Great TV, but there were gaps in Simon Schama's story

Next year, I shall be giving some classes on the recent history of the Middle East — or, rather, on the history of the Jewish dimension to Middle Eastern politics since the early 19th century.

My audience will be a mixed bunch of UK, EU and international students, all of whom will (if past experience is anything to go by) come with a predetermined set of ideas about that history.

I shall, therefore, have to spend much of the first seminar disabusing my audience of a variety of myths that I know they will have received as “facts”: for example, that Jews were not indigenous inhabitants of Palestine until the Mandate period; that, until Zionists arrived on the scene, relations between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East had been peaceful, even cordial; that the Muslim world played no part in the Nazi Holocaust; that UN resolution 194 (1948) calls for a “right of return” for all Palestinians to Israel (it doesn’t) and that UN resolution 242 (1967) demands that Israel evacuate the West Bank (it doesn’t – and if you don’t believe me, read it carefully for yourself).

The literature on all these topics is vast. The bibliography that accompanies my teaching is, therefore, necessarily selective. Next year, (assuming the second volume of this work is out in time) I shall add Professor Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews. But I have to confess that I shall do so with distinctly mixed feelings.

Schama was brave but missed important chances

Like many of you, I made it my business to watch Schama’s recent five-part TV series, based on his book. I want to say at once that I found parts of it intensely moving, its poignant story underpinned by Schama’s considerable talents as a storyteller.

Schama’s declaration of his own Zionist credentials was brave, and his explanation of the roots of modern antisemitism struck me as a model of restrained objectivity. All the same, I could not help feeling that — at least on TV (we shall have to wait for the second book) — he had some opportunities that he simply failed to take.

The first was to explain that, in spite of the drama of the Jewish dispersion after the destruction of the Second Temple, there is a continuous and well-documented history of Jewish communal dwelling in Roman and post-Roman Palestine.

The second was to explode the myth that the Jewish experience of Muslim rule was all sweetness and light; even when the living was easy (comparatively speaking), Jews were subject to numerous institutionalised indignities and humiliations — as they still are in many Islamic societies.

The territory allotted to Britain as the Palestine mandate originally straddled both banks of the Jordan river — which Schama could easily have demonstrated by showing viewers the official map drawn up by the League of Nations in 1922. He might have added that, under laws dating from 1954 and 1963, ethnic Jews are prohibited from becoming citizens of the modern Jordanian state.

Schama tiptoed gently around the alliance between prominent Palestinian Arabs and the Nazi regime. But a much more serious failing was his silence on Muslim opposition to any form of Jewish self-rule in the realm of Islam.

In academic circles, it has become fashionable nowadays to play down the religious roots of this opposition, and even to discount it completely, and to rely instead on a pseudo-sociological explanation which simply refuses to accept that religious texts are capable by themselves of forming the basis for political action of any kind. This insistence on the basic rationality of the human spirit would be mildly comical were its consequences not so murderously tragic.

Schama was right to stress the reality of Israel’s current defence needs, and to explain that the separation walls/fences have led to a dramatic reduction in Jewish deaths at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. But he had an opportunity, which he never took, to explode the myth that Israel is an “apartheid” state.
Schama’s five-part series made for compelling viewing. But, with very little extra effort, it could have been so much better.

Rather like the curate’s (or rabbi’s) egg, his story of the Jews was good. But only in parts.

Last updated: 12:15pm, October 11 2013