Socialist Worker

The Promise: the unravelling of a dream

A new drama on Palestine and Israel draws parallels between the 1940s and the present, writes Matthew Cookson

Issue No. 2238

British soldiers shepherding Holocaust survivors in The Promise

British soldiers shepherding Holocaust survivors in The Promise

The Promise came about after writer and director Peter Kosminsky received a letter from a former British soldier, who had been stationed in Palestine in the late 1940s.

Kosminsky said, “I discovered many of these soldiers felt like vets returning from Vietnam—shunned for being involved in an embarrassing failure.

“I saw a chance to shed light on a little-known aspect of British history, as well as an accessible way into a drama about the Middle East.”

The drama is set during two different time periods. In one strand, Erin Matthews (Claire Foy), a student from London on a gap year, goes to modern-day Israel.

She is joined by her friend Eliza (Perdita Weeks), who is returning to do her national service in the Israeli armed forces.


Erin’s grandfather Len lies comatose in hospital, but in a series of flashbacks of his experiences are the second strand of the series.

It follows him as he serves in the British army during the Second World War and in Palestine afterwards.

The young Len (Christian Cooke) helps liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, describing the scenes and the deaths he sees as “worst day of my life”.

Jewish refugees are heading into Palestine in increasing numbers after the end of the Second World War.

Officers tell British soldiers that they are there to be “in the middle” between the Arabs and Jews to help them learn to live together in peace.

Len’s first job is to escort bedraggled refugees into Palestine.

The British put them into camps behind barbed wire fences and make them have showers. One soldier observes, “Haven’t we seen this somewhere before?”

The soldiers’ sympathies are initially with Jewish refugees who want a homeland after their suffering at the hands of the Nazis.

When Len meets a woman with a baby on the beach he lets her escape into Palestine.

But the British soon come into conflict with the refugees and groups demanding the creation of an Israeli state. They start shooting at British soldiers.

Len goes to a club where British soldiers mix with Jewish settlers. Here he comes across Clara (Katharina Schuttler), who is connected to an armed Jewish group.

His superiors tell him to make deeper links with the group as the Zionist militias increase their bloody attacks on the British forces.

As his granddaughter Erin visits Israel, she reads his diaries from the time.

These scenes show the reality of what Israel has become.


When Erin arrives she says it is “like paradise”. She spends her first evening in the state watching a sunset.

She and Eliza go shopping in Israel’s expensive boutiques and ­dancing in a vibrant nightclub.

But before long she starts feeling that not all is right.

The most jarring thing is a “Peace Now” protest outside the army base that Eliza is reporting to—and that her brother Paul (Itay Tiran) is one of the protesters.

He is a former soldier who believes Israel is a “military dictatorship” that oppresses the Palestinians.

Paul takes Erin to the Occupied Territories, where he speaks to a group of Palestinians about why he is now a peace activist.

Omar (Haaz Sleiman), a former Palestinian fighter, also speaks about how the fact that they can sit down together, speak and shake hands shows there is hope for change.

They then experience the oppression of a checkpoint where Omar is forced to strip, searched and then arrested.

Paul says to Erin that she’s just had a “crash course in what it means to be a Palestinian in this country”.

Paul says the occupation is “about control, humiliation and forcing them off their land. It’s nothing about terrorism.”

The Promise was filmed in Israel and the occupied territories, using Israeli and Palestinian actors.


Palestinians play little role in the first part, though they will become more prominent later in the four part series.

The Promise is a thought-provoking drama, which directly examines major issues such as the West’s role in the creation of Israel and the repressive state that exists today.

But it does not live up to its promise, with a too obvious and conventional narrative.

The Promise is on Channel 4 on Sundays at 9pm. The first part is available to view at

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Tue 8 Feb 2011, 17:25 GMT
Issue No. 2238
Share this article


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.