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The Jew survives it

A remarkable montage opens the fifth and final part of The Story of the Jews, the BBC documentary series written and presented by the historian Simon Schama. It is early morning in Tel Aviv, and Schama is pacing the streets as the city comes to life. Cars snake around a busy intersection, someone tunes a radio, an elderly lady sits on a public bench gazing at the passing traffic. And then, suddenly, the familiar hubbub is pierced by the sound of a siren.

The proximate cause is not a surprise attack, but an annual act of remembrance. It is Yom Ha-Shoah, and for one minute on this day every year, Israelis stop what they are doing to pay silent tribute to the millions exterminated during the Holocaust. As Schama’s visual representation of the siren’s impact unfolds, drivers step outside of their vehicles, while doctors and nurses scurrying around a busy hospital become motionless. High school students put their pens down and stand quietly at their desks. At an army base, IDF soldiers salute as an Israeli flag flutters in the breeze. In a retirement home, the residents shuffle to their feet; one woman, her arm marked with tattooed numbers, blinks with an air of disbelief as she stands, head bowed, deep in reflection.

Then the siren fades, and the routine resumes. At least, it does for everyone except Schama. He continues to stand upright on the sidewalk, the outline of Tel Aviv’s skyscrapers just visible behind him. He wears the expression of a man hearing that siren, whose mournful wail is like an endless stream of desperate, pleading voices, for the first time. Eyes brimming with tears, Schama cannot bring himself to look into the camera. “It could have been us,” he finally murmurs. 

But it wasn’t “us,” and the reason, as Schama buoyantly explains in the remainder of this episode, entitled “Return,” is manifested all around him. At long last, the Jews have their own place under the sun, a state where they can map out a Jewish future without peering nervously over their shoulders. For a historian like Schama, with a liberal reputation, depicting the foundation of the State of Israel as the culmination of centuries of agonizing exile is an undoubtedly courageous act, confronting as it does the fashion among many of his colleagues for regarding the Jewish state as a colonial implant. For Schama to have driven home such a point in a series commissioned by the BBC, whose news broadcasts frequently portray Israel’s actions in a negative light, is perhaps even more astonishing.

The story of the Jews is a series aimed at non-Jews. Elegantly filmed and directed, with a crisp script that succeeds in handling the historical facts with both sufficient rigor and appropriate emotion, it is tempting to believe that Schama had a specific type of non-Jew in mind as the series went into production: the academics, journalists, and artists whose eyebrows arch in irritation when the subjects of Zionism and Israel are raised at dinner parties.

To watch the entire series in one sitting is a bit like attending Schama’s own salon for five hours. He is a considerate host with a charming personality, yet he does not indulge the prejudices of his guests. Instead, he takes them on a journey through Jewish history organized not so much by chronology as by recurring themes. Power and the loss of power, land and the loss of land, the unwavering determination of so many Jews to succeed in the arts or in commerce, the pain and the hurt that accompanied the Jews’ rejection from the societies in which they lived, the attachment of the Jewish tradition to words and ideas, rather than icons—all this undergirds his treatment of the dilemmas faced by Jews whether in exile or emancipated from it.

This approach means that there are some glaring absences. The three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are all invisible. So too are Rashi, the greatest commentator on the Torah, and Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher. Such omissions are mainly forgivable; a television series is not an encyclopedia, and Schama clearly didn’t want his viewers to be overwhelmed by an excess of detail.

From the outset, Schama, who is not a religious Jew, explains the persistence of Jewish identity through the lens of peoplehood. Investigating why modern Jews felt so intimately tied to their biblical forebears, he turns up at the London house where Sigmund Freud resided after fleeing the Nazi conquest of Vienna. Among the ancient artifacts collected by the author of Moses and Monotheism, a work in which the atheistic Freud essentially deconstructs the Bible, Schama finds a small menorah. “The Jews had given themselves an extraordinary possibility of enduring not just as a faith, but as a people, when everything else had been lost—land, kingdom, power,” he says. “That was the meaning of the menorah.”

Schama also displays a postcard Freud sent to a colleague while visiting Rome in 1913. The picture on the front showed the Arch of Titus, decorated with representations of the Romans plundering the Second Temple after the fall of Jerusalem. On the back, Freud had written simply: “The Jew survives it!”

Schama is obviously taken with the idea of survival as the key to Jewish history, and even more so with those individuals, like Freud, who exemplify this impulse. To give the story of the Exodus contemporary meaning, he relies upon Aviva Rahamim, an Ethiopian Jew who braved famine, war, and roadside bandits to travel on foot from the country where she was born to Israel.

And he has little patience for those Jews whom he regards as having compromised their group fealty for the dubious blessings of gentile rulers. Schama is not speaking here about today’s Jewish anti-Zionists—though he could be—but the first-century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus. Josephus’s apologetics for the Roman invaders irritate Schama. “You think, ‘Oh sure, you’re just trying to save your skin and your reputation in the cushy billet of the Emperor Vespasian’s apartments,’” he declares. Only when Josephus writes a considered book about Judaism for a Roman audience does Schama concede that this “creepily self-exonerating historian” might have recovered some dignity after all.

