BBC Panorama Goes Off the Rails

In an alternate universe, had Israel decided that Jerusalem’s light rail would discriminate against Palestinian residents of the city by avoiding their neighborhoods, you can bet that the BBC (and many others) would be up in arms. In reality, the light rail serves all populations of Jerusalem, be they Jewish, Muslim or Christian.

But that hasn’t stopped the BBC from focusing on the light rail as a means to portray Jerusalem’s Palestinians as the victims of some malevolent scheme to “Judaize” the city at their expense. And all led by the development of Jerusalem’s transport network.

BBC Panorama, the network’s flagship current affairs program, broadcast “The Train That Divides Jerusalem” on July 20. It is a biased and one-sided look at Jerusalem.



Filmmaker Adam Wishart makes sure to point out at the very beginning of the program that he is a British Jew who has previously been on a Zionist educational tour of Israel some three decades ago as if this gives him some special authority to discuss the issues at hand based on his identity. It becomes clear throughout the program that Wishart neither speaks for British Jews nor has any special knowledge about Jerusalem.

The opening segment provides a good idea of where Wishart is going. Interspersed with clips of Palestinian complaints he narrates:

Jerusalem, an ancient city with a sparkling new train. It was meant to help unite this place but the train is dividing it further … Now it’s easier for Jews to travel into Palestinian suburbs … But the Palestinians would rather they stay away.

This sets the framework through which Wishart views Jerusalem – a city that should be divided along ethnic lines. If he is so concerned that the light rail makes it easier for Jews to travel into “Palestinian suburbs,” has he considered the fact that the light rail also makes it easier for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to travel to parts of the city such as its hospitals, shopping malls, cafes, movie theaters or any other location in the city that Arabs are not prevented from enjoying along with their Jewish neighbors?

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It soon becomes clear that the light rail is being used by Wishart as a literal vehicle to delve into a “divided city.” But this isn’t a division of equals. In Wishart’s eyes, Palestinians are victims of Israeli Jews. So the Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount are threatened by some Jews “who want to completely rebuild the Temple on what they call Temple Mount no matter that Muslim holy places are here already.”

Wishart interviews Rivka Shimon who clearly represents this chain of thought. However, what is not revealed is that Shimon is a prominent activist for the Women’s Forum for the Temple, one of a number of small Jewish nationalist organizations concerned with the status of the Temple Mount.

Not only are these groups considered to be on the political fringe but Wishart fails to mention that the real issue that has been discussed in recent times is not the rebuilding of the Temple but Jewish access and prayer rights on the Temple Mount. Like much BBC content when it comes to Israel, important context has been omitted. Muslim holy sites not under threat from Jews but Wishart only mentions the Israeli government’s stated policy to prevents Jews from praying on the Temple Mount at the conclusion of this segment.

When Wishart recounts how Temple Movement visitors had been attacked by Palestinians on the Temple Mount in November 2014, he states that:

in response, the police entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It may only have been by a few meters but for many Muslims, it crossed a sacred line.

Wishart has bought into the myth that Israel desecrated the mosque during the Palestinian rioting. Who was really desecrating a holy place? In fact, as HonestReporting noted from the few accurate media reports at the time, Palestinian rioters launched firecrackers at police from within the mosque while barricading themselves inside using furniture. As police sought to shut the doors to the mosque, they were forced to tread no more than a few feet into the structure in order to shut the demonstrators inside.

But why should context matter to the BBC when it can paint Israelis as aggressors or, in this case, those who desecrate Muslim holy places?

Later in the program, Wishart says:

When I was here 31 years ago, even my most fervently Zionist friends weren’t rushing to build a temple on this site. Now the idea is gathering support from within the mainstream. Even a member of the new cabinet supports the idea. I can’t help but think that if some Jews push much further, this would surely be the last stand for the Palestinians.

