Famously during the premier of Exodus the American humourist Mort Sahl stood up and said:
“Let my people go.”
I felt much the same in reading Simon Schama’s two mighty tomes. There is no doubt that it is work of considerable and detailed scholarship but detailed is the key word. There is so much of it that I had difficulty in absorbing it all.
The first volume Finding the Words goes from 2700BC to 1492, the second Belonging from 1492 to 1900. 1492 was the year Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain – Edward I had done so in England in 1272 – and many rulers did the same later. The definite impression is of a people that have been persecuted since time immemorial. Jews were second class citizens, refused access to many jobs and professions except usury, having to wear clothes identifying them as Jews, subjected to ridicule and pogroms.
They moved pitiably from place to place. Even their culture of talmudic study, learning, respect for the intellect, hard work and family values did not assist them as for all this they were treated as dangerous untrustworthy aliens – the scapegoats.
Yet for all of this the community produced constantly people of great wealth like Aaron of York, Simon of Oxford in medieval times and later the grand families of colossal wealth like the Rothschilds and Ephrussi.
In medieval and Renaissance times they financed wars; after that the railways. The son of one rabbi Emil Jellanek, at the end of the 19th century, went to the South of France to sell insurance which he did successfully. He met the car maker Gottlieb Daimler there and suggested they co-produced a new racing car designed by Wilhelm Maybach named after his (Jellanek’s) pretty little daughter Mercedes. Another in San Francisco at roughly the same time had a new idea for a more durable pair of trousers with rivets and ordered the cloth from Levi Strauss. The jean was born.
In 1000, Jews dominated the trade routes but their ships were subject to piracy. They hit upon the idea of negotiating bills of exchange with family members along North Africa – the first use of the cheque. Add to this the founder of modern secular philosophy Baruch Spinoza, a greater musical prodigy than Mozart (Feliks Mendelssohn), and doubtless the third volume of the 20th Century will laud Sigmund Freud, Marc Chagall and the Gershwins.
I found the last section on the birth of Zionism particularly interesting. Shama makes no secret that he is a devout Jew. Yet I found his views on Zionism fair. I am always amazed how many anti-Zionists argue that Israel took over Palestine, an Arab country.
Palestine was never a country in terms of being a defined and separate state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire till 1917 when it fell under the British Mandate. The British under the Balfour declaration, 100 years old last year, was committed to a Jewish state the very words used in Thomas Herzl’s (the founder of Zionism) book Der Judenstaat.
Herzl’s vision was not of an ultra orthodox state but a tolerant open society free of prejudice where after centuries of persecution Jews would at last have their own homeland. Jewish migration began in the 19th century. There were indigenous Arabs there but diverse: Druzes, Bedouins, descendants of an Egyptian army. Many were only to happy to lease their non fertile rocky land to Jews. Many Jews trekked from Yemen and worked the land. They were all but destitute. Some rich Jews like Edmond de Rothschild were helpful others like Hirsch were not.
The second volume Belonging reflects a dual sentiment that exists today amongst Anglo Jewry who are both proud of being British (the prayer book used every Saturday has a prayer for the Royal Family the only non Christian religion which has) but is also unconditional and unwavering in their support of Israel.
I believe that the function of a reviewer is to indicate to a potential reader whether they would like the book. I would think this book would be of more interest to Jewish people. Nonetheless you have to admire the energy of Simon Schama currently presenting the Civilisations series.
Here is an excellent review explaining its enduring popularity – THE CONVERSATION