Simon Schama: British Jews must resist the victim-bully image

Simon Schama at the JC Editor's Choice event (Photo: John Rifkin)

Simon Schama at the JC Editor's Choice event (Photo: John Rifkin)

Historian Simon Schama has restated his Zionist beliefs and called for a shift in the public view of Jews as “either victims or bullies”.

Despite the shock expressed in some circles over his statement that he was a Zionist in his recent BBC series The Story of the Jews, Professor Schama said he had meant to be bold and was “completely unapologetic”.

Speaking at a JC Editor’s Choice event at the JW3 centre in north-west London on Tuesday, he said: “Zionism is a complicated thing. It’s richly inculcated with fine Jewish values. My Zionism is a two-state Zionism, it always has been. It’s a Zionism of the necessity of refuge.

“I don’t want the non-Jewish world to walk on egg shells every time the Shoah is mentioned, or be over-aggressive about Zionism. I don’t want any of you in this room to feel furtive about saying it.

“You don’t have to approve of every new settlement that’s stuck in the middle of the West Bank — God knows I don’t — in order to say ‘I’m an unapologetic Zionist’.

“The distinction is between what the Israeli government does, and what Israel is. You can be a critic of what the government does, but not, I think, a critic of what Israel is. That’s why I did that.”

Prof Schama recalled how The Times and JC columnist David Aaronovitch had likened the reaction to his “I am a Zionist” statement to what might have happened if the historian had instead declared himself “Jimmy Savile’s best friend”.

The author and presenter said he had a number of motivations for taking on the five-part series and two-book project.

“It was partly because of the rising tide of antisemitism, partly because a lot of anti-Israeli hostility shades over into poisonous antisemitism, I think.

“The response to this series in the non-Jewish world has been so incredibly gratifying, but I was feeling there are two ways that many people in Britain now think of Jews — we are either victims or bullies.

“We’re victims as piles of bones in front of the bulldozers or we’re supposed to be these authoritarian monsters, military monsters, in Israel. I thought ‘I don’t want that’.”

In conversation with JC editor Stephen Pollard, Prof Schama reviewed sections of the programme, discussed his upbringing in Essex and Golders Green, and looked back on the lengthy process of developing the series and accompanying books.

Last updated: 12:26pm, December 19 2013