"The ideals that form the moral compass of Western civilization, the belief that every human being has value, the belief that no one is above the law, the belief that how each of us treats our fellow human beings matters -- these were all the gifts of the Jews."
So declares Carl Byker, producer-director of "Kingdom of David: The Saga of the Israelites," who has devoted four film hours to trace how a tiny, insignificant tribe exerted such an enormous impact on the history and moral outlook of the rest of the world.
"Kingdom of David" is an ambitious undertaking. It combines a history of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C.E. to the Roman conquest of the first century C.E., together with a parallel track on the evolution of the Jewish religion and of its written and oral law.
The film balances drama with instruction by using actors to recreate the daily life and bloody battles of half a millennium, alternating with the commentary of noted scholars.
And bloody battles they were -- by and against a succession of conquerors, from the Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians to the Greeks and Romans. The slaughter, often triggered by desperate Jewish revolts, left the Jews again and again at the edge of extinction, only to recreate themselves and rise again.
To its credit, the miniseries presents both the traditional biblical version of Jewish history, counterpointed by the findings of archaeologists and modern scholarship.
The latter proposes, for instance, that instead of the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were natives of the land of Canaan, and lower-class natives at that. One scholar observes that by conceiving stories to define their identity, "It is as if the stories created the people, rather than the other way around."
Local scholars are prominent among the commentators, including Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Perry Netter and David Wolpe, author Jonathan Kirsch and professor Ziony Zevit.
Among the narrators are Keith David and actors Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Rene Auberjonois and F. Murray Abraham.
"Kingdom of David" may not represent the very deepest interpretation and analysis, but it is an accessible and lively survey of the genesis of our heritage.
The two-part miniseries will air at 9 p.m. on May 14 and 21 on KCET.
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