For most Jews, it is an article of faith: after being “forcibly exiled” from their land, says Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the Jews never stopped praying for their return.
But Israeli filmmaker Ilan Ziv, whose documentary Searching for Exile is finally aired on the BBC on Sunday after its postponement in the spring, attempts to drive a coach and horses through this foundation story.
Its argument echoes that of Tel Aviv University historian Shlomo Sand’s controversial 2008 book, The Invention of The Jewish People, although the film does not cite him. This is that the idea of mass Jewish exile, following the Romans’ destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the brutal suppression of the Bar Kochba rebellion 60 years later, is simply a myth.
“What has been considered a fact for centuries is now being challenged by archaeological evidence unearthed across Israel,” states the narrator of Mr Ziv’s film.
Whereas Jerusalem rose up against the Romans, much of Galilee did not join the revolt. Instead, the archaeological record suggests that towns like Sepphoris in the north of the country flourished for many years afterwards, with a greater openness to other cultures than the more nationalistic south.
Instead, it is contended, the notion of Jewish exile, paradoxically, derived from early Christian belief that the suffering of ancient Judea at Roman hands was divine punishment of the Jews.
The final quarter of the film switches from history to polemic, observing that on the site of ancient Sepphoris stood the Palestinian village of Saffuriya: after its destruction in the 1948 War, its inhabitants were barred from return.
“There are missing pieces in the story of this village of both Jewish and Arab history,” the narrator says, “but the only clear evidence of actual exile is that of the 5,000 Palestinians in 1948.”
Sepphoris’s multi-ethnic past is held out as a beacon of hope against the narrowness of nationalist myth. The BBC complaints department should anticipate a busy week.