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Middle East

The power of radio during British-mandated Palestine

media Radio engineer Moshe Rubin transmits the special broadcast during the opening of the Palestine Broadcasting Service, Ramallah, March 30, 1936 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington,

On 30 March 1936, the British High Commissioner of Palestine, Arthur Wauchope, inaugurated the Palestinian Broadcasting Service, the PBS. It was the second broadcaster to be established in the Middle East, after Radio Cairo in 1934, and featured programmes in Arabic, Hebrew and English. 




It covered the region of Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as parts of Egypt.

The new transmitter was in Ramallah and the broadcasting offices were in Jerusalem.

Crowds near broadcasting tower in Ramallah at inauguration of PBA, March 30th 1936 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

“For some years I have been greatly impressed by the benefits that a well-directed broadcasting service can bring to the mind and spirit of any people who enjoy its advantages,” said Wauchope on the day of the inauguration. He added that in Palestine, broadcasting would be “directed for the advantage of all classes of all communities”.

Sir Arthur turning on switch to the broadcasting towers in Ramallah, March 30th 1936 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

British-mandated Palestine

To understand the significance of the opening of the PBS, it’s important to put it into the context of the time.

Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1920 after World War One, the Middle East was carved up between the French and the British according to discussions held by members of the League of Nations.

Palestine was officially placed under British control and referred to as British-mandated Palestine, or Mandatory Palestine.

The majority of the population were Arab Palestinians.

But there was a big community of Jewish Palestinians that pre-dated the arrival of the British.

In fact, the mix of communities and religions, between Muslims, Christians and Jews, had been, for the most part, relatively peaceful under the Ottomans until the 1916 revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

Following the end of the Ottomans, the Balfour declaration was pronounced in 1917, a British initiative that put in place an open-ended Jewish immigration and land purchase policy.

By 1936, Palestinian Arabs were beginning to grow weary of Jewish immigration, primarily from central and Eastern Europe, and demanded Arab independence from Britain.

The growing tension exploded in April 1936, in what is referred to as the Great Revolt or the Arab revolt.

This ended in 1939, but during that time, the identities of the communities began to take shape, with many carving out their own ideas of nationhood.

Just a year before the establishment of the Palestinian Broadcasting Service, Britain had revoked the licence of the already functioning Radio Tel Aviv.

London argued that the PBS would be more beneficial to the region.

“The British government used it as part of their annual reports to the League of nations mandate commission, to argue that putting in a radio station was a sign that they were living up to the terms of the mandate,” says Andrea Stanton, author of This is Jerusalem calling and associate professor of Middle East history at the university of Denver in the United States.

She adds that in setting up a radio service, London argued that they were “supporting the national development for self-governance of Palestine as a territory that they were administering”.

Main entrance of the PBS House, Queen Milisande's Way, Jerusalem Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

Or perhaps Britain believed that modernisation via a state-controlled radio station would resolve the growing problem of Palestine by focusing on programming aimed at pacifying each community.

‘This is Jerusalem’

The establishment of the Palestinian Broadcasting Service, with the frequency call ‘This is Jerusalem’, aimed to service all three communities: Arabic speaking, Hebrew speaking and English speaking.

Using the city of Jerusalem in the frequency call was likely a way of finding a denominator amongst the communities explains Stanton.

This new service was modelled on the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, and as a non-commercial public station it would have a monopoly across Palestine.

Its funding was mainly from the British government, in addition to revenues from the license fees of radio sets.

Its programming was aimed to educate and elevate listeners as citizens, rather than to entertain them as consumers, explains Stanton.

Golden age of radio

Let’s not forget that the 1930s was fast becoming the golden age of state-run radio across Europe and in its respective colonies across Africa and Asia.

And the mid-1930s was the shining moment in radio for the Middle East.

By the late 1930s, there were already a number of state-run stations in the region, broadcasting from Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Mosul.

As mentioned earlier, the aim was of the PBS was to target the two major language audiences: Arabic and Hebrew.

