The people of the book discover television

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On the day the phone call came from Jerusalem I was unprepared. The mention of Jerusalem triggers an avalanche of emotions.

‘Mira, what would you say to a reunion of people involved in the beginning of Israel’s Television Service?’

‘Who came up with the idea?’

‘Micah and I were talking about the old days in Jerusalem, soon after the Six Day War. We thought, wouldn’t it be great to get together in Jerusalem to exchange memories and impressions of what it was like then and to compare it with how things are now… that sort of thing…’

How on earth could one re-enter the mood of that time before the outbreak of the war, when everything simmered with tension? Wars. Jews. Jerusalem. The words wrapped themselves round my head like a belt. Even before the Six Day War, Jerusalem was an embattled city; it’s her misfortune to have become sacred to the two faiths she gave birth to. Worshipped in prayer and lamented for her loss, blessed and cursed, psalms were her crown.

‘I know,’ Naomi continued, ‘it’s forty years since we were rushing around like busy ants in the Television building, in Romema …’

‘Romema’. I repeated the name and remembered the building, in a back street with adjoining open ground, overgrown with thorns and cluttered with various abandoned pieces of machinery. I saw myself entering, passing the two guards on duty, and greeting Miriam, the receptionist, with the usual ‘any messages?’

Looking back at the sixty years of Israel’s statehood, it seems incredible that the Government took so long to create a television station. During the sixties and seventies The People of the Book treated the existence of the little black box with disdain. It was Ben-Gurion’s decisive ‘Lo! No!’ blocking suggestions that Israel should catch up with the rest of the world. And Ben-Gurion’s views counted for something; he was, after all, one of the founders of the State of Israel and Prime Minister. A lover of classical literature, he worried that the nation’s moral and intellectual standards might become corrupted; the cinema’s silver screens were already spreading enough of a cultural pollutant. Israel’s new film industry had the nation flocking to the cinema, although early Israeli films had to compete with superior American and European productions.

Israel did have other tools of mass communication. The mainstream Hebrew press was of a high standard, and there were also scores of multilingual dailies and magazines that were published to cater for new immigrants.

Meanwhile, radio ruled the airwaves. Kol Yisrael, the Voice of Israel, offered the nation a vital link with current events via its hourly news transmissions. In a country where the political situation is volatile, it fulfilled an urgent need for instant access to the latest news. It also provided special programmes for new immigrants, in their own languages and in beginner’s Hebrew. Editors and journalists felt free to experiment, providing a wide range of sophisticated cultural and socially topical programmes. Entertainment slots made use of the abundance of available talents with comedians performing in Hebrew and in Yiddish. As for music, Israel was similarly awash with native and immigrant talent.

The regular Arabic-language slot broadcasting news and non-political programmes was mostly scorned by Israeli Arabs, apart from those geared towards women on health and childcare matters. In general they preferred to tune in to the neighbouring Arab networks. At the time, Israel was the only nation in the Middle East without its own television station although many Israelis already had their own televisions. On good days, transmissions from Jordan and Lebanon could be picked up, and Israel’s Arab population flocked to cafés and other public places equipped with televisions to watch the news, as well as popular Arab entertainment. Many Jews from Arab countries also possessed ‘the little black box’ to watch their favourite singers.

All this changed in 1966/67. Nasser’s virulently anti-Israel propaganda was televised across the Arab-speaking world, stoking unrest further fuelled by false reports about the ongoing destruction of mosques in Israel. This forced the Israeli authorities to finally acknowledge the power of the little black box as a political tool. It was time for Israel to catch up.

*

The almost miraculous victory revived Jewish memories of events both from ancient times and more recent catastrophes, boosting the jubilations. Rare indeed were the occasions when the Jewish people could celebrate a military victory in Jerusalem, as it could now; this had ignited a dormant messianic fervour. The visceral effect on people’s emotions and behaviour was nowhere more pronounced than in Jerusalem. It induced a collective, drunken kind of euphoria, its echoes reaching the Diaspora Jews. The public rejoicing, dancing in the streets and prayers of thanks were that of the Jews. For the Palestinians, it was yet another military defeat by Israel’s armed forces. The first defeat was the result of a war started by three Arab armies, intent on preventing the establishment of a Jewish State in the area allocated by the decision of the United Nations to divide up British-controlled Palestine between the Jews and Palestinians, with Jerusalem designated an Internationally-Controlled city. According to this plan, Israel was originally allotted a modest in size territory; however, after the War of Independence the Israelis emerged with more territory than intended.

The 1967 Arab defeat had added a new chapter to the Palestinian history of victimhood and humiliation. But victories often come at a price, their true measure the military cemeteries of both, the victors and the vanquished. The sorrow and the joy were already overshadowed by dangerous dreams that carried the seeds of future conflicts.

Already then, a few sober voices in Israel were heard to suggest that Israel should negotiate with the Palestinians, but these voices got lost amidst the noise of the triumphal, collective chorus. It was not yet the right time for rational thinking.

*

It is rare in life to be offered an opportunity to participate in something as new and creative as the first TV station in Israel. I regarded it as a great privilege.

The project had begun well before the outbreak of the Six Day War, but the conflict rapidly accelerated the process. Gallili, then Minister of Information (without portfolio) and Professor Elihu Katz, a lecturer at the Penn University in Philadelphia, had already been gathering consultants to assist in the project. 25 foreigners and a core of Israelis were hired and given the title ‘expert’. Some of them were indeed people with experience who had been working for prestigious networks abroad, whose names and individual accomplishments are noted in the TV archives.

