It Takes a Lot to Render Simon Schama Speechless – but Netanyahu Managed It

In an interview with Haaretz, the acclaimed historian behind ‘The Story of the Jews’ explains why he considers it his duty to speak out on hot political subjects, whether that be Trump, Brexit or right-wing Israeli politicians

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Simon Schama at B'nai B'rith World Center in Jerusalem. December 2018
Simon Schama addresses B'nai B'rith World Center in Jerusalem. December 2018Credit: Bruno Charbit
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Simon Schama feels that returning right now to what he calls his “third home,” Israel, is a respite from the political turmoil in his native land, Britain, and the one he has chosen to live in for the last four decades, the United States.

Not that he is sanguine about the situation in Israel. Far from it – but at least there’s nothing new about that. At 73, not only is one of the most famous Jewish historians of his generation not slowing down, publishing new books and presenting new television series. He’s also engaging with contemporary politics with relish – partly, he admits, because he missed the Western world turning toward its current era of anger.

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“If anyone should’ve had a better listening antenna to the return of something really tribal and nativistic, it ought to have been me. I spent a lot of my life thinking about national identity,” he told Haaretz earlier this month in Jerusalem.

Schama devoted much of his early career to researching and writing on the French Revolution and the Dutch Golden Age. So he feels qualified, almost duty bound, to weigh in on today’s politics, especially when his homelands are tearing themselves apart. Or as he put it, “England is just trying to leave Europe; Donald Trump is trying to leave the world. Both turn out to be quite sticky.”

I previously interviewed Schama in 2013, when he published the first volume of his trilogy “The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words,” which dealt with the two-and-a-half millennia leading up to the expulsion of the Jews of Spain in 1492. At the same time, the BBC had produced the five-part “Story of the Jews” television series, presented by Schama to almost universal critical acclaim.

Meeting back then in a trendy south London venue, at the peak of a post-Olympics wave of gentrification, it felt as if the globalized society had weathered the storm of the 2008 economic crisis. The very idea of Britain leaving the European Union seemed ridiculous, and across the Atlantic Barack Obama was a popular and recently re-elected president.

This time, we met in Jerusalem – the morning after Schama had delivered the annual Jerusalem address of the B’nai B’rith World Center in front of a rapt audience. In his wide-ranging lecture, titled “Jewish Arguments Then and Now,” he lamented the erosion of what he called “the sanctity of contradiction” in all three of his homelands, and celebrated the fact that, despite it all, the Jewish “argument about argument carries on” and remains an “argument among family.”

One of the highlights of the “Story of the Jews” TV series was the fourth episode, “Over the Rainbow” – the triumphant story of how an Eastern European Jewish Diaspora had rebuilt itself amid the prosperity and security of the United States. In many ways, it was the happy ending to the story of the Jews’ travails.

"The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words" by Simon Schama. The second volume, "Belonging," was published in 2017.Credit: SONNY FIGUEROA / NYT

But it was followed by an “alternative ending” in episode five, “Return”: Schama’s loving but critical account of the birth of Israel, and its subsequent challenges. I asked him this month whether he would have done “Over the Rainbow” any differently – perhaps introducing a more ominous tone toward the end – had it been produced in the age of Trump, when American Jews have experienced the most murderous outbreak of anti-Semitic violence with 11 murdered in a Pittsburgh synagogue?

“I think not, because I think that kind of Jewish life in America lives and flourishes and mostly despises Trump, and was part of a huge vindication of the oxygen and elasticity of the American political system just a couple of months ago in the midterm elections,” Schama responds. “So it’s almost an embarrassment how much – and again it’s kind of grist to the mill of the anti-Semitic alt-right – how much of Hollywood and how much of the talking media is galvanized to defend every bit of the American dream.”

While being enormously concerned by the current state of affairs, Schama remains optimistic because “the mainstream narrative of American history from Roosevelt – from certainly from the New Deal onward – was the progressive liberalization, [tempered] with an amount of the intensity and power of conservative politics in a sort of Reagan sense. But essentially, in terms of civil rights and the possibility of electing a black president, that narrative seemed to be the dominant narrative of the future.”

Now, though, he is more willing to admit that setbacks are possible along the way. “As far as the Jews were concerned, it’s all too easy to forget the huge popularity of ferocious anti-immigrant – and by extension anti-Jewish – feeling that was lodged in the American political bloodstream in a kind of particular place in the darker side of American history.”

He believes this darker side has been even more pronounced in Europe, “where we underestimated the degree of alienation that would be felt as a result of the unequal distribution of rewards from the recovery out of 2008. That’s certainly true in Europe. We were patting ourselves on the back in 2010” when fears that the financial crisis would be blamed on the Jews, due to the malfeasance of the banking system, failed to materialize.

Jewish journey

Schama has never seen his role as a historian as being a dispassionate observer of the past. But it seems he has adopted the role of contemporary commentator with a vengeance in the last few years: in interviews and lectures; as a weekly columnist for the U.K.’s Financial Times, where one of his recent pieces mused on the possible emergence of “a Yankee Duce”; and with increasing frequency and vitriol on Twitter, where he lambastes – sometimes amid dozens of tweets a day – a lengthening list of targets, including Trump, Brexiteers, U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and, just this month, Israeli right-wing minister Naftali Bennett.

