are profound, shared by millions and afforded the greatest respect by the programme. But then the voiceover, read by Rinder, gives viewers the necessary context: “More than 50,000 Palestinians lost their homes when Israeli forces captured Lydda and Ramle .”

The other Briton on the trip, Shereen from Leicestershire, has a close connection to an even more notorious event in 1948: the massacre at the village of Deir Yassin , in what is now a quiet suburb of Jerusalem. Twenty-two members of her family were killed. Remarkably, Shereen meets a survivor who knew them. Shereen weeps, too, of course, in scenes that are as moving as they are informative. The way The Holy Land and Us balances facts and feelings makes it a rare gift.

The Holy Land and Us aired on BBC Two and is now on iPlayer

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