The TV and film industry has tied itself in knots trying, or sometimes deliberately avoiding, discussing the war in the Middle East. Screen and sister title Broadcast  speak to 17 individuals about their experiences.  

How does an industry that prides itself on free speech and healthy debate navigate the traumas of war?

For many in the entertainment world, there’s no precedent to the Israel-Hamas conflict and its impact on working life and relationships. Concerns and anxieties that in some cases have simmered for decades have reached breaking point. Eight months on, there are still many questions: how do we talk openly and share strong views about Israel and Palestine? And how do we negotiate fair coverage from broadcasters?

For many Jewish, Muslim and Arab people in the UK film and TV industry, life has been exhausting and isolating following the atrocities of October 7, when Hamas fighters stormed into Israel, killing around 1,200 people and taking more than 250 hostages, and the ensuing war that has claimed at least 35,500 Palestinian lives, many of them civilians. There is genuine fear that speaking up, marching for Palestine or calling for the release of Israeli hostages will result in professional consequences. There is fatigue ahead of meetings, and worry about loaded words that are casually deployed. There’s an enduring, crushing concern that politics has interrupted decades-long relationships.

“It’s sometimes hard to know how the toothpaste is going to be put back into the tube with some of the things that have been said,” remarks one history professor who is following the conflict closely.

As the industry contemplates moving forward, Screen and Broadcast have spoken with 17 individuals – a group that spans Muslim, Arab and Jewish producers, broadcasters, festival directors, film-makers and academics – about their experiences in the past eight months and the toll the Israel-Hamas war has taken on their working relationships. Many wonder whether things will ever be the same again.

‘A no-fly zone for years’

At work, producer Jasleen Sethi, a 2024 Bafta TV winner for Ellie Simmonds: Finding My Secret Family, wears a pin or a keffiyeh to demonstrate her support for Palestine. “I’m not subtle,” she says. “I wanted to show my solidarity as it became clear what was happening in Gaza.”

Some colleagues who hadn’t previously talked about the war at work approached Sethi, who is Sikh, when they noticed her pin. “I had a young Muslim colleague say that he hadn’t felt comfortable talking to anyone else,” she says. “It’s not a selfless act; I needed it as well.”

There was plenty of conversation in her office when the war between Russia and Ukraine began in February 2022, “but there just seems to be silence when it comes to Palestine and Gaza,” says the documentary-maker. “And silence feels like you’re being told not to talk about it – that’s why it becomes a little more intimidating.”

The conflict isn’t a Jewish-Muslim issue, yet a dichotomy has emerged in the aftermath of  Octobe 7, largely pitting the British Jewish and Muslim communities against each other, despite the 2021 Census indicating that only 1.2% of the film and TV industry is Jewish and 2.5% is Muslim – the corresponding Jewish and Muslim population for England and Wales is 287,000 (0.5%) and 3.9 million (6.5%).

One senior Muslim TV executive admits that “when it comes to Israel, if you’re Muslim, you just avoid that subject – always – because you’re never going to see eye to eye with some people about it.” It’s heightened now, they add, but it’s always been this way.

UK TV executive Fatima Salaria, who is of Pakistani heritage, has experienced “constantly being made to feel aware of my Muslim [background]”. Her appointment in 2017 as the BBC’s commissioning editor for ethics and religion prompted a sneering article in the Daily Mail.

“I wasn’t an Asian woman; I was a Muslim commissioning editor, and every time I was on a panel or commissioned programmes, that was always at the front of my mind,” says Salaria, who is now executive chair of the Edinburgh TV Festival after roles at Channel 4 and Naked.

The war has rekindled many of Salaria’s qualms about her place in the industry and she feels Muslims who interrogate Israel’s actions in Gaza are more likely to be accused of antisemitism than others. As a result, Salaria agreed to lend her December column in Broadcast to a writer who contributed anonymously.

In the column, titled ‘Fear of backlash stifles open exchanges on Israel/Gaza’, the author argued that “legitimate criticism” of Israeli government policy is increasingly conflated with anti-Jewish racism, and that the UK’s public service broadcasters have fallen short in explaining the situation in the Middle East for audiences. The column also included references to the “occupied territories” and “genocide”.

