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Simon Schama Moderates a Moderate History of Moderate Jews

‘The Story of the Jews’ is the most important TV documentary about Jewish history since Abba Eban’s famous ‘Heritage’ series

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Details from People of the Book: Diaspora, a painting by Ward Shelley, whose work can be seen at Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn. The full painting can be seen here. (Courtesy of Ward Shelley)
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In the fourth episode, when Schama does visit a Holocaust site—a Lithuanian village, not unlike the one his ancestors came from—he observes, “But this wasn’t a place that sat passively waiting for its destruction.” Instead, in a kind of rhetorical rescue maneuver, Schama sutures the story of Eastern European Jewry to that of American Jewry, as if the former were not destroyed but translated into the latter. Ashkenazi culture “didn’t get pulverized by the hammer of history,” he says, “it merely changed its address.” In fact, both things are true, but Schama knows that the Holocaust is already at the center of his audience’s understanding of Jewish history. Especially in Britain, it was important to tell other Jewish stories, like that of Jewish Daily Forward, with its proud Lower East Side headquarters, and the career of Yip Harburg, the songwriter of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” whom Schama uses as an emblem of American Jewish achievement and creativity.

When the number “6 million” is mentioned in the series, it is not as the number of Holocaust victims, but as the population of the current State of Israel—a nice shift of emphasis from death to life. The program’s last episode is largely devoted to Israel, and Schama gives an even-handed but essentially pro-Zionist account of its improbable history, from the Balfour Declaration down to the Second Intifada. While acknowledging that the War of Independence was also the Palestinian Nakba, Schama declares forthrightly—while sitting in a table in a Viennese café once frequented by Theodor Herzl—that “I am a Zionist. I’m quite unapologetic about it.” (The fact that he needs to declare he is unapologetic, of course, says volumes about the current reputation of Zionism, especially in Europe.)

Schama’s case for Zionism has less to do with the historic attachment of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel than with the sheer existential necessity of a Jewish homeland in the face of European hatred. He shows us Israelis pausing for the memorial siren on Yom HaShoah, and describes them as “6 million defeats for the Nazis.” The story of Shmuel Ziegelboym—the Polish Jewish leader who committed suicide during World War II to protest the world’s indifference to the Holocaust—leads directly into his discussion of Zionism, as a premise leads to a conclusion.

detail from Ward Shelley, People of the Book

At the same time, Schama makes clear that he is a liberal and a believer in a two-state solution. Standing in front of a section of the separation wall, he acknowledges its necessity for saving Israeli lives, yet deplores it as a contradiction of the outward-looking Judaism he has spent the whole series celebrating. Schama interviews a Palestinian refugee from the 1948 war, who explains that he constantly reminds his children of what they have lost: “They will never forget,” the man promises. And when he films an American-born settler in the West Bank—a Jew who, in calm and articulate tones, explains why the proper borders of Israel are those of the Kingdom of Solomon and says he sees no problem with Jews ruling millions of disenfranchised Arabs—Schama goes out of his way to repudiate the man’s views.

If deciding on a beginning is one problem in the Jewish story, the ending presents another kind of challenge. The telling of any story has to have a conclusion, and that can hardly help implying that the story itself has ended. The present comes to seem like the conclusion to which Jewish history has been tending all along. But Schama’s last words remind us that this is not the case: “The story goes on,” he concludes. In fact, the current state of affairs for Jews is, historically speaking, highly anomalous. For thousands of years, the Jewish story took place mainly in a hostile Europe; today Europe is home to a small remnant, and the centers of Jewish life are America and Israel.

For thousands of years, too, the Land of Israel was the distant object of impotent longing; today, for the first time since 70 C.E., it is the home of an independent Jewish state. And for most of Jewish history, genuine assimilation to a non-Jewish society was simply not an option, short of conversion; while today, Jews have a unique chance to assimilate to American culture while still remaining Jewish. In some ways, then, this is the most hopeful era Jewish history has ever known, and that optimism is reflected in The Story of the Jews. Yet this hope emerged in the shadow of the worst tragedy in our whole history, the Holocaust, which renders it always a little fragile, a little doubtful. What wouldn’t we give to see the successor to Schama a hundred or a thousand years from now, to see how our own moment will figure in the ongoing and endlessly fascinating Jewish story.

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Simon Schama Moderates a Moderate History of Moderate Jews

‘The Story of the Jews’ is the most important TV documentary about Jewish history since Abba Eban’s famous ‘Heritage’ series

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