'Propaganda' claim over pulled BBC Jerusalem documentary

The Cardo in Old Jerusalem (Photo: Dr. Avishai Teicher)

The Cardo in Old Jerusalem (Photo: Dr. Avishai Teicher)

The Israeli-born director of a documentary that makes controversial claims about Jewish history has criticised the BBC's decision not to air it as planned.

The film, Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story, was due to be shown on BBC Four last Thursday as part of the channel's archaeology series. Made by Ilan Ziv, it was to be an abridged version of a documentary that was screened at a Jewish Film Festival in Canada last year.

The documentary pushes a theory that the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD did not send the Jews into the diaspora. "The exile of the Jewish people has played a central role in Christian and Jewish theology," said the BBC's synopsis. "But what if the exile never actually happened?"

Despite appearing in television listings, the documentary was replaced with another by the BBC, which stated that "it did not fit editorially" with the channel's season exploring the history of archaeology.

However a viewer who contacted the BBC to ask why the programme had been cancelled said he was told that "it might have been controversial".

Mr Ziv told the JC that he had been contacted only a few days before the programme was due to air, and discovered that the BBC had questioned its content during the editing process to produce a final cut of the programme.

"Part of the editorial debate was that one freelance employee who was hired as part of the re-versioning of the film called it propaganda," he said. "Another person inside the BBC, claimed (or so I was told) that the film drove some political point of view.

"I was a little taken aback because the BBC had a broadcast copy of the master of the film for months and I was contacted to comment on the cut six days before the broadcast without even being told there was a broadcast," he said. "It was very unprofessional."

He offered to help the BBC rebut criticisms but said he was not given the chance.

"They told me that a few days before the broadcast that the cut that they had had been recut, because somebody anonymous felt that a scene that depicted the Palestinians towards the end was too emotive," he said.

"I gave them the excuse to pull it out because when I realised I had three days to re-edit the cut, I said I was unlikely to have time."

He said he did not believe in conspiracy theories. "I do not know what really happened inside the BBC," he said. "I think the problem is the people who bought the film were very well-meaning and were completely taken aback by this very vicious reaction."

Mr Ziv said he hoped to organise alternative screenings in the UK so that the film could be "judged on its own merit". He rejected the suggestion that it was controversial since it does not deal with contemporary Israeli politics, and said he was not attempting to push the theory of writer Shlomo Sands, who challenges "the whole concept of the Jewish people

"Sands did something that I refuse to do," he said.

When the documentary was shown in Toronto, Mr Ziv found the reaction extremely positive. "There were some people who challenged it but the film was meant to raise debate," he said. "It was not attacked. People argued about the issues, but they were meant to."

"Some people will hate it, some people will love it, but let them debate it."

Last updated: 3:58pm, April 29 2013