The blowback was immediate. “I had so many comments and texts and emails from people saying, ‘Fatima, how could you write something like this?’” says Salaria. “I told them: ‘I didn’t write it. I gave my platform over to a viewpoint that I thought needed to be heard.’”

Salaria didn’t pen the article. But Mobeen Azhar did. The award-winning journalist has built his career tackling international stories for the BBC over the past 20 years, making films about everything from Pakistan’s Taliban hunters to the Uyghur poet defying Chinese authorities, and spearheading an investigation into notorious Japanese talent agency Johnny & Associates. Since Azhar’s BBC story, more than 1,000 men have come forward to report abuse by its late founder, Johnny Kitagawa.


Azhar says that Israel-Palestine has been a no-fly zone for years, and there’s a palpable sense that the BBC and other broadcasters don’t want to greenlight programmes about it for fear of backlash. Programmes such as Wall to Wall’s BBC two-parter The Holy Land And Us: Untold Stories, which features presenters Sarah Agha and Rob Rinder uncovering their respective family histories in Palestine and Israel, are rare. The acclaimed doc series has not been repeated and for reticent commissioners, the region’s history feels “too complicated” to tackle cogently, Azhar says. As a result, audiences remain uninformed.

“When I pitch anything in that area, the first response I generally get is a sharp intake of breath. Then there might be a nervous giggle and people will say, ‘That’s what I like about you, Mobeen, you always go for the easy subjects, don’t you?’” says Azhar. “And we’ll have a little laugh about it like it’s all fun and games. But it’s not.”

Yorkshire-born Azhar has been inundated with messages from friends and contacts who are struggling with coverage of the unfolding crisis. Through the BBC, Azhar was privy to meetings, roundtables and listening sessions, and felt supported by senior management. But the “rate of action,” he says, was lacking.

Azhar tried to assemble an open letter with a group of industry figures – including Muslim and Jewish people – calling for a renewed commitment to the “public service values of impact, impartiality and fairness”. But the project fell apart at the eleventh hour after a number of signatories got cold feet and pulled out. “I had lots of colleagues saying, ‘I support what you’re doing, but I’m worried about how this is going to affect my career.’”

Undeterred, Azhar pivoted and consulted long-time friend Salaria about the use of her column. “I took the decision that a good way to do this was to not become a target,” Azhar says of his reasons to contribute anonymously. “I had been warned by so many people that this would not be good for me.”

The response to the column by some members of the Jewish community was fierce. Critics took issue with the terminology used. Leo Pearlman, a director and founding partner of The Late Late Show With James Corden producer Fulwell 73, wrote a rebuttal, slamming the language as “dangerous and harmful”, while noting that the author’s anonymity enables “the world’s second oldest antisemitic trope, that Jews control the world’s media”.

Azhar responds: “Regardless of how uncomfortable people are with words like ‘occupied territories’, ‘forced expulsion’ or ‘plausible genocide’, we must be brave enough to use these terms in our programme-making.”

The time to hedge language for fear of offence has passed, he says. And in this context, he claims, “offence is often about silencing critique of Israeli policy”.

‘Walking on eggshells’

Will Daws, managing director of UK TV outfit Plum Pictures, would vehemently disagree.

“The words ‘genocide’, ‘apartheid’, ‘oppressors’, ‘colonisers’ – all of these words are unbelievably triggering [for many Jews], because we don’t for a minute believe that what Israel is doing justifies any of those words,” says Daws, who is Jewish.

Some Jewish people, including the UK’s top rabbi, reject allegations of genocide, arguing that Israel has not shown intent to exterminate Palestinians, and that such accusations undermine confirmed cases, such as the Holocaust, or the Rwandan genocide.

Hearing such language, for Daws, constitutes antisemitism. “It’s really offensive when you hear those words thrown in front of you, and then you think, ‘Right, do I now have to have a historical argument with them, where I go through every one of those words that’s been used and explain the context and the history? And that’s fine; not everyone needs to know all the history of all the countries.

“But if you’re going to throw around words like that, that are so poisonous,” says Daws, “it really, really matters. Do not use them lightly.”

Daws describes his exhaustion in trying to navigate the industry and take meetings, constantly bracing for the subject of the war to come up. How will he respond? Will he say something? Can he say something?

“It’ll be a meeting that’s got nothing to do with what’s going on in Israel, and I’ll be preparing myself for it. A lot of people who really don’t like Israel and really don’t like Jews now feel free to throw out their [opinions] because they believe that everyone feels the same in our industry,” says Daws.

The long-time producer, who runs Plum with co-managing director Stuart Cabb, describes a “power imbalance” during pitch meetings when commissioners or talent might “throw in a casual line [about the war],” rendering Daws speechless.

“It’s really awkward. It definitely impacts working relationships,” says Daws, who is often meeting agents, presenters and comedians. “One person asked if I was Jewish, and I said, ‘Yes.’ And they replied, ‘What you people don’t understand is…’ and launched into a whole diatribe about the situation in Israel. I thought, ‘I just don’t want to work with you.’”

He didn’t say anything at the time but worries about how free the person felt to make that comment.

One problem is that this is not just an issue about Israel and its actions, or the definition or use of some contentious terms, but about the daily life of Jewish people working in the UK film and TV community.

Irrespective of their feelings about the war, many describe feeling a need to conceal their Jewish identity, or becoming self-conscious about their background in a way they never were before.

One Jewish film producer, based in Los Angeles, says he’s been “walking on eggshells” since October 7. He feels isolated because he refuses to engage in “ignorant” debates about the war that disparage Israel. Lucky for him, he quips, in Hollywood, “most people have no spine”, and are happy to sidestep talking about Israel and Palestine altogether.

But, recently, he couldn’t avoid a call to top CAA agent Maha Dakhil. With clients including Tom Cruise, Anne Hathaway and Steve McQueen, Dakhil is one of the town’s most influential agents. But her job was on the line in October after she reposted a statement from a pro-Palestine Instagram account that read: “You’re currently learning who supports genocide”, which she captioned, “That’s the line for me.”

Dakhil came under fire at the agency and, within days, resigned from CAA’s internal board and the motion picture department, which she co-headed. But she has remained an agent (Cruise is believed to have defended her) and the incident is still alive in people’s memories.

“I needed to call her because we wanted to cast Cruise,” says the producer. “Did I feel bad doing that? I felt awkward. If people really cared [about the Jewish community] and this really affected them, she wouldn’t be at CAA – she would be out.”

Pearlman isn’t walking on eggshells. On 24 October, The Kardashians producer Fulwell 73 posted a public statement on social media declaring it was “proud of our Jewish heritage, proud of our connection to the State of Israel, and proud of the positive contribution we, as a Jewish community, have made, and continue to make to the world”.

Before the public statement, Fulwell also circulated an internal memo on October 9 declaring its commitment to diversity, and its belief in a two-state solution and equal rights across the Middle East.

Pearlman, who identifies as a Zionist (a word that’s “been insidiously manipulated”, he says, and is simply a term for someone who believes in Israel’s right to exist) explains that the public statement was in response to the “deafening silence in our industry” in the days after October 7, when many Jewish people felt they weren’t supported at work.

“We laid our stall out very clearly, and from that point on, it enables you to speak freely. There is no confusion or conflation. You know who I am, you know what I think and believe.”

The executive ensures his 7,000 LinkedIn followers know what he thinks, too. Pearlman is very active on the platform, sharing posts that call out what he believes to be anti-Israel bias in the media and anti-Jewish racism.

“I don’t speak on behalf of Fulwell,” he insists. “I don’t speak on behalf of the Jewish community, God forbid.”

The executive, who has protested against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, says there are “huge problems” with the Israeli government, but that doesn’t mean antisemitism isn’t pervasive in the UK.

Pearlman has issued an open invitation for anyone who wants to debate him, publicly or privately, but “no one has genuinely ever reached out and said, ‘I would love to talk’.”

Multiple sources tell us that they find Pearlman’s posts to be confrontational, and his position so clear-cut that they feel he would not be willing to listen or engage.

He pauses momentarily before responding. “If people feel I’m posting something that stifles debate, that’s a legitimate feeling. But how do they suggest I go about [discussing the war]? By staying silent? That’s never going to open up conversation.”

