Simon Schama: We can't forget England's bloody antisemitic history

Sir Simon spoke to the JC after DNA analysis revealed that the remains of at least 17 children and adults found in a Norwich well were Jews killed in medieval massacre


Programme Name: Story of the Jews - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 3) - Embargoed for publication until: n/a - Picture Shows: Berlin Holocaust Memorial Simon Schama - (C) Oxford Film and Television - Photographer: Tim Kirby

England’s Medieval history of persecuting the Jews must be remembered, says leading historian Sir Simon Schama.

Sir Simon spoke to the JC after DNA analysis revealed that the remains of at least 17 children and adults discovered in a Norwich well were Jews killed in a 12th- or 13th-century massacre.

He said: “I think it’s very important make Jewish history not just synonymous with the Holocaust or give the impression somehow that the Jews suddenly arrived in the 20th century, but [to explore] the intensity of the consequences of demonisation as Christ killers and all the rest of it, and the blood libel. The blood libel was invented in England essentially.

“All of that I think comes actually as a revelation.”

Sir Simon wrote and presented the five-part BBC TV series The Story of the Jews, which then became a best-selling book in three volumes.

Historical education in Britain, he said, ought to focus not only on Jewish persecution but also the contribution made by Anglo-Jewry to their society.

“The re-creation of Westminster Abbey as a sacred place for the veneration of kings was done only with hefty loans from Jewish moneylenders essentially.

“Jewish finance funded what one thinks of as native English monuments and memorials.

“And that too was only possible because Jews weren’t allowed to practise everybody else’s occupations. You cannot in my view teach the Holocaust without teaching the mediaeval Jewish experience. It’s sort of scandalous if you don’t.”

Inspiration for how to present such a complex relationship could be found in the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, he added.

Built on the site of the former Warsaw ghetto, the structure features eight galleries that examine Polish Jewry’s 1,000-year history leading up to the Shoah.

Its “beautifully designed” displays are therefore “not completely a story of doom and gloom”, Sir Simon said.

“It’s incredibly and inventively immersive.

“One room has a magnificent kind of living illuminated map of Jewish communities in Poland. You press, or you click, or so on, and very, very accessible, immersive, and educational information pops up complete with pictures and so on.”
Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem likewise displays “what’s living as well as what’s dead”, he said.

“Before you get to the Holocaust there is a spectacular, wonderful gigantic video installation by the great Jewish artist Israeli artist Michal Rovner of the world of Jews before the Holocaust.

“It’s absolutely exemplary. It takes about half an hour to really take it in.”
In England the Holocaust is currently the only historical event whose study is compulsory within the curriculum.

A broader sweep of Jewish history, however, should be examined alongside it, says Sir Simon. “I think it’s very important not to just make the whole history of people’s sense of what it means to be a Jew either a victim or a bully, an overture to the Holocaust.

“That does a disservice to us, to Jews and our tradition, as well as to other people’s understanding of what we’re about.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive