By Simon Rocker
February 19, 2009
I finally got to Judaism this week in the BBC2 series Around the World in 80 Faiths (currently showing on Monday nights or via BBC iPlayer). It's a religious travelogue fronted by the personable figure of Peter Owen Jones, a wandering, and slightly raddled, Protestant vicar from Sussex.
Owen Jones went to Israel to look at the oldest of the three main monotheistic faiths. Since Judaism had barely nine minutes in an hour-long episode, he could hardly have shown little more than a snapshot. But the impression that came over was of a narrow, tribal and even aggressive faith and he warmed to its adherents far less than to the whirling Dervishes in Aleppo, Syria - a portrait of spiritual lyricism - or the gentle Bahais in Haifa he came across later.
True, it didn't help that, during filming of some drunken yeshivah students revelling on the night of Purim - or Pyurim, as he dubbed it - someone tossed a glass of vodka over the crew. Reporting on a megilah reading in the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, he explained that Pyurim "commemorates when the Jewish people, living in Persia, were saved by the courage of a young Jewish woman called Esther. Following the Jews' escape, 75,000 Persians were massacred in retaliation."
Now the violence in the megilah has troubled some modern commentators but it is hardly the main focus of the festival celebrations and it seemed gratuitous to mention it.
Then it was off to a strictly Orthodox yeshivah and the extraordinary spectacle of rocking Charedim in their festive fezzes "on their main festival night of the year" (main festival? More than Pesach?). "To a certain degree, it's a show of joy, yes, but it's also a show of strength"," said Owen Jones -the strength of a people's connection to its history and land (although Purim, of course, is a festival peculiarly centred in the diaspora).
Owen Jones said that he wanted to understand the origins of Jewish attachment to the land of Israel so he headed for the West Bank for the briefest of biblical lessons with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the genial Chief Rabbi of Efrat, which, the presenter explained, "was built on Palestinian land occupied by Israelis".
Efrat, as it happens, is atypical of Jewish settlements on the West Bank in that it was part of the Etzion Bloc, where Jews had settled before Israel's War of Independence (though it lay outside the area allocated under the UN partition plan): many of its defenders were massacred after surrendering to the Arab Legion in 1948. But there was no time for such historical nuances.
As he left (to visit Samir, a Palestinian from the Dehaishe refugee camp - whose 18-year-old daughter became a suicide bomber - who recalled that to make way for Efrat, Arabs whose ancestors had lived there for thousands of years had been forced off their land), Owen Jones reflected; "The belief that this story, written over 2,000 years ago, gives all Jews the right to come and live on this land is disputed, particularly by Palestinians who lost their homes when Israel was founded.
"The moment you make one piece of land more sacred than another, you are just storing up all kinds of trouble."
He had said that he wanted to understand the roots of conflict in the land. But I can't help feeling that this was not the kind of programme to open up such questions, which could only be answered in a fleeting and superficial way.
What the programme did demonstrate, however, is how Judaism is coming to be identified with Israel - and conflict in the Middle East.
PS As I understand, there is a slot on Jews in Lithuania in the eighth and final episode