The public posts are particularly important, he says, because “so few [Jewish people]” are speaking out. “There are so few who are actually saying anything.”

One veteran female producer agrees, saying that silence is due to a deep fear among Jewish staffers at broadcasters like the BBC and other organisations. “We’re just not saying anything, for fear of antisemitism, for fear of being told that we’ve killed 30,000 people,” she says. “We’re in a very heightened climate at the moment.”

The producer explains that high-profile Jewish executives such as Access Industries’ Danny Cohen, who has written a number of Daily Telegraph columns criticising the BBC’s coverage of the war, don’t necessarily represent her views. “But am I pleased that he’s keeping that agenda in the media? Yes. Because the BBC will have to look at itself, because Danny is driving them.”

Similarly, Pearlman says he will “shout from the rooftops about every element of this” because it’s the only way to create change and “stop being frightened”.

People point out his privileged position leading one of the UK’s most successful production companies, and argue he is unlikely to suffer consequences for speaking out. “I don’t know the answer to that, but if this is the hill I’m going to die on, then so be it,” he responds.

Documentary producer Jane Merkin attends marches calling for a ceasefire and the return of the hostages as part of a Jewish group standing for Gaza.

Merkin, who is Jewish, was briefly part of a Signal group for Jewish industry members before she and another high-profile figure with very different views were asked to leave following a series of heated, personal exchanges.

“I was called a self-hating Jew and told I’ve done nothing to fight antisemitism,” says Merkin. “They don’t know me. They have no idea of what I do and how I do it.”

Calling the episode “deeply unpleasant”, Merkin notes: “The problem is that people just put their heads down and won’t engage outside their echo chamber. And it’s so important that they do – not just in terms of politics, but in terms of how we talk about these subjects and difficult areas.”

Merkin highlights that there is a plurality of views among the Jewish community.

In that vein, Mike Lerner, founder of Roast Beef Productions, says his company is “not afraid to confront” the injustice of the war, “but our opposition to this violence is so at odds with the tone of British government – and Labour – and their unwavering support for Israel.”

Lerner’s Roast Beef produced high-profile docuseries Spacey Unmasked, and is also known for feature docs such as the Oscar-nominated Egyptian revolution documentary The Square. The company is developing a project called I Am Not Your Antisemite, which Lerner – who is Jewish – hopes will push back against the “whole idea that any criticism of Israel is considered to be antisemitic”.

He adds: “In the British television industry, I feel we [Jewish people who are critical of Israel] are a very small minority.”

Glazer at Oscars 2024

Source: Trae Patton ©A.M.P.A.S

Jonathan Glazer at Oscars 2024

Lerner keenly observed the aftermath of the Oscar speech by The Zone Of Interest director Jonathan Glazer in March.  Glazer said: “Right now, we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation, which has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of October 7 in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanisation – how do we resist?”

The speech prompted a firestorm, with open letters published against and then in support of the director. (Glazer and his producer James Wilson declined interview requests for this article.)

“There is hope; not every single [Jewish] person believes this nationalist bullshit,” says Lerner. “But in terms of the film and television industry and the corporate world, generally there is only one side to the story.”

Weeks after his Oscars speech, Glazer grabbed the headlines again when he donated two auction items – including signed posters for The Zone Of Interest – to the Cinema 4 Gaza fundraiser. He wasn’t alone. The director was among several peers and actors who have spoken against the war.

UK film critics and Cinema 4 Gaza co-organisers Leila Latif and Sophie Monks Kaufman believe the willingness of talent to get involved, and the public support for the auction, indicate that “the tide is turning”.

In just 11 days, their initiative raised more than $200,000 (£157,000) for UK-based charity Medical Aid for Palestinians through auctioning off-beat lots such as Zoom porridge-making with Josh O’Connor and a bedtime story from Tilda Swinton.

“There’s been an extraordinary shift over the past six months,” says Monks Kaufman, who was interviewed for this article in April. “We’ve gone from seeing Melissa Barrera getting fired from the Scream franchise and people feeling like their careers are at risk if they speak out, to a massive shift in public opinion. That’s a huge reason why our fundraiser has been so successful.”