“I had this sort of Faustian moment where I got rid of a large hunk of my life,” says Schama, describing his decision to do battle on Twitter. But he feels it was worth it. “This is a moment of incredibly heightened political intensity. It’s always intense here [in Israel]. But there’s heightened intensity in Britain and the United States.”

He doesn’t feel he’s paying a price, even though he says every week he gets vicious anti-Semitic responses with his face photoshopped onto pictures of concentration camp inmates. “I’m too old to care about that,” he shrugs. “And if you’re not prepared to deal with that, then don’t bother.”

As a historian who has written on so many different eras and aspects of the past, spreading his career between academia, television, art criticism and journalism (and now social media), Schama has always been impossible to pin down.

One of his first books, published in 1978, was on the Rothschilds and their connection to the Zionist project. But then for over three decades, until “The Story of the Jews,” he didn’t deal with Jewish history. Meanwhile, he was on his own personal Jewish journey: A London boyhood in an Orthodox family (his mother’s family came from Lithuania, his father’s from Turkey); a stint teaching Chumash in a Heder as a teen, and then conversion to secular socialist Zionism in Habonim; and following his emigration to the United States, where he began teaching at Harvard in 1980, he found his place in Reform Judaism. His reimmersion in Jewish history wasn’t even his idea, but the initiative of his producers at the BBC.

He enjoys being a historian who speaks both to Jewish and much wider audiences, and feels the connection between the two is especially relevant today.

“The Jewish experience is not utterly unique in that there are other migrant communities that have been innovative and been on the receiving end of rather bad stuff: Asians in Uganda, Parsis in India – you can go down the list,” he says. “But so much of our history has turned around that kind of outright position for us. And I think in some sense it’s a torn instinct.”

And while he respects his colleagues who stay out of the debate, he believes that “limpid dispassion as a methodology is greatly overrated.”

One of his many models is Herodotus, who unlike most of the Greek historians of his age “wasn’t an Athenian. He was from the Ionian Islands. He was a gossip. He was interested as much in the enemy culture in Persia and Egypt as he was in that of the Greeks.” Like Herodotus, Schama sees himself as “a weird Olympian spectator from a certain time.”

As a spectator, he finds the Jewish perspective useful, “as the Jews have been embedded in so many incommensurably different cultures – from Fatimid Egypt to 15th-century India to 19th century France – so they are, in their own experience, a unique paradox in having this irreducible core of cultural unity and having the Torah and the Talmud and everything we’ve carried around with each other and the Hebrew language. And at the same time, the incredibly multifarious experience of what it’s like to be an outsider in an innumerable number of subjects.”

But the Jewish perspective wasn’t enough for him. “I wanted to be more of an intellectual globetrotter,” he says. “I wanted to do histories of people that weren’t myself – Dutch, French, American.” He describes his return to Jewish history – the second volume of “The Story of the Jews: Belonging,” about the period between 1492 and 1900, was published last year – as “a kind of teshuvah.”

Simon Schama on the beach in Tel Aviv next to an artwork of David Ben-Gurion, November 2017.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Defending history

Schama is now embarking on the third and final volume, which will bring the story of the Jews up to the present day. A volume combining the story of Zionism, the Holocaust and the evolution of the Diaspora in its current form could prove his most controversial undertaking to date. A heavy price to pay for his teshuvah. And since Schama never holds back from expressing his own personal views, he can be expected to take on not only historical figures but also the politicians of today who are seeking to rewrite history in accordance with their own agenda.

“History has its two sides: It has the literal side, and it has the kind of flag-waving, drum-beating side which is exciting – so that side of romantic fable-gazing is so visceral,” he says.

It’s the patriotic narrative of “noble defeat” – like at Dunkirk in World War II – that Schama believes is fueling the Brexiteers in Britain, who claim that, just like it did then, Britain can succeed on its own, outside of Europe. They are also the kind of nationalist narratives the leaders of countries like Hungary and Poland are trying to perpetuate, whitewashing their nations of any form of collaboration in the Holocaust.

Schama believes historians today need to defend history. “You have to provide the counter-history. You can only bet on your faith – and this is a very important issue – that your version has the extra strength of being true. And what’s kind of happened is that liberal democracy has just simply forgotten, or decided it isn’t worth actually delivering its own heroic narrative.

“People have died for the pursuit of free speech, for representative systems of government and for being liberated from absolutism and theocratic persecution,” he continues. “There is an extraordinary historic narrative to be told. But it’s not told, partially because of the embarrassment that somehow it all got overloaded with colonial brutality in the 19th century. So the narrative essentially becomes that whatever is not theology or not tribal nationalism is just the management of the business cycle – so all the defense of liberalism has going for it is shopping. Shopping is not enough in either social media or in our world to actually have the young excited or committed.”

Schama is very conscious of the fact that, unlike most historians, he has a very prominent platform due to his television work with the BBC and PBS, which makes people pay attention. As someone who can combine history with journalism, television and social media, he wants “to give people rallying points.”

