Schama: ‘The Jewish world is in this extraordinary situation of being doubly de-housed’

Historian Sir Simon Schama speaks to the JC after his appearance in Book Week


When I asked Sir Simon Schama what the Jewish community should be doing against the tide of hatred unleashed by October 7, he responded, “Chazak chazak venitchazek”, the traditional rallying cry in synagogue on reaching the end of a book of Torah: “Be strong, be strong and let us strengthen each other.”

The acclaimed American-based historian and broadcaster was back in Britain this week, where he was a star attraction at the opening day of one of the major events on the London Jewish calendar, Book Week and where people could gather in search of solidarity, if not in the usual celebratory atmosphere.

“The weekend was extraordinary,” he said. “It was absolutely heaving with people who wanted to be among other Jews.”

Reflecting on the general mood, he said, “You had the sense that people are lost in the middle of a tempest of apprehension.”

Five months on from the Hamas attack on Israel, the Jewish world is “still in a semi-, or not even semi-traumatised, condition. The condition of the diaspora mirrors the condition of Israel itself, which is in the grip of extraordinary sorrow and fearfulness.”

Israel’s essential sense of itself as “a secure home has been turned up upside down”. Not only does it feel “not secure” on the Gaza border but in the North of the country where 200,000 or more have been displaced by the threat of Hezbollah — “no one quite knows where that is leading. It shakes the whole country’s feeling it really is home.”

And in Jewish communities elsewhere, even in the USA, if less so than here, “there is a tremendous question mark about whether or not we have an unproblematic sense of home in the diaspora.”

He instanced Franklin Foer’s recent article in one of the USA’s most prominent magazines, The Atlantic, which concluding that the “golden age” of American Jewry was coming to an end as the liberal values on which it had staked its wellbeing were under assault both from Donald Trump’s MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) movement and the “illiberal left” and were being superseded by a “golden age of conspiracy, reckless hyperbole and political violence”.

As a result, Schama said, “we are in this extraordinary situation of being doubly dehoused” — though Israel, he is sure, will survive and recover its sense of being a home.

A lot of the hatred that has erupted has been “driven by oceanic historic ignorance and refusal to understand the complexity of the situation”.

It is what he calls the “writing and chattering classes” who have been “most prone to grotesque, uninformed, historically ignorant stereotypes of Israel as a colonial settler state.

“It is not a colonial settler state. It was a country of refugees, it was continuously occupied by Jews for many millennia.”

Nobody among the anti-Israel demonstrators knows “that there was a majority of Jews living in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century. That sort of thing is flabbergasting.

“More than half the population of Israel, of course, is not of European origin. And we had no metropolitan home to return to — not like the French in Algeria or the British in India or the Dutch in Indonesia.”

Jews “had nowhere to go after the War. Our illegal immigrant ships were being sunk and Palestine was sealed off from us. Immigration was banned in most of the places.”

Meanwhile in Britain, the politician Herbert Morrison “wanted to return refugees who had come here before the War back to their countries, even if that country was Germany, even if Jews had volunteered for military service”.

And “we have our own Nakba too, of a million Jews from North Africa and the Levant” (the term Palestinians use for the “catastrophe” of 1948). “It’s very difficult to educate people when they are in a storm of demonising platitudes.”

If the university at least should be one institution that instils a sense of historic complexity, what has sparked growing concern is the scene on campus.

Education, he acknowledged, can often be “in the hands of academics who refuse to admit complexity or refuse to do the basic reading”; meanwhile the value being communicated to the young above all is “the obligation to decolonise:”

Over the millennia, he said, Jews have been “the other of convenience. We are the dark mirror in which the wish fulfilment of other societies takes it out on people who are said to represent its opposite.

“The wish fulfilment now is for Britain to atone for its colonial past and therefore it’s the Jews who get it in the neck. Nobody marches on Tunbridge Wells and says how dare you dominate the Raj. They march on us instead as the epitome of colonial, so-called apartheid state when we are the least epitomised…example of that.”

Before Israel had launched operations in Gaza, there were open letters including one at his own university, Columbia, that described October 7 as “military action. The campus left-wing burst into a kind of poisoned bloom which was celebrated as an act of valiant resistance against the ‘open-air prison” of Gaza.”

There is, he believes, “a weird sense that this is not about Israelis or Palestinians at all, despite all the flags. It’s all about… wanting to prove their anti-imperialist credentials and we as always are the fall guys.”

When he and some colleagues at Columbia published a counter-letter denouncing the “barbaric attack” of Hamas, it did attract hundreds of signatories, he said, but they came “overwhelmingly” from professional disciplines such as law or engineering with “a tiny number from the humanities or social science. They were overwhelmingly on the other side. This was really upsetting.”

Overall, he said, “We are in short supply of friends and allies in the gentile intellectual community right now.”

He had become aware, he said, of how toxic a place university could be for Jewish students when the Labour Club at Oxford University was embroiled in allegations of antisemitic intimidation eight years ago.

As for the Jewish community’s response in the aftermath of October 7 he believed, “We are doing pretty much everything that can possibly be done. I don’t believe we are cowering in fear behind our mezuzahs.”

There was a “big psychological need — in which your newspaper and others play a really important part — not to allow ourselves to be crushingly demoralised, so we seek the company of other Jews”, while we sensed that the non-Jewish world was “not hospitable” to talking about the complexity of the conflict.

In the first place, “we have to fortify our own sense of righteousness and justice with which Jews most commonly dwell. That is really important.

“And in terms of interfaith outreach, I was very happy to see the Prince of Wales come to a Jewish community…

“A lot of the usual suspects, like my lovely friend Howard Jacobson and Tracy-Ann Oberman — she is a wonderful person doing her Shylock [on the West End stage] — we are all out there. People like Howard and me are too old to be cowards, really.”

He himself will be delivering a university lecture on antisemitism on Friday, at Queen Mary in London.

But current events only highlight the “very urgent need” for a Jewish Museum in London — which closed its physical premises last summer but continues to operate virtually — which he believes should be united with a Holocaust memorial.

Israel or the resurgence of antisemitism cannot be understood without knowing of “the many millennia of the dehumanisation of Jews as well as the triumphs of our resilience and our extraordinary creativity that Jewish life has exemplified.

“What I don’t like is all of Jewish history is being reduced to the Shoah and to the Israel/Palestine conflict. That’s why I write my books the way I do. I wouldn’t dream of saying there shouldn’t be a Holocaust memorial. I want the two things to be together.

“It needs a different kind of site and a very different kind of design. Now definitely is the time to sit down and be practical about it and raise money for it.”

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