‘Caught out by big questions’

But among cultural institutions, there’s still an uneasiness around discussion of the war, and making any sort of statement that could be perceived to be politically oriented. For artists who don’t trade in neutrality, this is a problem.

The Palestinian visual artist and film-maker Basma Al-Sharif was among 18 film-makers who withdrew their projects from International Documentary Festival Amsterdam  (IDFA ) in November after event organisers condemned pro-Palestine protesters’ use of the slogan ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ during the opening ceremony.

Al-Sharif, who was raised between France and the US by Palestinian parents, describes the debacle as a “really ugly experience” and a “huge betrayal”.

Has IDFA now softened its stance? Its Syria-born artistic director Orwa Nyrabia tells us the festival was “very narrow-minded” in the way it initially responded to the slogan.

Reflecting on the 2023 festival, he suggests cultural institutions are being caught out by “very big questions” that require time to work through.

Nyrabia says that in Western countries that have enjoyed decades of centrist politics, “there were no such questions” in the past. “Now, suddenly, there is this clash that puts the self-image of cultural institutions and film festivals in front of a mirror.”

Orwa Nyrabia

Source: Roger Cremers/IDFA

Orwa Nyrabia

Nyrabia is organising a symposium this summer for around 50 artistic leaders “to discuss how we redefine and reposition” the role of cultural institutions. One organisation that might be interested is the Berlinale, which faced heavy criticism from German politicians after several film-makers, including Golden Bear-winning director Mati Diop, spoke out in support of Palestine during their speeches at the festival’s closing-night gala.

Berlinale co-director Mariette Rissenbeek declined to discuss the issue for this article as she is still finishing up her contract with the festival. Meanwhile, co-director Carlo Chatrian refused to comment beyond his public statement a week after the festival, in which he denounced the attacks on free speech and stood by his programming choices.

In the past few months, more artists have begun asking festivals and cultural institutions for their positions on Palestine and the Israel-Hamas war before agreeing to participate.

This approach can sometimes backfire. If an organisation “isn’t taking a clear position, and you withdraw, you start to be seen as a problematic artist who’s going to bring trouble because they’re demanding things a festival isn’t willing to provide,” says the Berlin-based Al-Sharif.

While she’s always had a steady stream of invitations to show work or give talks, it suddenly hit Al-Sharif in February that, “Oh my goodness, no one is writing to me.” Rather than take a clear position on the war and risk bad PR, she reasons, some institutions are now avoiding the topic altogether and withholding invitations to Palestinian artists.

“You feel tainted by this,” says Al-Sharif. “The things I’m being invited to are specifically Palestine-related for fundraising purposes or for awareness-building. So there’s a huge surge in wanting to elevate our voices, just as they’re disappearing in more institutional spaces.”

There’s also a feeling that work opportunities are drying up among some members of the British Jewish community, such as performers and comedians, with the suggestion that shows, businesses and organisations are steering clear of anything that might invite criticism or require them to take a public position on events in the Middle East.

One veteran Israeli producer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, isn’t certain he’ll return to the film-making circuit in quite the same way.

“I don’t know if this scene will accept me and select my films any more,” he says.

The producer, who lives in Israel, predicts that major festivals such as Sundance and the Berlinale will feel pressure not to select Israeli films “that aren’t dealing directly with the ramifications of the war or not representing the leftist, liberal, pro-Palestinian struggle.”

While production is back up and running in Israel, the producer describes an industry in “pause mode” existentially, as many creatives – particularly those who oppose the Netanyahu government – try to see a future for themselves in Israel. “I’m not sure what kind of an Israel will exist in the upcoming months,” he says. “[The Israeli government’s] threats are so frightening, and what has become of us in our behaviour in Gaza is so frightening.”

How to build bridges

In the past eight months, amid the interminable loss of innocent civilian lives and continued incarceration of 100-plus hostages, thinking about what happens when the war ends has felt abstract, empty and illusory for many.

But as one professor of Jewish studies points out, looking forward is essential to opening the door to meaningful dialogue. Are Muslim and Jewish communities going to build bridges? he asks. “Or are they going to allow the polarisation to continue?”

