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Flight to safety

18 December 2015


Journey's end: the Alhambra Palace, Granada

Journey's end: the Alhambra Palace, Granada

AT A time when most nations are expending their energies on building walls to keep strangers out, it was salutary to be reminded of the exact opposite: a country striving to the utmost to welcome refugees. Saving the Forgotten Jews (BBC1, Sunday) told the story of how Israel eventually found a way to extricate Ethiopian Jews and resettle them in Jerusalem.

For once, the presentation of the narrative as a suspense-filled tale of international subterfuge seemed justified: it is a remarkable sequence of events whose eventual success was more dramatic than any number of fictional thrillers. The Jews of Ethiopia, a group at least 2000 years old, considered themselves one of the lost tribes of Israel. Under Communism, their continued survival seemed at the best precarious, and many thousands trekked to the Sudan — only to encounter a worse plight.

In 1984, the Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, took up their cause, and Mossad set up Operation Moses, an audacious scheme, involving a fake holiday camp, as a cover to spirit them to safety by sea. Its success depended on absolute secrecy — but after a few weeks someone broke the story, and it was halted.

A second operation depended on secret negotiations with Ethiopia itself, as the country descended into the chaos of civil war and famine. Eventually, in 1991, an astonishing 35-plane airlift carried nearly everyone to Jerusalem. Throughout the drama, a key player was a Manchester businessman, now Lord Alliance, who used his trade contacts and put his own life at risk in making deals with murderous warlords.

Israel’s energy and commitment reflects uncomfortably on Western Christianity’s refusal to engage with our co-religionists suffering persecution and annihilation today, although the programme did admit to some moral complexities: for many of the refugees, the Promised Land turned out to be far from perfect, confronting them with racism and prejudice.

Christianity, Islam, and Judaism provide the vital factors in Blood and Gold: The making of Spain with Simon Sebag Montefiore (BBC4, Tuesdays). The first programme traced the pagan back story: Hannibal and Scipio determining whether the country would be essentially Carthaginian/African or Roman/European. Rome won, and Spain was prized as the favourite province, the Empire’s source of staples and luxuries.

The martyrs Justa and Rufina consolidated Christianity; after Rome came the Visigoths; and then the Umayyad Caliphate brought Islam. Sebag Montefiore helpfully structures the series around a journey from one city to another: we moved from Andalusia to Cadiz and Seville, then Cordova, and finally Granada.

Always religion identifies the exercise of power, the story tacking between persecution and toleration. Cordova’s enlightened caliphate, when it was the cultural capital of the Western world, was not quite as enlightened as we’d like to think, and ended in bloody mob frenzy.

This is important and beautiful TV, raising vital questions about how religion, politics, and society can relate, marred only by an over-dramatic presentation, and particularly awful Hollywood-style background music.

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