The team assembled in the spring of 1978. Upon arrival, the foreign ‘experts’ were accommodated in various hotels. I found myself at the American Colony Hotel, in East Jerusalem. Renowned for its excellence throughout the Middle East, it has a history going back to Turkish rule, when it was set up by the Vesters, an English family. Horatio Vester, the current owner and founder’s grandson, on hearing that I was a filmmaker, showed me a family treasure: an old movie of Allenby’s victorious entry to Jerusalem. It offered me a view of the city that went back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Until recently, the guests had been rich Jordanians, South Arabian sheiks and Egyptian and Lebanese merchants, but now the Arab staff were serving Jews, faces not seen here for a decade. We found out that the Jordanians had destroyed synagogues and cemeteries in the Old City and I didn’t even dare consider what the reverse outcome of the war would have meant for the Jews. And yet I looked at the Palestinians and their catastrophe with compassion. Defeat showed in their faces, politeness shielding their pain.

At Romema, I entered a building already buzzing with activity. In the large room that served as the base for the temporary TV Authority’s broadcasting operations, a huge white board, half the size of the wall, was covered with diagrams detailing the general plan of command, dates, structures and perimeters. At a long table covered with green cloth, placed at the front, the ‘experts’ — mostly men and a few women — were gathering daily to discuss the scope and goals of the planned station.

The official inauguration was to take place on 2nd May 1968, with two live broadcasts of an independence parade (directed by Louis Lentin with Paul Salinger as Chief Cameraman), including a concert given by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

The limited technical facilities didn’t allow for many transmission times: a few hours in the evening, three or four times a week. Under pressure from religious groups, Fridays and Shabbat were excluded, but it did not take long for protesting voices to reverse the exclusion. The next battle was to remove the newly established TV station from the Prime Minister’s office. To great relief, this was also won, and Professor Elihu Katz was appointed Head of the Station. A friendly, unobtrusive man, he was liked by almost everybody, a rare accolade in a workplace of unpredictable characters.

I soon realised that, with no experience of working for a network, I was not in my element. To make myself more useful, I organised small groups of Israeli journalists and photographers to teach them how to think in terms of moving images. We ventured out to various neighbourhoods, shooting short, silent news items. In the evenings, we would sit at the editing tables and watch the results. ‘Let the picture tell the story’ was the motto. In no time the crew were shooting snipppets of street scenes unsupervised and were soon skilled enough to make a longer film. I chose Kibbutz Lochmei Hagetaot ‘Fighters of the Ghettos’ — as the location, and they put us up for four days. The place was a gift for a documentary filmmaker; it was populated by ghetto survivors (including a few important participants in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising) and partisans who had chosen to stay together after settling in Israel. It even had its own modest museum. A great deal of improvisation went into the shooting, including using torches for night scenes. Amazingly, after the final edit, the exercise produced a presentable 60 minute film.

One day a prowling journalist, curious about the goings-on in Romema, wandered into the cutting room where the crew were watching the finished film. He was impressed and wrote an article urging that it be used for the forthcoming Holocaust Day. He must have known which strings to pull, as the TV authorities decided to transmit it ahead of their official planned date.

The transmission evening was a traumatic occasion, especially for Jews from Arab countries, who were seeing for the first time the reality of the Final Solution. For me it was more than a technical accomplishment — it was a homage to all those who were part of the Shoah, including my parents and other members of my family.

*

Sitting one day in the American Colony’s oriental garden at a table shaded by a tree and being served English tea, I reflected on my past. Unlike the other foreign ‘experts’, I was not altogether a stranger to Jerusalem.

In 1941 I came from war-torn Europe to Palestine, then ruled by British Mandate. For a year I stayed near Lod at Ben-Shemen, an agricultural village and school run by children, where we divided each day between study and work, learning how to milk cows and feed chickens. When I proved I was better at drawing and painting I was sent to Jerusalem. Under the care of my older sister’s friend, I was shown places of Jewish historical importance and sketched The Tomb of Rachel, a view of the Kotel and some rustic scenes of Arab shepherds with their flocks of sheep or goats in the Valley of Hell.

A now-forgotten fact about Jerusalem is that during the war years, was it was an important crossroads for military traffic. In Poland, I saw first the Germans then the Soviets, but here in Jerusalem, a quiet, provincial city, I saw soldiers of every description, from the British Empire and from occupied Europe. Near the Damascus Gate in the Old City and at Zion Square in the centre, there were signposts to Damascus, Cairo and Tripoli, for the military traffic that ran day and night. Jerusalem was also the city where soldiers of all ranks would come on leave or to recuperate from injuries sustained in the African desert war.

In 1943, in a restaurant near Zion Square, I had a miraculous reunion with my older brother, who lost sight of me and I of him in Poland at the outbreak of the war. I never knew about his time in a Siberian gulag, nor that he joined the Polish army that Stalin allowed to leave the Soviet Union. He arrived from Iraq with his unit now stationed in Palestine and came on leave to visit Jerusalem. The heart-stopping accidental encounter of brother and sister, who hardly recognised each other, is a fragment of history usually omitted by textbooks. Such reunions were rare but not unique in Jerusalem, a city of miracles.

Mira Hamermesh was born in Lodz, Poland. During the Second World War, she was one of a group of lucky Jewish youngsters who managed to find safety in Palestine. An artist, her first exhibition was sponsored by the British Council in Jerusalem, winning her a place at the Slade School of Fine Arts in London. After some success as an exhibiting painter, she changed medium to become a filmmaker and was awarded a scholarship to study at the prestigious Polish Film School in Lodz. She has since worked as a director, producer and writer of short features and documentaries, earning many international awards, including the Prix Italia. Israel’s Cinematheque institution recently showed a retrospective of Mira’s 15 films. Her book, The River Of Angry Dogs: A Memoir is available from Pluto Press.

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