Historians back BBC over Jewish massacre claim

By Marcus Dysch, September 18, 2009
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Presenter Kate Humble and friends, as seen in The Frankincense Trail

Presenter Kate Humble and friends, as seen in The Frankincense Trail

Israeli historians have backed the BBC after the corporation stood by comments made in a TV documentary claiming that an ancient Jewish tribe massacred Christians who refused to convert.

The Board of Deputies complained to the BBC over perceived inaccuracies and lack of context in The Frankincense Trail, in which presenter Kate Humble followed the trade route which first connected the Arab world with the West.

In an episode shown on BBC2 on September 3, she referred to an incident in 524CE. She said the Yemeni Jewish Himyar tribe, led by King Dhu Nuwas, set upon Christian residents of a village in Saudi Arabia.

Ms Humble said the Jews had offered the villagers the choice between conversion to Judaism or death and that 20,000 Christians had then been massacred.

But the Board said its initial research — conducted after viewers’ complaints — suggested the king was a “renegade convert” and that not putting his actions in context could confuse non-Jewish viewers into believing Judaism is a proselytising religion.

The BBC said the information had been obtained from an authentic source and it stood by the content.

But Jon Benjamin, the Board’s chief executive, said: “It is widely known that Judaism is not a proselytising religion and King Nuwas was most certainly in the absolute minority.

“Sadly the BBC chose to omit all of the above context and we have therefore registered a complaint with them, asking why they did so.”

Viewer Pnina Bernard said: “Kate Humble is a wonderful presenter and the programme is great, but I felt the city in the desert was unlikely to hold in excess of 20,000 residents.

“I don’t know whether it was necessary in a programme about frankincense for them to start talking about a massacre.”

But one expert at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who asked not to be named, said: “He [the king] did massacre many Christians. The volume of knowledge on the subject is growing. The tribe did convert at the end of the fourth century and Judaism was considered missionary in those days. It’s a sensitive matter from a Jewish point of view.”

Professor Dan Shapira, of Bar-Ilan University, said: “It seems to me there is nothing to complain about. There is a street in Jerusalem named after Joseph Dhu Nuwas. People from the Jewish Kingdom of Himyar are among those buried at Beit-She’arim in Israel.”

A BBC spokeswoman said: “The source was a surviving text written by the Bishop of Beth Arsham in 524 CE.

“The production team spoke to many historians over 18 months, among them Nigel Groom, who was our consultant, and Professor Abdul Rahman Al-Ansary [former professor of archaeology at the King Saud University in Riyadh].”

    Last updated: 2:02pm, September 18 2009