Simon Schama's BBC Epic Testifies to Britain's Fascination With All Things Jewish

The positive reception of the BBC's recent TV series on the history of the Jews attests to the star quality of its creator-presenter, historian Simon Schama.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

With one television series, Simon Schama has undermined the work of a generation of pro-Israel propagandists. After the screening of his sweeping five-piece “The Story of the Jews” on prime time in Britain last month, no one will be able to say for at least another decade that the BBC has an inherent bias against Israel. I put this to him as we met this week, the evening after the broadcast of the final episode, “Return,” which focuses on the birth of the Jewish state from the ashes of the Holocaust, and which he described as “the moral case for Israel.”

“I know” he says, laughing, “people were tweeting to me last night in amazement, ‘Is this the BBC?’” In an earlier episode, when relating the story of the French-Jewish army officer convicted of treason and the turmoil his case created in the soul of an assimilated Austrian journalist, Theodor Herzl, Schama − sitting in a Viennese cafe − presents Herzl’s little book, “The Jewish State,” and then stares into the camera and says proudly, “I am a Zionist and quite unapologetic about it.” And at that moment you look at the corner of the screen to make sure the BBC logo is still there and this is being shown by the venerable corporation with its charter of objectiveness and impartiality.

Schama relishes the thought that his high-profile series, which has received a huge deal of attention and healthy viewing ratings, has done something to improve the BBC’s image among his fellow-Jews. “They have been very good to me,” he says of the network that made him a household name in Britain, beginning in 1995, when it broadcast its first series based on a Schama book, “Landscape and Memory,” “and besides, this was their idea. They came to me with it and I realized it was really the time to do it. I hadn’t worked on Jewish history for decades, since my book on the Rothschilds [published in 1978]. I had that sense that I’m an old geezer and I had to give it a go. Jewish history is just so out there in front of the world and full of anxieties of anti-Semitism and the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict.”

And naturally it was that conflict that did create something of a backlash: There was a fair amount of grumbling within the anti-Israel blogosphere, and six organizations, including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Jews for Justice for Palestinians signed a letter of complaint to the BBC management saying that, “We find it alarming that the BBC is giving a platform to an openly pro-Israeli commentator to make the ‘moral case’ for Israel. Schama’s views will go unopposed, unchallenged and unanalyzed. This is a far cry from the balanced and impartial broadcasting that the BBC claims to champion.” But their protest failed to resonate in the wider media, which by and large received the series very positively.

Schama himself actually expected a greater outcry. “I thought it would get a lot more criticism; I was expecting more volume and fury.”

The relatively muted opposition was probably due in part to the fact that the BBC was so firmly behind the series. It also attests to the star quality of Schama, who over the past two decades has written and presented no fewer than 10 wildly popular historical series for television, most prominent among them the 15-part history of Britain, specially commissioned by the BBC for the millennium. These, along with a string of popular-history books, many of them best sellers, have made Schama one of Britain’s best-known public academics, certainly its most famous historian, a national institution, well on his way to becoming what the British call “a national treasure.”

In other words, criticizing Schama is not fashionable, and if he wants to go on television and tell the story of the Jews, heavily interspersed with his own family’s history, and proclaim his Zionism, then that works. The proof is in the glowing reviews in the mainstream press, but also in Schama’s impressions of the string of book-signings he has attended in recent weeks for “The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words” ‏(Bodley Head; to be published in the U.S. in 2014‏), which covers the period from ancient times until 1492 and came out along with the TV series.

“Many of the people buying the book are obviously Jewish,” he says, “but the two constituencies who have been really worked up about it are people who have just come out as Jews. Those who have not been part of the culture at all, and shyly made their way into the series − and a lot of non-Jews, as well, including a lot of fervent Christians. I think they get a sense that there is something here to be explored, other than something trapped in a box. They don’t just have to shuffle furtively around the smoke coming out of the crematorium. They can engage with Josephus and the spectacular illuminated Cordoba Bible.”

Schama’s “Story of the Jews,” like his previous historical series, is very much his story and the story of individuals he chooses to bring to life. In this case, it is also his ideology and feelings, his enthusiasm for Jewish liturgy, architecture, art and music, the travails of his mother’s family of Jewish lumberjacks back in Lithuania ‏(through his father he is descended from Turkish Jews‏), his fascination with the diversity of Jewish thought that encompasses Baruch Spinoza and Sigmund Freud, along with Nachmanides and the Baal Shem Tov.

Heart on his sleeve

As a historian and a television presenter, Schama constantly wears his heart on his sleeve. “Limpid dispassion as a methodology is greatly overrated,” says Schama. “I often think history is a weird negotiation between the empathy of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and corrective distance.” At some of the filming locations, especially old synagogues, he admits that he totally abandoned the prepared script. “You feel immediately among the ghosts, that the location is telling you what to say. Almost like a ventriloquist.”