As a historian, he explains, “you have an opportunity to give a slightly longer context of time, because you’re not running for any office; you’re not interested in any power manipulation. You can stand back and give people a sense of whether the exercise in severing Britain entirely from Europe has ever been a good idea or if it’s a good idea now. So it’s a kind of perspective which is not just of this week’s power play – particularly in Britain, where you’re accused of being hysterical and if you speak eloquently, as I try to, even within 280 characters, and I feel unembarrassed about the passion and importance.”

Simon Schama addresses B'nai B'rith World Center in Jerusalem. December 2018 Credit: Bruno Charbit

Rising nationalism

He is less certain, though, about whether he has a special role as a Jewish historian. While he has written and lectured about the great Jewish writers and thinkers, like Maimonides and Moses Mendelssohn, he is quick to say he doesn’t consider himself an expert on “traditional Jewish texts. Much less of Jewish religious writings. I’m not a talmudist. Obviously, the side of Jewish life that has interested me most, and the only side I have any authority to write about, is the social history of the Jews and the cultural history of Jews.”

He feels deeply, though, the inherent contradictions in Jewish history: Should the historian’s focus be on the persecution and pogroms that befell the Jews? Or, as one “Story of the Jews” reviewer pointed out, the “happy Jews” – those who succeeded in their homelands and for whom Schama has a penchant? And if Jews can live happily as minorities in their countries of birth – a fact Schama highlighted by calling volume two “Belonging” – how does that stack up with the other arc of Jewish history: The return from exile to the ancient homeland, especially as Schama insists that for all his criticism of contemporary Israeli politics, he is an “unabashed Zionist”?

“Well, the whole message of [my B’nai B’rith lecture] was that contradictions are OK. Some people are only happy in a single-minded way with one kind of allegiance. That was the debate between [Jewish] Zionists and anti-Zionists at the time of the Balfour Declaration. There were those Jews like Edwin Montagu and Claude Montefiore who said, ‘If we subscribe to the Balfour Declaration we will rightly be accused of betraying our country.’ But most of the Jewish community, and the Rothschilds to their credit, took a different view.”

But if it seems that a century after the Jews who believed they could have it both ways – support the rebuilding of a Jewish sovereign state while not losing their status as equal citizens in their homelands – had been vindicated, those old questions of just how comfortable Jews can feel in their countries of choice has re-emerged in an era when rising nationalism in the West is once again threatening immigrants and minorities.

“I think what’s happened is that the Jewish experience in terms of the tension of ‘Where is home?’ – and being forced to find homes everywhere else – turns out to be one of the world’s greatest issues,” says Schama. He fears those tensions will become even more exacerbated, “because the degradation of the ecosystem is only going to increase. You can build all the walls; you can shout as loudly as Orbán wants. But still, when entire ecosystems completely pack up, people have to live and they will go anywhere where they can survive. So that will go on, and you can either treat them as a human black sheep in a Malthusian way, let them die in the Sahel [desert] somewhere. Or you can actually try to deal with creating a place where they can survive.”

The immigrants currently under threat are mainly non-Western “outsiders,” but Schama is quick to warn that Jews could quickly become the targets – though he admits it isn’t always so simple to foresee when this could happen. Just a decade ago, with the global economy buffeted by a crisis caused by banking practices and smaller but headline-grabbing events like the Bernie Madoff investment scandal, there was a fear that anti-Semitic feelings were being stoked. “It turned out it had almost no impact on anti-Jewish feeling, but it was a bit of a false sense of security. We had a strong sense of ‘This isn’t really America,’” Schama says. “But if you equate the sense of metropolitan life, cosmopolitan life, irresponsible injecting of anti-immigrant sentiment into American society, which is to some extent an urban, aka Jewish, exercise – that we completely failed to anticipate. We have become the globalists. Now, the worry is that when the next economic crash comes and there’s a nationalist fascist who’s absolutely brilliant, then we’ll really be up shit creek.”

While the handiest historical comparison for any contemporary rise in anti-Semitism will be the 1930s, Schama prefers to go a bit further back. “I think one of the more extraordinary surprises of Zombie Politics will never go away really – it rises out of the tomb to eat more flesh: The notion of the Jews as outriders and having secret connections with each other, and manipulating financial and media institutions. That’s exactly modern anti-Semitism. It was born out of advances the Jews made in countries like Germany, the Austria-Hungarian Empire and Russia; the terror of Jews as malevolent innovators. That’s classic 19th century stuff.”

The historian notes that leaders have always tried “to dominate not only the present and the future, but also to dominate the past.” But what has changed, at least in the Jewish experience, is that now the Israeli prime minister is working with like-minded European leaders – including Orbán in Hungary and Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki – who are trying to whitewash their own nations’ pasts.

Schama says he was “speechless with rage” three years ago when Netanyahu claimed that the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was the author of the Final Solution and not the Nazi leadership. As for Netanyahu’s current collaborations with European nationalists, he says he “hates it, obviously – the manipulation of history in those kinds of ways or the blindness to history. It’s a cynical use of history; we’ve always seen people doing that.”

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