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Series / The Promise (2011)

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History Repeats Itself.

Erin Matthews, a rather average English girl who just graduated from school, decides to accompany her Jewish friend Eliza to Israel, where the latter, being half-Israeli herself, is due to report to her mandatory service in the Israeli Defence Forces.

As Erin sets off, she finds the diary of her secretive and estranged grandfather Len - now eighty years old, paralysed by a stroke and at death's doorstep - who was in Palestine himself for a few years, stationed as a soldier in the 6th Airborne Division during the end of its British colonial tenure.

Armed with her grandfather's memories, Erin proceeds to experience the controversial ethnic strife that has plagued the land for sixty-plus years for herself - in all its ugliness, brutality, injustice, and surprising subtleties - periodically stopping to look back on how things used to be two mere generations ago...

The Promise is a 2011 British four-part miniseries, directed by Peter Kosminsky and released by Channel Four, that juxtaposes two different periods of the Arab–Israeli Conflict - its beginnings in the post-World War II British Mandate of Palestine, and the (then-)current contentious situation between the State of Israel and the semi-autonomous Palestinian Territories - and comments on just how much or how little things have changed ever since then.

Unsurprisingly, given the highly-flammable subject matter, this series roused some controversy upon airing, with some accusing it of taking an exceedingly pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli stance, or even downright antisemitism (which is ironic, since Kosminsky himself is a Jew), while others see it as a brutally honest and well-researched commentary on the moral vacuum that the conflict has turned the region into, brought on by a decades-old Cycle of Revenge.

Not to be confused with the 2016 film of the same name.


