The making of We Are British Jews
Series Producer and Director
Participants in the documentary visited Israel while filming We Are British Jews
Britain’s Jewish community has recently been the focus of widespread attention.
There is concern about antisemitism, particularly online, and fierce debate within the Jewish community about how it should best relate to Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians.
To many on the outside, it may seem that Britain’s Jews speak with one voice, but on the inside, the community is not just diverse, but also on some of the key issues, divided.
As a British Jew myself, I felt passionately about making a series that would demonstrate that diversity and division, getting under the skin of some of the most difficult challenges facing the community today.
When Lion were commissioned by BBC Two to produce the series we decided the best way to do this would be to take a small group of British Jews on an immersive journey, first to Manchester - home to the largest Jewish community outside of London - and then to Israel and the occupied West Bank, where they would meet Israelis and Palestinians, learning what is really like for them on the ground.
Our first challenge was to find a group of people who helped to reflect the plurality of voices in the British Jewish community to take part in the series. Perhaps the hardest to cast were the most religious and the most politically active.
Many Orthodox Jews don’t watch television and some are suspicious of the media. A lot of those we spoke to were worried they might be taken out of context in the finished programmes. At the other end people who had spoken out against the government of Israel were equally sceptical.
After months of searching, we found eight clever, thoughtful people who were prepared to talk about their beliefs and values as individuals and as a group.
At the same time as finding the contributors, we had to come up with an itinerary that would allow the group to explore the challenges at home and in Israel.
We wanted to take the group to see places and people that would help them to go on an emotional as well as a physical journey. We wanted them to engage with people some of them might see as their fiercest opponents, and hoped that by meeting each other, there would be insight that everyone could gain. We wondered if this insight might make some of the group start to think differently about being British and Jewish and about how they relate to Israel.
To plan our itinerary, we consulted far and wide, working with a team of consultants with a diverse range of voices throughout the production of the series: from an orthodox Rabbi, Nicky Liss of Highgate Synagogue, to Laura Marks, the founder of Mitzvah Day, a Jewish led charity that encourages people of all faiths to work together, and Raymond Simonson, the CEO of Britain’s only Jewish Arts and Cultural Centre, JW3. Also working as consultants were Jewish blogger, Robert Cohen, and Sally Halon, UK Programme Director at the UJIA in Manchester.
And we didn’t stop there. We spoke to other organisations in Britain, in Israel and Palestinian groups to make sure we would reflect properly some of the themes addressed in the series.
Back home after filming, our challenge was to edit the many hours of material we had into two hour long films to be broadcast over two consecutive nights - all this as the story of antisemitism in Britain was creeping higher and higher up the news agenda.
For everyone involved, from the contributors, to those they met, and the very many people working on the production, this has been a really important and meaningful project to be involved with, and one we all felt a huge obligation to get right.
I hope that whatever perspective viewers come at it from, they will come away with the realisation that the British Jewish community, whilst thriving, has a host of challenges to grapple with.
Solving them won’t ever easy, not least because, as Sylvia, the grandmother of the group says in programme one: “Everybody thinks they are right, that’s because they are all Jewish”.
We Are British Jews begins on Tuesday 4 September.