While the yearning for a third temple clearly exists, nobody is “rushing to build a temple on this site.” Wishart has created a sensationalist hypothesis to promote Israelis as extremists.


Adam Wishart on the Jerusalem Light Rail (screenshot: BBC Panorama)

Adam Wishart on the Jerusalem Light Rail (screenshot: BBC Panorama)



Lack of context also extends to the history of Jerusalem. With no mention of how Israel came to be sovereign over a reunited Jerusalem as a result of the Six Day War, Wishart simply states that “in 1967, Israel occupied the eastern areas” of Jerusalem.  According to Wishart, “the Palestinians who live here remain angry at being under Israeli control. The train just adds to their grievances.

What Wishart doesn’t tell his viewers about are the benefits that Palestinian residents of Jerusalem acquire by virtue of living under Israeli sovereignty, including the same national insurance and health coverage that all Israelis enjoy and the right to live and work in Israel. Indeed, these Palestinians also have the option of taking Israeli citizenship. And while Wishart sees a city divided between Jews and Arabs, the reality is that Arabs are free to rent or buy property in Jewish-majority neighborhoods.

For Wishart, however, it is an invasion of Jews into predominantly Arab neighborhoods that is problematic. Having already interviewed Rivka Shimon, Wishart talks extensively with Aryeh King, also a figure not associated with mainstream Israeli views. In fact, King, a Jerusalem municipal councilman was fired by Mayor Nir Barkat in September 2014 after he opposed Barkat’s plans to build housing for Palestinian residents of eastern Jerusalem.

It may make for more compelling television when the BBC and other media interview Israelis on the political or religious extremes but it does nothing to properly represent Israeli mainstream opinion.


Wishart says:

I’m left wondering what is the purpose of the train. Does its ultimate destination hold a clue? It travels north through the Palestinian neighborhoods and snakes round the refugee camp. What’s so controversial is that the ultimate destination is an Israeli settlement – a thousand acres taken by Israel to build a beautiful suburb. Like all settlements in occupied territory, most of the international community consider them to be illegal.

Obviously no BBC commentary on Israel would be complete without reference to ‘illegal settlements.’ Where is this settlement that Wishart finds so controversial? It’s Pisgat Ze’ev, a northern suburb of Jerusalem within the municipal boundaries.

As Haaretz reported in 2012:

Much of the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev was built on land belonging to Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This discovery was made recently by the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets, established in 2007 by the Israeli government for the purpose of finding assets in Israel belonging to Holocaust victims and restoring them to their legal heirs.

The lands, now worth tens of millions of shekels, were purchased before World War II by European Jews – mainly in Latvia and Estonia, but also in Romania and Belgium. Only a few survived the war, and most have no living heirs.

In fact, increasing numbers of Arabs are moving into Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem such as Pisgat Ze’ev that Wishart considers a settlement. But nuance has never been the policy of the BBC when it comes to any Jewish communities built beyond the so-called Green Line as its journalists fail to differentiate between Jerusalem neighborhoods, established settlement blocs such as Gush Etzion and isolated and sometimes illegally built outposts deep in the disputed territories.

Wishart concludes the program with a final dig at Israel speaking “as a Jew”:

My journey has been heartbreaking. When my grandparents campaigned for the state of Israel, they hoped for a place of refuge, of tolerance, and equal rights for all. As I take the last train I just can’t believe this could be the place that they dreamed of all those years ago.

And that sums up Wishart’s journey – one where the only heartbreak and disappointment is aimed at Israelis and Jews, who he sees as the only side that bears any responsibility for events or circumstances on the ground.

Wishart has produced a picture of Jerusalem that residents of Israel’s capital will find hard to reconcile with everyday life, which is not one of constant tension and violence. That he conceives the Jerusalem light rail as the symbol and source of the city’s tensions or troubles merely demonstrates how Wishart and the BBC have gone off the rails.


Featured image: CC BY-SA StateofIsrael via flickr with modifications by HonestReporting


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