  • Ambiguously Jewish: Len's commanding officer, Captain Richard Rowntree, is never explixitly stated to be Jewish, but he is a native German speaker (being played by Polish-German-English actor Lukas Gregorowicz) and speaks English with a noticeable accent. It is never clarified where he's from and how he became a British officer, beyond the fact that he is affiliated with military intelligence. It is likely that he served in the Jewish Brigades and was either born in Palestine or fled from the Nazis in Europe.
  • Been There, Shaped History: Len helped liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, survives the infamous King David Hotel bombing, and witnesses the Massacre at Deir Yassin first-hand.
  • Berserk Button: Eliza's Grandfather gets somewhat angry when it's implied that the Jews who attacked British soldiers were ungrateful.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment:The Jewish private Hyman receives a "regimental scrubbing" from his comrades in the 40s, getting forced into an empty bathtub and violently scrubbed with steel wool.
  • Double-Meaning Title: The Promise refers to Len's promise to bring Mohammad's son Hassan out of Haifa alive and return the house's key to the family - which he failed to do in 1948. On the other hand, it also ironically refers to the (theologically) Zionist assertion that "the promised land" of Israel was bestowed upon the Jews by God.
  • Dressing as the Enemy: The Irgun have a large amount of British military surplus (mostly their own, left over from their time in the Jewish Brigades), and regularly disguise themselves as soldiers. One time, an Irgun lieutenant dons a British officer's uniform to manipulate a (kidnapped) Len into revealing the military's secret plans.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: While Clara isn't portrayed as evil, she is revealed to be an Irgun member, and pulls some strings throughout the story to keep Len, with whom she fell in love, alive. This explains why he almost missed the King David Hotel bombing, survives the jeep ambush (alongside Jackie Clough, who had also become infatuated with an Irgun fighter) and is released unharmed after being kidnapped (unlike his comrades, who are made an example of and murdered).
  • Femme Fatale Spy: Clara Rosenbaum has been in cahoots with the Irgun all along, and is part of the Irgun intelligence network infiltrating the British authorities. That said, she's genuinely smitten with Len and tries to keep him out of the Irgun's sights.
  • Fighting for a Homeland: The Jewish Zionists in the 1940s, along with the Palestinians later. It's specifically portrayed as why the conflict between them is so intractable and tragic - both of them want the same thing.
  • Godwin's Law: In the 1940s, the British forces' police actions are repeatedly decried by the Jews as Nazi methods. This is a largely justified and heavily discussed iteration of the trope; as the war ended barely two years before the story is set, most of said Jews and British soldiers are recent arrivals from Nazi-occupied Europe. A large contingent of the Jews (particularly the Zionist militants) are shellshocked Holocaust survivors, while most of the British soldiers had spent the last half-decade fighting the Nazis, with at least some of them (including Len's platoon) bearing witness to the Nazis' crimes against humanity. As a result, most soldiers are indignant about the comparison, while at least some are visibly uncomfortable about following their own orders (which include placing Jewish refugees in internment camps and conducting raids on Jewish neighbourhoods) as a result. At least one British soldier blurs the line by throwing mocking Hitler salutes at the Jews during a Kibbutz raid. See also I Resemble That Remark!.
    Jackie Clough: I think I've seen this picture somewhere before...
  • He Who Fights Monsters: The Israelis are portrayed as having inherited their situation from the British - that of an organised armed force fighting a constant battle against a violent insurgency.
  • History Repeats: In the 1940s, British soldiers are shown blowing up the houses of Zionist guerilla sympathisers with dynamite. In the new Teens, Israeli soldiers have adopted the same technique for dealing with the houses of Palestinian militants.
  • I Resemble That Remark!: Implied. When British soldiers forcefully evacuate several kibbutzes in the wake of a large anti-guerrilla operation, one of the evacuees begs Len to let them go. When he refuses, she spitefully calls him "Nazi!" - just before a soldier loads her onto a crowded truck and smears a number on her forehead with paint.
  • Irony: The ever-so duty-bound Len ends up getting arrested by Hyman (a Jewish NCO who was falsely suspected of spying for the Irgun) for going AWL during the evacuation of Haifa. See also Godwin's Law.
  • Kill on Sight: The British forces are shown putting out shoot-on-sight orders on known Irgun members. Not only does this, on one occasion, lead to Len (who was meeting with one undercover) being almost shot himself, it occurs in broad daylight in the middle of a Zionist rally. Unsurprisingly, this ends up escalating the Zionist insurgency.
  • Nothing Personal: Erin meets Eliza's and Paul's grandfather, an Irgun veteran, and asks him why he attacked her grandfather's comrades. He tells her, rather bluntly, it was because the soldiers stood in the way of the Irgun's ends - no more and no less. After everything that the Jewish refugees had to suffer through during the Holocaust, they would not take "No" for an answer from the British. That said he is somewhat angered when he's told that Erin's grandfather considered them ungrateful.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: The series makes this point explicit regarding Jewish militants in the 1940s and Palestinian militants in the early 2000s. Both are Fighting for a Homeland and willing to use brutal tactics in doing so. They are viewed as freedom fighters by supporters, terrorists by enemies. Further, the British used some tactics to fight the Jewish militants that modern Israel also uses against Palestinians. The series implies that both conflicts will only end with the militants getting a homeland.
  • One Degree of Separation: It turns out that Elisa's and Paul's grandfather was one of the Irgun fighters involved in the King David Hotel bombing, which Erin's grandfather Len was caught up in.
  • Pinball Protagonist: Both Len in the 40s and Erin in the 2010s desperately try but are ultimately powerless to influence the Palestinian conflict they are caught in any meaningful way.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Defied. Many of the British soldiers (accurately, for the time period) are depicted as openly racist and antisemitic (and, more generally, sexist), so much so that Len manages to earn the gratitude of both Muslims and Jews simply by not behaving like All of the Other Reindeer.
  • Red Herring: It is revealed that there is a Zionist informant operating from inside Len's unit. It's strongly implied to be Private Alec Hyman, the sole Jew among them, who suffers constant abuse from vengeful comrades. But Hyman is entirely loyal - it turns out to be Jackie Clough instead, who was seduced by a female Zionist and later defects to join the Irgun's ranks.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: In the 1940s, the Zionist militias ambush servicemen on leave, bomb public places, kidnap soldiers, lynch them, booby-trap their corpses, and slaughter entire Palestinian towns. In the 2000s, almost exactly the same things happen at the hands of the Palestinian militants.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: In-universe (and Real Life), in modern Israel, the Irgun and Lehi are considered heroes of Israeli history, whereas Palestinian suicide bombers are celebrated as martyrs in the streets of Gaza.
  • Sickbed Slaying: Inverted. A trio of Irgun fighters infiltrate a British military hospital, disguised as doctors, to rescue one of their own from captivity. But their cover gets blown and they're promptly killed in a firefight with police and soldiers.
  • Stealth Insult: Upon departing from a successful raid on a kibbutz, Len and his comrades are bidden farewell by a chorus of schoolchildren singing to them in Hebrew and presenting them anemones. Only when they return to their base do they find out that the flowers were meant to mock them - the red petals stood for the colour of their berets, and the black stigma for the colour of their hearts.
  • Television Geography: Haifa's Real Life Stella Maris military base is a historic Catholic monastery and lighthouse complex perched atop Mount Carmel, with an impressive scenic view of Haifa bay, whereas in the series, it's depicted as an anonymous-looking sandstone compound that only remotely resembles the iconic landmark. It was probably necessitated by the fact that the Stella Maris Light is still in military use (by the Israeli Navy in modern days), so they wouldn't have been able to shoot on location even if they tried.
  • Token Minority: Downplayed with Private Alec Hyman, who is Jewish (as well as possibly Captain Rowntree, who is Ambiguously Jewish); historically, a big chunk of the (loyalist) British forces in Palestine were Jewish themselves.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: In-universe. When Len and his comrades get ambushed and gunned down as they ride through a Jewish neighbourhood, absolutely none of the passers-by react, and casually continue running errands, reading their papers and sipping their coffee on the cafe terraces. note 
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters:
    • The Irgun and Lehi militias of the 1940s, naturally. The movie portrays them as extremely ruthless, relentless and violent, though nevertheless as nuanced men of principle.
    • The same goes for the portrayal of Palestinian fighters operating within modern Israel, who are unquestionably mass murderers, but act as much out of desperation as zeal.


Video Example(s):


Deadly Doctors

In this scene, it only becomes clear that something is wrong with the doctors almost immediately before all hell breaks loose, owing to director Peter Kosminsky's strictly POV-tied camera direction.

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