“In terms of broadcasting hours, Arabic had the bulk of the time. Different arguments made for that by the mandate officials primarily one out of population. And also the kind of subsidiary argument was that either they felt that there weren't other great options for Arabic-speakers to access whereas the Jewish population was able to listen to other European stations in various languages and presumably understand them” says Stanton.

Arab staff at PBS, 1941 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

But another use of a state-controlled radio was to minimise any anti-British sentiment, “particularly in the late 30s, there was a great concern among British officials in London and to the lesser extend in Palestine that other European countries, in particular Italy were broadcasting in Arabic as anti-British propaganda” stresses the author.

And for that reason, censorship was still quite heavy. Rarely did any anti-colonialist line get aired across the British colonies.

Programming for the communities

As noted earlier, the High Commissioner’s speech at the inauguration of the Palestinian Broadcasting Service, programming would educate and elevate citizens, and not simply entertain them.

While it is hard to find any audio record of programmes on at that time, Stanton points to a fountain of information thanks to the programme guides in the newspapers.

“A lot of music. Some live music by the stations’ music employees, orchestral... We know that there was children programming, the children's hours tended to be mostly plays. There were a lot of talks, short educational talks, 10 to15 minutes. The Arabic ones tended to be on everything from great moments in Arab world history to things like the history of orange production,” details Stanton.

On the Hebrew side of the broadcasting, there was more debate on what kind of music should be played. “Big debates in terms of what kinds of 'oriental music' should be played on the Hebrew side and what kind of 'Jewish, folk or eastern folk music' should be played during the Hebrew broadcasting,” says the historian.

In fact the PBS had an in-house orchestra when it came to playing traditional folk music.

Rima Tarazi is a musician and chairperson of the board and a founder of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in the West Bank.

She describes memorable performances of famous Arab musicians from Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, who frequently visited Palestine to perform in the major cities and in the newly established PBS.

Arab musicians with girl and boy soloists at microphone at PBS studio Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

She says that PBS actually played a major role in spreading such music across the region.

The increased airing of classical music came as more Jewish immigrants had arrived from Eastern and Central Europe. “By the mid-1930s, there was an influx of classically trained European Jewish musicians who had come to Palestine,” explains Stanton.

Rima adds that the PBS, while working to share and spread traditional local music, also played an important role in introducing classical music to the public.

She notes one major event during the period of the PBS was Arturo Toscanini’s visit to Palestine and his conducting of the in-house orchestra.

One programme called ‘The New Arab Home’ was created by Salwa Sa’id, a Lebanese woman who married a Palestinian and moved to Palestine soon after.

Her programme aired at the turn of the 1940s for 12 episodes, and dealt with ways to help women create “an ideal space, ideal domestic space, in Palestine, [and on what] a modern domestic space should look like” explains Sherene Seikaly, the author of ‘Men of Capital: scarcity and Economy in mandate Palestine’ and a Middle East historian at the University of California in Santa Barbara,

Much of the content in the programme dealt with household ideas, but in a way that Seikaly says highlighted a certain level of identity amongst the Palestinian woman, through an emphasis on hygiene, finance and budgeting. But there was also an emphasis on “nationalism….and positioning the middle and upper class Palestinian women in a broader struggle for both social dominance as well as national self-determination.”

Demand for a national radio service?

While there hasn’t been any research to support the claim that there was a demand for such a service in Palestine, Andrea says radio often was a symbol of sovereignty, and perhaps a stepping stone to finally having independence.

Photo taken in Palestine Broadcasting Service Studios, Jerusalem. Military band in studio, broadcasting Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

But the PBS mission to cater to two communities that were blatantly divided may have worked to the disadvantage of London.

There was programming for the Palestinian Arab, and programming for the Hebrew-speaking European, or newly arrived immigrant. But what about the Palestinian Jew whose family had been in Palestine for generations?

“One thing that is really important – and not looked enough in the main stream – is the way that Zionism and Arab nationalism colluded to make someone like the Arab Jew an impossibility. And that history is really important to recover if we're to think about the possibility of different futures,” laments Seikaly.

While the PBS was able to steer Palestine into the modern era of radio, perhaps we forget that radio not only has the capacity to unite, but also to divide.

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