State of a nation

State of a nation

For the JC April 2020

By any measure, writing about the birth of the state of Israel is a project fraught with — well, if not danger, then plenty of pitfalls. But playwright Steve Waters, professor of scriptwriting at the University of East Anglia, has entered with enthusiasm on the subject and seems to have emerged relatively unscathed.

Waters, author of numerous plays including, most recently, the acclaimed Limehouse, about the beginnings of the Social Democratic Party, has form in unpicking the crucial moments behind a historic development.

Last year Waters, who has written prodigiously for the stage, created a nine-part radio drama for BBC World Service, Fall of the Shah, marking 40 years since the Iranian Revolution. And now, with 10 episodes of Miriam and Youssef, he traces the birth of the state of Israel, with plenty of narrative signposts along the way. In the first three episodes alone we hear about the Kishinev pogroms, early life on a kibbutz, the 1929 Arab riots, and the difficulties faced by the officials charged with running the British mandate of pre-state Palestine.

His protagonists are a young and idealistic Jewish girl, Miriam, and an equally young Palestinian Arab, Youssef. We hear many of the stories through their adult reminiscences, 30 years on from the events themselves.

“In a way, Fall of the Shah invented this kind of slot for the World Service because they weren’t really doing drama like this at all”, says Waters. “They wanted to experiment with global drama. In a similar way to Limehouse, I was trying to tell a documentary story, but in a human way. We broadcast that [the Shah programmes] and we wanted to work together again: there was a mutual interest in exploring the foundation of the state of Israel and that’s when the project began. It was remarkably quick because Fall of the Shah went out in January last year and we were already talking about this [second] project then”.

Miriam and Youssef is unusual in that Waters was able to use the BBC Radio 4 artistic team, though it is the World Service which has commissioned, and will transmit, the programmes.

In fact, the project might be called Miriam and Youssef and Harry, because Waters decided he wanted to tell a tripartite story, not just about Jews and Arabs, but also what he says is the lesser-told history of the British in Palestine. The imaginary character, Harry Lister, is a young and idealistic civil servant sent out from Britain to Jerusalem. “I used the 10 episodes as an epic sweep going back to the Balfour Declaration [in 1917]. I did a hell of a lot of research (including a trip last year to Jerusalem and the Palestine Authority areas) and then wrote it —and here we are.”

The programmes were recorded in January and February this year with a stellar cast of actors, and everything was completed, to Waters’ intense relief, just before lockdown.

Waters is only too aware of the slings and arrows aimed at previous writers who have attempted to give their version of the Israel-Arab conflict. Very few have emerged from such projects unscathed, bitterly attacked by one side or the other.

But he believes that his exploration of what the British were doing in the Middle East gives a different dimension to his work. “Oddly enough, if we leave aside [Leon Uris’s book] Exodus, there don’t seem to be a great many projects in the English-language world that address the story of the mandate, and the build-up to the foundation of the state and the impact on Palestinian Arabs at that time”.

His principle, he says, “was that there were three stories which are really one story. Miriam represents an optimistic liberal conception of Zionism, coming in as a result of pogroms and the collapse of all kind of communities in the wake of the First World War. And then you’ve got Youssef, who finds himself caught up in the heart of the British Mandate” — because the character, whose father is balefully anti-British, ends up working for the Mandate authorities. Shuttling politely and decently between the Jews and the Arabs is the British civil servant Harry Lister, trying to find a compromise for the impossible orders London has ordered the British in Palestine to follow.

Waters insists that his approach is “multi-perspectival” and that he has deliberately not attempted to tell only one story. “In the act of writing, I have followed the characters”, he says.

Of necessity, the series is replete with building blocks around which the characters are deployed. Youssef’s home village near Jerusalem, where his father and family have traditionally been stonemasons, is Deir Yassin, later to become notorious as the scene of controversial deaths in 1948, allegedly perpetrated by right-wing Jewish militia.

Sara, Miriam’s mother, assures her that they will not be alone in their new homeland after they flee pogroms in Russia. They have a cousin, David Grun, from Plonsk, who will help them out, she says. Weirdly, no matter how much they search, they cannot find this cousin when they reach Jerusalem, but this is not surprising because by 1918, when the fictional Sara and Miriam Cohen arrive in Jerusalem, the future first prime minister of Israel had changed his name to David Ben-Gurion.

Waters laughs when asked if B-G’s appearance is not rather convenient. “Yes, it is a contrivance”, he admits, but says that he wanted to weave a story in which real people and his own characters inter-acted. So listeners will hear the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin el-Husseini, and the president of the Hebrew University, the Reform Rabbi Judah Magnes, the latter benevolently speaking to the wide-eyed student Miriam, just before riots break out in Jerusalem.

Initially the Cohens live on a kibbutz near Jerusalem, possibly an experience informed by Waters’ own time on Kibbutz Dalia, outside Haifa, when he was a young man. He says this was “a formative experience in the mid-80s, combining Communism, socialism, communitarianism and Utopianism”.

Almost as much as he enjoys writing plays, Waters says he is passionate about research and “the opportunity to pretend to be a historian and talk to historians”. He “dived into” the works of Tom Segev, Hillel Cohen, Benny Morris, Walid Khalidi — “fantastic historiography to draw upon”. He particularly admires Hillel Cohen’s book, 1929, which presents the seminal events of that year, chronologically, but without comment, enabling Waters to find his own, similar approach to the troubled and disputed history.

As for what he calls “the astonishingly under-told story” of the Mandate, Waters confesses that he was surprised by the realisation that even those behind the concept of the Balfour Declaration managed to be both “pro-Zionist and antisemitic at the same time. I could have written a whole drama about the deliberations back in Britain. There was a weird quality about those like [Arthur] Balfour and [David] Lloyd George, a rather curious religious vision of the fate of the Jewish people, a very odd Messianic agenda as Christians”.

Waters is also fascinated by the role of Herbert Samuel, Britain’s first High Commissioner for Palestine for the five crucial years between 1920 and 1925. He was a practising Jew and a leading liberal politician in Britain, who played what Waters calls “an extraordinary delicate hand” in his supervision of the Mandate.

Looking down the years, Waters concludes that despite “well-meaning people who tried to make things work, the minds of the British were not on Palestine a great deal of the time”. Towards the end of the Mandate, he says, Britain “made so many errors, were so embattled and had such a siege mentality that led to the really disastrous decisions of the 1940s”.

Inevitably, Waters says, there is a limit to what can be said within the scope of a half-hour episode — and were it up to him he would have written 40 episodes rather than the meaty 10 he has created.

One of his episodes portrays a real-life meeting between Ben-Gurion and the now almost forgotten Palestinian leader Musa Alami, discussing the options for sharing the land. The talks, of course, were not successful, but the playwright says they distilled for him the three central elements of the long and seemingly intractable conflict between the Jews and the Arabs: “land, water, ownership”.

Miriam and Youssef starts weekly on April 29, 11:30am on BBC World Service and will be available to download as a podcast from BBC Sounds.

  • 28 May, 2020