In his attitude toward Josephus, there is a sense that Schama is grappling with a quandary of his own. He admires tough Jews; even when criticizing Zeev Jabotinsky, the great revisionist Zionist, he notes Jabotinsky’s role in defending the Jews of Odessa from pogromists. The type of Judaism that appeals to Schama is open and cosmopolitan. He eschews what he regards as the ascetic, purist doctrines of Ezra and Nehemiah while he embraces the tolerant, aesthetically pleasing example of the ancient Jews who settled in Elephantine, in Upper Egypt. At the same time, he acknowledges that this openness was rarely reciprocated. Elephantine’s Jews watched as their house of worship was destroyed by their pagan neighbors, just as, in later centuries, the Jews in England who provided loans to build churches and monasteries were expelled by royal edict, and the Jews of the Iberian peninsula were ejected by a vengeful Inquisition that viewed their achievements as the work of the devil.

In navigating the cultural tensions between a national Judaism that rests upon state institutions and a Diaspora Judaism that is dependent, often fatally so, on the good intentions of others, Schama is particularly incisive when he addresses the experience of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. “A Leap of Faith,” the episode that covers the dawn of modernity, begins in the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, whose elders ostracized Spinoza in 1656. For Schama, the casting out of Spinoza reflected a deep reticence among traditional Jews about the Enlightenment’s secular promise. However, as he points out, subsequent generations produced exceptional individuals who leaped headfirst in the opposite direction.

In Schama’s telling, it was the 18th-century German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn who embodied the notion of the Jew as empowered citizen. But he qualifies this by asserting that those who came after Mendelssohn—among them his own composer-grandson, Felix, baptized at the age of seven to ease his acceptance into German society—were ultimately confronted with what they took to be the necessity of abandoning their Judaism if they wished to pursue individual success.

Thus did a process that began, with Spinoza, in a synagogue end in one. Schama relates the story of the avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg, who was also born a Jew and then baptized as a Christian. At the height of his career, Schoenberg learned that his friend, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, had been making viciously anti-Semitic remarks. “Perhaps I am not even a man,” a deeply wounded Schoenberg wrote to Kandinsky, before finishing defiantly: “I am a Jew.” A few months later, chased from Vienna by the Nazis, Schoenberg arrived in Paris, where he went to the synagogue on Rue Copernic seeking, as Schama puts it, “formal readmission to the community of Jews and Judaism.”

These betrayed hopes inform Schama’s tackling of the question of Zionism. Sitting at a table inside Vienna’s Café Sperl, as he ruminates on Theodor Herzl’s diagnosis of the significance of the Dreyfus Trial in France, Schama delivers an on-camera address to a BBC audience that is worth quoting in full. “I’m a Zionist. I’m quite unapologetic about that,” he says. “Because it comes down to this: Was Herzl, who had a sense of a catastrophic event just around the corner, telling the truth, or wasn’t he? Of course he was.”

It is exactly this moment that The Story of the Jews has been building up to. The viewer has been assaulted by images of the ghetto and the shtetl, by tales of gruesome pogroms—“from the Russian word, ‘to destroy,’” says Schama—and by the realization that the Enlightenment bred a form of nationalism that was to reach an eliminationist crescendo in Hitler’s dealings with the Jews. Zion, Schama understands, was always a focus of Jewish desire. As the 19th century bled into the 20th, it became a Jewish necessity as well.

This brings Schama to the conflict between the Zionist movement and Arab nationalism. He wistfully observes that it all might have been different, citing the warm endorsement of Zionism offered by Prince Faisal of Iraq in a letter to the American Jewish leader Felix Frankfurter. When he comes to Israel’s War of Independence, he is respectful of the plight of the Arab refugees—the sordid Arabic term naqba, or “catastrophe,” employed by Palestinian nationalists to describe Israel’s creation, is invoked here without comment—while emphasizing that there was no grand plan on the part of the Zionist leadership to expel them.

It is at this juncture that Schama drops a bombshell, by introducing an issue that most viewers are unlikely to have encountered before. There were other “catastrophes” during these febrile years for the Middle East, he argues, foremost among them the ethnic cleansing of the Jewish communities of the Arab world. Schama’s account of how Arab governments discriminated against, harassed, and finally expelled Jewish communities from countries such as Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen takes him to a synagogue in Alexandria that was attended by his own family. The subtext here is obvious: The Palestinians were not the only victims of the Middle East’s upheavals, and any talk of justice must therefore include the Jews of Arab lands as well.

That is one reason that Schama’s ending, which focuses on the Palestinian conflict with Israel, is a little disappointing. At issue is not his belief that Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank is an obstacle to peace—a view he expresses in conventional left-wing Zionist terms—but his insinuation that resolving the Palestinian question is the most critical challenge facing the Jews in their ongoing story. It is an uncharacteristically pedestrian conclusion that buries the wider question of whether a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would grant the Jewish state legitimacy in the broader Islamic world. It elides, as well, the other, no less significant trials facing Jews today: How to counter assimilation? How to confront the distinctly postmodern anti-Semitic libel that the Jews now mimic the behavior of their own persecutors?

Yet it would be churlish to judge Schama’s effort by these objections alone. As he pointed out in a Financial Times article about the series, “for good or ill…so much of the material newly unearthed or freshly considered ties together the history of the Jews with everyone else’s.” If The Story of the Jews succeeds in persuading today’s consumers of history that the Jews are not an “invention,” as axe-to-grind historians like Shlomo Sand would insist, but the bearers of a noble past filled with lessons for the wider world, Schama will have done his job magnificently.

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