Born in 1945 in North London, his personal trajectory begins with childhood in a moderately Orthodox home, which included heder ‏(Jewish Sunday school‏), and a bar mitzvah in which he had to recite the entire weekly portion of the Torah; to his adolescence in the left-wing secular Zionist youth movement Habonim and two months on a kibbutz, at the age of 18; and from there, after Cambridge, to American academia where he embraced Reform Judaism as his preferred mode.

As a historian who has always preferred art over numbers, Schama rejoices in the splendor of Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Ave., and has little patience with demographers who predict the assimilation and disappearance of America’s Reform Jews. “It’s an incredibly thriving culture,” he says, “not a highway to disappearance by any means.”

But the positive reception of the series in Britain ‏(it will air in spring 2014 on PBS in the U.S.‏) is not just a reflection on Schama’s stature, it also testifies to a current mood of fascination in Britain with all things Jewish that in many ways runs contrary to outside misperceptions of the British situation.

“You speak with American Jews and they all think it’s 1930s Berlin here, but it’s not true at all,” says Schama who lives and lectures most of the year in New York, but shares the view that British Jews have rarely, if ever, had it better. “Sure, there are sometimes raw sparks when it comes to Palestinian issues. You still have the old Arabists in the Foreign Office, and the ultra-left, but the default mode in the big center of Britain is not Judeophobic at all. In fact it’s quite Jew-friendly.”

Despite that, in the short part of the series dedicated to Jewish history in Britain, Schama pulls no punches when he describes the bloody pogroms experienced by Jews in England in the 13th century, noting that the shrine to “Little Hugh,” commemorating a Christian child whose death in 1255 caused a murderous blood-libel against the local Jews, was removed from Lincoln Cathedral only in 2009.

On the whole, this BBC series focuses very little on Britain, and Schama says that is due mainly “to the brutal economy of television. I would have liked to have more about how Britain has been a spectacular haven for the Jews, and I will correct that in the next volume of the book [to be published next year], with two or three chapters on Anglo-Jewish culture.”

Throughout the series, there is a constant feeling that whenever the Jews have found sanctuary and set down roots anywhere in the world, doom and destruction is waiting just around the corner. Countering this, Schama tries to let in as much light as possible. Glorious illuminated biblical manuscripts, ornate synagogues, music, art and the cross-fertilization of Jewish and Gentile culture.

“I try to give a sense of a flourishing of the Jews,” he explains. “One mustn’t read just the story of the Christian Middle Ages, but also periods breathing space and light, different relationships with surrounding cultures, especially in the Muslim countries.”

Schama realizes that some parts of the series may seem like a lecture against Jewish assimilation. “I was trying hard not to say that assimilation doesn’t work. But what hit the Jews in those parts [Germany and France] was that you have to hitch your wagon to the most radical modernity, to the gymnasium and the lycee. But what happens when modernity becomes the enemy and is replaced by mystical Teutonism? You are screwed.”

While all these strands, both light and dark, are brought together in his book, Schama admits that, “on television, I had no choice but to leave whacking pieces out. I mean, I didn’t even mention Maimonides. But constantly thinking of what I missed, that way leads to madness. As it is, the BBC originally wanted four episodes, and I had to convince them we cannot do it in less than five.”

The two final episodes, “Over the Rainbow” and “Return,” serve as alternative endings to the story of the Jews. Both incorporate the Holocaust and the destruction of old European Jewry, but while “Over the Rainbow” posits the Jewish-American experience as the antithesis to European desolation, “Return” presents Israel’s Jewish population as “six million defeats for the Nazi program of total extermination.”

Schama has chosen America as his home, and he is unstinting in his praise of it. “America has been the one huge success for Jewish life. It is the place where you can hyphenate American and Jewish and it is never problematic. America achieves its modernization through constantly replenishing its immigrant population. That’s the nature of American innovation, and it makes it very difficult for there to be an exclusive ethnic center against which one people would be regarded as outsiders.”

His relationship with Israel is more conflicted. He clings fast to the “Zionism of the only possible refuge, in the place where our cultural identity was undoubtedly formed.” He chooses the Jewish statehood of Herzl and Chaim Weizmann over the “Brit Shalom” Jewish-Arab, one-state utopia of Martin Buber. Today he calls himself “a two-state Zionist,” presenting on the screen the visions of a settler yearning for a Land of Israel reaching to the Euphrates and the liberal-Zionism of David Grossman. It is clear where he stands when he criticizes Israel’s current policies as not always adhering to the biblical injunction, “and you shall choose life.”

Of the perspective of Benjamin Netanyahu, based on the beliefs of his late father, Benzion, the historian of the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry − who believed that there was an inherent connection between the expulsion of 1492 and the Holocaust 450 years later − he says that “there are awful moments in our history that are awful in their own particular way. But Nazi persecution was not dominated by Catholicism, and when you are in the grip of believing that there is a template of persecution, it’s an awful obstacle to pragmatic thought. To me it’s profoundly unhistorical. It’s oracular and prophetic and gets in the way of rational thinking. A statesman must adapt and have free agency not dictated by history.”

Simon Schama. Admits he abandoned the script sometimes. "You feel that the location is telling you what to say. Almost like a ventriloquist."

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