LONDON — Simon Schama loves a daunting challenge. In 2000 he completed the first part of what became a three volume book series about the history of Britain. It was accompanied by a TV show with the same name.
This month sees the British historian publishing a book in the US that takes on another epic historical subject. Released in the UK last year, “The Story of the Jews: Finding The Words 1000 BC-1492 AD” was also accompanied by an impressive BBC documentary series. This month it was aired again on PBS in the US in a two-part series ending April 1.
In the series Schama is shown at his family’s Passover seder; in Jerusalem, he notes that he celebrated his bar mitzvah nearby; and at a London synagogue, he explains how he feels when the Torah is brought out.
“This is the moment when Jews feel most Jewish,” Schama narrates. “The ark opens, the Torah scrolls… are held up and you smile. At least I always smile at the pure beauty of it all.”
This is not the first time Schama has documented Jewish history.
In 1978 the British Jew who grew up attending London’s Golders Green Synagogue wrote “Two Rothchilds and the Land of Israel.” But the author doesn’t consider it a success. “I was too close to the subject,” he says. “Maybe there were too many uncles and aunties in the way.”
But to try and understand the complexities of the Jewish story, for this book he decided to go back to the beginning. Not the mythical beginning of patriarchs and prophets who deliver messages from God. But one that involves archeological evidence.
So when did this arise? If we are to believe the men who scribed the Hebrew Bible, it was supposedly sometime around 1300 BCE, when Moses led the enslaved Israelites from Egypt into the desert mountains and towards the Holy Land.
But Schama’s book is intent on pointing out that much of the Bible is highly inaccurate, and some passages were written nearly 500 years after supposed historical events took place. In other words, the Scriptures, historically speaking, are most likely an echo of the truth, rather than a reflection of actual events.
“I certainly would stand by the claim that there is no documentary or archeological evidence of an Exodus [to Israel from Egyptian bondage] whatsoever,” says the 69-year-old Columbia University history professor from his home in New York.
‘The myth of the Exodus is exactly the same as the Iliad, or the Aeneid, in that there is a poetic truth behind it’
“As a historian you have to leave the possibility open that there might be some basis of remembered truth in it. But the myth of the Exodus is exactly the same as the Iliad, or the Aeneid, in that there is a poetic truth behind it. It has also a fierce poetic grip on the Jewish imagination. But we have absolutely no evidence of it at all.”
Schama claims the first time the word Israel appears on any historical artifact is in the late-13th century BCE. It was mentioned on the triumphal inscription penned for Pharaoh Merneptah, which read: “Israel is laid waste… its seed is no more.” This hieroglyph, which today resides in a museum in Cairo, leaves no doubt that the word “Israel” was originally meant as a people, rather than a place, says Schama.
The historian spends an entire chapter of his book discussing the strange relationship between Israel and Egypt. It is impossible to see Jewish history as being inseparable from Egyptian history, he adds.
“Jewish presence in Egypt goes back to before the 5th century BCE. Prophets like Jeremiah forbid Jews from returning to the lowlands, but they kept going back there. Think about Judaism as somehow shaping itself between two different kinds of physical, as well as spiritual landscapes: the up mountain and the lowlands of the plain,” he explains.
Has political power sustained piety or damaged it?
“Those lowlands are often the river culture of the Nile. Judaism exists here rather than in the uplands hills of Judea. It’s just a long fact of Jewish history that it’s often in an Egyptian setting.”
For the first half of Schama’s narrative, he zones in on the relationship between religion and politics, a theme that has consistently dominated Jewish intellectual and spiritual history for millennia.
Schama also asks a key question: Has political power sustained piety or damaged it?
“That has a real ancient dialectic in Jewish life that goes way back to the upbraiding of King David,” Schama explains. “Both David and Solomon are depicted in the Bible as pure monarchs. Even though they play such an important part in the Bible. And that distinction, between political and military power on the one hand, and religious continuity on the other, for a long time was represented by making it impossible for religious kings to be high priests, unlike other surrounding religions.”
‘The Jews invented a portable religion in the shape of the Bible, the Torah, and eventually the Talmud’
“In Mesopotamia, or, Egypt, for example, the monarch had a God-like religious status. But this is not the case in Judaism. So that notion that religion can go on, when all the markers of power, and trappings of monarchy disappear, ultimately, serves the endurance of Judaism very well.”
“The Jews invented a portable religion in the shape of the Bible, the Torah, and eventually the Talmud, and with other portable forms of writing. So it’s now possible to carry the religion that is embedded in that writing, away from the ruins of political and military power. It can lead you utterly defenseless, but also make for survival and endurance.”
Schama spends a great deal of time in the middle section of this current book discussing three crucial events that would ensure a permanent separation between Judaism and Christianity: when Jews referred to Jesus as Satan in the New Testament; when St. Paul moved the heart of Christian teaching from Christ’s life to his death, thereby implicating Jews in his murder; and when Christianity finally became the state religion of imperial Rome in 380 CE.
From these three crucial events arose the nasty myth, says Schama, of a beastly-Christ-killing-Jew, which began to dominate Christine doctrine.
In our conversation, I mention St. Paul’s vital role in stirring up anti-Semitism within Christian ideology. This is something Schama writes about in the book with great enthusiasm. But he is slightly skeptical of the subject today.
“I have been criticized about this point by many people and I accept some of the criticisms,” he admits. “In the book I’m a little harsh on St. Paul’s view. And I’m aware that there is a huge debate going on about whether Paul is ferociously determined to eradicate [Jews].
“We do now know that Paul really wanted to make a much cleaner separation between Jewish ritual practice, which all historians agree was sustained by all early Jewish Christians.”
Schama says it depends really on whether you think Paul is the formative shaper of Christian theology.
“That seems to me to be pretty undeniable. Perhaps I have overridden or misinterpreted that point. But St. Paul was making it impossible to be Jewish and Christian at the same time. What is very striking about those early Churches and communities is that you could be both. Under Paul though, you absolutely couldn’t.”
As we are having this conversation I get the feeling I’m keeping Schama from something. Then he tells me that he is currently in the process of writing the second volume of this massive compendium of Jewish history. He has already discussed parts of this in the TV series.
It covers the Medieval period of Jewish history, when Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain and began laying down roots in places like Turkey, Venice, and North Africa.
From there it will look into the flourishing of Jewish culture in Europe during the Habsburg Empire in the 19th century, to the near annihilation of it— via Nazi ideology— leading up to, and during World War II. The book will also spend considerable time analyzing the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Before we part company we begin discussing the trajectory of Jewish history to its present moment. As a British Jew who now lives in the US, is Schama always completely comfortable with Israel’s domestic and foreign policies?
He makes it clear that he is a committed Zionist, who believes 100 percent in a Jewish state, but not one that excludes Palestinians from having their homeland too. Nor is he keen on any Jewish state that makes Arabs live as refugees in their own country.
‘I believe that the occupation must end. And if it doesn’t, it will end Israel’
“I am passionately invested in the survival of Israel and everything Israel represents. But I am extremely critical of much of its policy,” says Schama unapologetically. “I believe that the occupation must end. And if it doesn’t, it will end Israel. I’m not in favor of settlements.
“I’m an old style Zionist. All my life I’ve always believed that a Jewish State and a Palestinian state should exist alongside each other. But that just puts me in common with large numbers of Israelis, who have an equally critical view. I believe in peace for land.
“But if you ask me: is the Iranian threat real? I would say yes. Does Hamas have to acknowledge the State of Israel for there to be peace? Yes it does.”
— JTA contributed to this story