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Published Wednesday, April 2, 2014, 2:55 pm

Historian Tells ‘The Story of the Jews’ From His Own Perspective

By Herbert Belkin

Simon Schama at Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo, Egypt.

When most academic historians discuss a particular historical period, they do so at arm’s length — as if they were commenting from behind a curtain. Not so for Simon Schama, an author, fully credentialed historian, professor at Columbia University and host of the five-part television series, “The Story of the Jews.” The series is a rich mixture of 3,000 years of Jewish history, and Schama’s personal involvement in the story of his people.

As Schama explains, historians must find a midpoint between projecting their personal experience on historical events, and being “too remote; too distant.” Admirably, Schama has found that vital midpoint.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Professor Schama. I questioned his statement in the New York Times that Jewish survival was closely connected to Jewish history. The point of my question was that Orthodox Jews would limit that history to the Talmud. Schama’s answer drew from the long interaction between Jews and the countries they lived in as minority aliens, concluding that the lengthy story of the Jews has a complex life far beyond the Talmud.

Schama has stated that the most important Jewish contributions to history have been monotheism, the bible and modernism. Monotheism and the bible are self-explanatory, but why modernism? Schama’s answer centered on the work and thought of Jewish figures such as Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century dissident philosopher, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. He believes it was their major intellectual contributions that enabled society to break out of centuries of stagnant and restrictive thinking, and move into the modern world.

Why, I asked Schama, was Theodor Herzl successful in motivating Jews in 19th century Europe to the necessity of establishing a Jewish homeland, when others had failed in this Jewish dream? Schama pointed out that “the political aspects of [Herzl’s] vision was a vision with a practical basis.” Herzl went far beyond the hesitant steps of his day to establish a Jewish homeland in Ottoman Palestine. Unlike his predecessors, he worked on a high political level with heads of state to secure a legal basis for a Jewish presence in Palestine.

Schama hosts a Passover seder.

Even after the Shoah (Schama used this term to describe the Holocaust) and fervent cries of “Never Again,” the world has seen repeated episodes of genocide. My question to Schama: Why? His answer was short and pointed: Animal hatred.

My last question to Schama concerned the painful and unresolved confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis. His somewhat surprising answer was that “the clash is more apparent within each group.” When asked for elaboration, his response was that it is not until both the Israelis and Palestinians reach agreement amongst themselves, that they can make peace with each other.

Guided by Simon Schama,“The Story of the Jews” effectively recites the long history of the Jewish People, who have interacted with empires and have managed to retain their inner core, as well as their cultural and spiritual integrity.

“The Story of the Jews” is presented by PBS. To find screening times in your location, visit A DVD of the series is also available.

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