An Unholy Mess: CNN’s Jerusalem

In the late spring of 2021, I had the great pleasure of watching CNN’s documentary series The History of Late Night. As a longtime fan of many late night programs, it was fascinating to see a concise, experiential account of how this unique brand of entertainment came into being and evolved into what we know it as today. Positively disposed towards CNN’s documentaries, then, I was excited to learn of its upcoming series Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury (and doubly delighted when hearing that it’s narrator would be Ewan McGregor). Jerusalem is one of the most famous cities in the world and in world history, yet its full story is relatively little known, and I was eager to see it explored. Seldom have I been more disappointed.

No documentary is truly objective, and while many do not have formal theses per se, all have some kind of throughline or mission statement that unifies the narrative through which it relates its facts. At first, I innocently thought Jerusalem would simply be a documentary about the history of this ancient city. Indeed, a line in each episode’s introduction states that it is impossible to understand modern Israel if you do not understand Jerusalem’s history in all its complexity. I was soon disabused of this notion, however. Its first episode covers the Biblical stories of Saul, David, and Solomon as they found the Kingdom of Israel and make Jerusalem its capital. No history before this time is ever meaningfully discussed, despite the explicit acknowledgment that the Jewish people did not found Jerusalem, instead taking it from its original inhabitants. No archaeology is ever referenced (at this point or any other in the series) to explore what the written record omits, nor is there ever any serious attempt to discuss the architecture, culture, or daily life of the city during any period. Most egregious to me, the city’s history isn’t even remotely presented in its full complexity, either; a total of almost 2700 years are skipped over between episodes, excluding such fascinating topics as the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of the city, multiple revolts against Rome and its time under Byzantine rule, the original Muslim conquests, and the entire early modern period.

If not a comprehensive history, then, what is Jerusalem? Surely there must have been reasons for picking precisely the history the documentary chooses to cover? When a talking head in the first episode argued that the Biblical stories of early Jerusalem were believed by its later inhabitants, and thus really do constitute part of its history whether we can verify them or not (they don’t, by the way; they constitute part of its founding myths and you need to look to archaeology for its actual history), I thought I’d found my revelation. This was going to be a documentary on the value each of the Abrahamic faiths placed on Jerusalem, indirectly explaining why the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so acrimonious. Wrong again. Among the skipped-over subjects are the lives of both Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad, despite the second episode covering precisely the period of Jesus’ birth. In fact, Christianity and Islam as religions receive very little mention in the series at all, with the script usually referring to followers of the latter by their nationality instead.

Taking another cue from the series’ introduction, as well as recent events in the Middle East, I next wondered if this series was meant as a direct aid in understanding the Isreali-Palestinian conflict itself. It may well be that this was one of the goals of the documentary, but if so, it fails utterly in its attempt. Entirely too much irrelevant information is given in that case, as the roots of the modern conflict really only extend back to the specific circumstances and actions surrounding Israel’s founding in the 1940s. Context, whether recent, medieval, or ancient, is always welcome, of course, but this series devotes ⅔ of its episodes to it. Further, Jerusalem fails to even adequately explain the modern conflict once it reaches it, concluding its narrative at the end of the 1967 6 Day War and leaving out fully fifty-five years of intervening history, excluding not only major events like the Yom Kippur War, Intifadas, creation of Hezbollah and Hamas, and Camp David Accords, but also consequently ignoring how those events have shaped the conflict into the very specific shape it takes today. In short, if you only watched this documentary, you would be no closer to understanding this aspect of contemporary Middle Eastern conflict.

So, in the end, what is CNN’s Jerusalem? It is, in short, Great Man history at its worst. As far as I can tell, the series chose six of the most potentially dramatic and titillating moments in the history of Israel/Jerusalem and told them through the personal stories of a few of the major figures of the time. This leads to an abundance of disorganized and irrelevant information, most notable in its First World War episode, which focuses on the story of T.E. Lawrence and the Arab revolt; the city of Jerusalem appears for at most 10 minutes. That said, each individual episode is fairly good at relating the history it presents; a wide array of experts, both in specialization and background, are used, resulting in neither side (up until 1967, at least) receiving carte blanche for their actions. It’s a shame this approach couldn’t have been carried forward; one wonders if the series was afraid of offending either side with any critiques that were not so far removed.

In its concluding material, Jerusalem’s stated message seems to have been one of generic multiculturalism; that we should all learn from these mistakes of the past and embrace each other in fellowship rather than any one side attempting to claim this holy city as their own. A fine sentiment, but in the absence of any competent historical context or even unifying narrative, one that is essentially meaningless. Even judged on its own terms, Jerusalem is, not unlike its modern subject, an unholy mess.

One reply on “An Unholy Mess: CNN’s Jerusalem”

I agree! Surely the history of Jerusalem must at least mention Jesus, if not record his impact on the world. The Koran gets a nod at the end, but not so the biblical Jesus. Deleting the remaining recorded episodes in disappointment and disgust.

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