Television Review: CNN’s “Jerusalem” and the Origins of Middle East Conflict
MY THOUGHTS ON THE CNN SERIES ON JERUSALEM
Any documentary series about the history of Jerusalem, Israel/Palestine, and/or the Middle East is bound to be fraught with both glaring ommissions and controversies. And so it is with CNN’s ambitious multi-part series on the history of Jerusalem, not merely a city or a place, but a religious and cultural epicenter marred by many centuries of conflict.
I’d hoped to fill in some gaps in my own understanding of this region and for the most part, the first few chapters of CNN’s series served this function. The documentary is very entertaining for us history buffs, each segment one hour in length and beautifully narrated by Ewan McGregor. CNN (actually an outside production company) did a terrific job melding archival footage, dramatic re-enactments, and several contemporary scholars (representing all points of view) to tell the incredible story of this unique place.
Unfortunately, tonight’s episode was a grotesque departure from the previous segments, which were so well done. In a word, it was infuriating. My negative reaction compels me to write this critique.
I believe this is either Part 3 or 4 (I forgot which). Tonight’s focus is on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the end of its rule of the territory, culminating in WW1 and the aftermath (agreements) that created what we now know as the map — not just of Palestine — but pretty much the entire Middle East. It’s not an oversimplification to say the English (and French) carving up vast lands of this region right after the war, haphazardly drawing ridiculous boundaries with no thought given to different cultures, clashes of belief systems, historical rivalries, trade routes, natural topography, history, or the tribal divisions of the region became the FOUNDATION of just about every conflict that’s still burning today. Wanna’ know why they’re fighting in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in 2021? It’s because 100 years ago illegitimate boundaries were imposed on mostly Arab peoples, and they’ve been fighting to rectify those gross mistakes ever since. The CNN series tonight did an acceptable job of explaining how the problems of the Middle East originated with the falsification of “national identities,” but then did little to help us understand how and why the despotic monarchies, military revolts, terrorism, have their roots in the idiocy of leaders from that era.
Born purely out of arrogance and utterly convinced of their colonial superiority, in short, Western powers had NO UNDERSTANDING nor ANY DESIRE TO UNDERSTAND the people they were funneling into new territories and “nations.”
Unfortunately, to make their point, tonight’s show featured — not a background of the politicization of the region, but instead the tiresome story of T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” I presume the producers felt they *had* to Anglosize the story of the Arab world to get people to watch.
Lawrence’s biography is a compelling one (even if the movie got most of the facts wrong and is largely a fabrication of his life). But it has little or no place in a key chapter to this historical reconstruction, which is essential to our understanding of how we got from THEN to NOW. Couldn’t the producers have told us more about the Arab Pan-Nationalist movement which began at this critical time? How about Sharif Hussein ibn Ali, Constantin Zureiq, Sati’ al-Husri, Zaki al-Arsuzi, and Michel Aflaq for starters? Nope. We’re forced to learn about the most critical phase of Middle East history within the past 500 years through the blue eyes of blonde-haired British double-agent — T.E. Lawrence.
I guess when it comes to imperialism, television and history remain the modern frontiers that remain focused through a colonial lens. What a warped view of reality that is.
I’ll anticipate some improvement in the next phase of the series. But they really blew tonight’s episode badly.