Most interviewees are interested in bridge-building and moving forward, but say the war has exposed pressure points the industry can no longer ignore. Change is desperately needed. As for what form it takes, education and guidelines for communication are strong starting points.

“How, for example, are you supposed to be your authentic self if you are pro-Palestine and you want to express that?” asks one senior British Muslim TV executive. “How do you do that in a way that isn’t threatening [to Jewish people] but is truthful to yourself?”

Equally, Pearlman asks: “How does someone say they are a Zionist without being shouted down? The same right has to exist for both.”

Merkin’s concerns centre on the use of language and words such as genocide. “My mother is a Holocaust survivor and 75% of her family, including her parents and baby brother, were murdered. I understand why these [words] are used by some people, but I also understand why there are some Jews who feel it entirely inappropriate.”

The UK’s Film and TV Charity has issued recommendations for the industry on the back of a major survey. These include mandatory antisemitism and Islamophobia training, and changes to diversity monitoring, along with a review of news coverage of the war, strategies to boost Muslim and Arab leadership, and guidance for joining protests and posting on social media.

One outcome Jewish people in the UK industry hope to achieve is a greater recognition of ‘Jewish’ as an ethnicity in addition to a religion. Figures such as comedian David Baddiel have espoused for years that Jewish people are overlooked as an ethnic group and “don’t count” as a minority, both culturally and politically.

“We are suffering a sort of racism as an ethnic minority, but we’re being gaslit about it because some refuse to accept that we are an ethnic minority,” says Daws. “We weren’t exactly white enough that Hitler, the white supremacist, didn’t kill six million of us.”

For Salaria and Azhar, moving forward involves, respectively, meaningful representation for Muslims at senior leadership levels, and the ability to tackle complex stories in the Middle East without fear or favour.

“When things like this happen, you look around and think, ‘Where are our leaders from those communities?’” says Salaria. “Because they’re the ones that make decisions about what we watch, what we read, and who gets a chance to be on screen and give their viewpoints.”

Though “brilliant”, the Film and TV Charity’s recommendations will require committed leaders to enact them, she adds.

For Azhar, a perceived conservatism in news and reporting needs shaking up, with more representation of knowledgeable sources who can speak to the history of Palestine. “We need to do our jobs as public service broadcasters and journalists, and not have a special set of rules.”

Merkin says: “The only time Israel, Gaza and the West Bank are talked about is when violence erupts or there’s Intifada. What you really want is for people to be seen as people, with the daily problems that everybody faces.”

Someone who spends his working day thinking about bridge-building is Edward Kessler, a leading thinker in interfaith relations and president of the Woolf Institute at Cambridge University, which specialises in the academic study of relations between Muslim, Jews and Christians.

Words are fluid, and what a word means in one context means something slightly different in another, says Kessler, who is Jewish. His personal view is that ‘From the river to the sea, let Palestine be free’ is not antisemitic. “However, if I start driving through the streets of Golders Green, waving my Palestinian flag and shouting ‘From the river to the sea…’ yes, that is antisemitic.”

He agrees that words such as genocide and apartheid are “real buttons”, and he does not use them. “But I don’t stop other people from using them,” he says. “I can well understand how somebody can view what’s happening in Gaza as genocide. I may or may not agree, but I can completely understand how it’s used.”

Kessler encourages the industry to keep relationships front and centre, and be open to other viewpoints. Crucially, he urges those with nuanced opinions of the war to speak up, “otherwise you leave the ground open for those who hold more extremist views”.

There’s no reason you can’t be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli, says Kessler, but you have to define it. “Do you mean pro-Palestine, the whole land [including Israel]? Do you mean pro-Israel but no Palestine? You have to work out what that means.

“What’s happening at the moment is that, to be one, you’re pressured to say you reject the other. And that’s what dialogue does not accept, because dialogue is about hearing different viewpoints.”

But this is not only an issue for Jewish, Arab and Muslim people to consider. It’s important that the wider industry opens the diversity and inclusion conversation to better encompass these communities, their views and concerns.

In the wake of the soul-searching in recent years around ethnic diversity, the whole industry should be better positioned to have these conversations – and act on them.

At a crucial juncture for religious and cultural tolerance, actively seeking dialogue could create vital new standards for accountability, awareness and representation.