Gary Sinyor

In defence of Orla Guerin and her BBC Holocaust Memorial Day report

Filmmaker Gary Sinyor responds to the anger in the Jewish community about the journalist's report

January 24, 2020 14:05

On January 22, the day before world leaders attended ceremony to mark the 75th year since the liberation of Auschwitz which took place at Yad Vashem, the BBC news carried a report by Orla Guerin that has inflamed The Board of Deputies, the editor of the JC, and many voices within the community.

Complaints are winging their way to Ofcom. And I’m at a loss to see why such a fuss is being made. Let me start by saying that Orla Guerin’s name carries form for me and many others when it comes to Israel. That’s that over with. Any individual report should be judged on its own merits, not on the basis of previous bias.

The first link I clicked on showed the last 34 seconds when Guerin is heading towards the end of a four-and-a-half minute report. But any full contextual judgement has to take into account the full piece

It was introduced with gravitas worthy of what was about to come was introduced by Hugh Edwards. The first three minutes is an interview with a Holocaust survivor Rena Quint. This woman movingly spoke about how she had survived Belsen, how she had been one of a pile of bodies freed by the British.

“The British came in,” she says. “And they made these huge mass graves to bury ten thousand”. She had then married and lived and loved for 60 full years. It was by any standard educational, it stated categorically that six million Jews had been murdered, it shows distressing pictures of the shoes of slaughtered Jews in Yad Vashem where Rena Quint leads tours for visitors - a first-hand experience of factual genocide.

It showed the concern this amazing survivor had that antisemitism was on the rise in Europe. Guerin specifically and sensitively questioned her on whether she thought that the world would forget when her generation was gone.

She answered in the affirmative, not just referencing the possibility of the Holocaust being forgotten but also the possibility of the Armenian genocide, and the more recent killings of Syrians being lost in the mists of time.

“Bearing witness brings anguish but she wants to speak for those who cannot,” says Guerin over black and white shots of the dead and dying from 75 years ago. “But when the last of the survivors are gone who will be the guardians of memory,” says Guerin. Poignant. Pointed. Up to this point, 3:59 into the four-and-a-half-minute piece, this was powerful.

The next day, Thursday, was the actual memorial service. That was the one attended by Prince Charles, by Macron, by Putin. The BBC could easily only have covered this gathering of world leaders at Yad Vashem. But it didn’t. It specifically decided to run more four minutes dedicated to a survivor, to the truth of the six million slaughtered the day before the actual memorial. It was a decision the BBC should be proud of. It informed the public.

It re-iterated the truth of the Holocaust, at a time when Holocaust denial or belittling of the Holocaust or questioning the numbers of the Holocaust are increasingly part of the antisemitic discourse. Had the report ended there, there would have been no cause for complaint. But it didn’t.

The last 33 seconds show Israeli soldiers visiting Yad Vashem. “Young soldiers troop in to share the binding tragedy of the Jewish people” says Guerin. That’s exactly right. In fact, it’s borderline poetic.

The soldiers, today’s Jews (and non-Jews), are there to protect Israel and crucially the Jewish people generally. Not just from a Palestinian suicide bomber. Not just from stone throwing in the West Bank. Let’s remember Entebbe, when Israel flew its soldiers across Africa to rescue Jews. Let’s remember the Jews saved from the oppressive Soviet Union. The Jews transported from Ethiopia. The Jews who have left rising antisemitism in France and gone to Israel. The Israeli soldiers NEED to share the binding tragedy of the Jewish people. That’s why they go to Yad Vashem.

The wider world also could do with understanding the tragedy. That is why the Holocaust is taught in schools here in the UK. And why there are plans to build a Holocaust memorial in London. Would images of RAF recruits visiting the Imperial War Museum cause any concern or would we simply nod approvingly? So the next words are the ones that must be causing the fuss.

To repeat, this is four minutes into a report the BBC did not need to do, which showed the appalling reality of the Holocaust to a wide British audience. “The state of Israel is now a regional power. For decades, it has occupied Palestinian territories but some here will always see their nation through the prism of persecution and survival”

What is Guerin saying here? What is she saying that is so offensive? Let’s remove some words. “The state of Israel is now a regional power. Some here will always see their nation through the prism of persecution and survival”

That seems to me to be a very fine ending to the report. Israel, represented by its soldiers, is a regional power. Those soldiers need to learn about their binding tragedy. So they visit Yad Vashem. And some Israelis will indeed always see Israel through the prism of persecution and survival. Not all. But some. And why else do you have a Yad Vashem - or a British Holocaust Memorial - if not to educate so that yet more people look at life in the context of history.

If those soldiers are called on to lay down their lives for others, isn’t it imperative that they have an understanding of their part in the greater scheme of things? Isn’t that a pre-requisite for a modern army? Do we expect men and women in any army potentially to sacrifice their lives with no context, no reasoning, no intelligence or emotional connection.

So, the reason the Board of Deputies, this paper and Twitter has got worked up is because of the words “For decades, it has occupied Palestinian territories but”. Her Majesty’s Government advice on travel to Israel describes it as travel to “Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories”. No one is complaining. So it’s juxtaposition. Fine.

There was no need for those words. Guerin – yes typically - has mentioned the Occupied Territories in describing Israel but she’s not comparing the Holocaust with the Palestinians. One unnecessary reference in a report that reiterated the truth of the Holocaust, that addressed rising antisemitism, that movingly depicted a survivor from Belsen, that showed Israeli soldiers learning about the tragedy of their fellow Jews, that took up the last four-and-a-half minutes of the BBC’s main news bulletin the day before the actual memorial service, surely we can live that.

In fact, we should be grateful.

Gary Sinyor is a writer director and producer of film and television

© Gary Sinyor 2020

January 24, 2020 14:05

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