By Mick Krever, CNN
To many people, particularly non-Jews, the story of the Jewish people is one of sadness and tragedy; it is that very stereotype that Historian Simon Schama set out to shatter with his latest project, The Story of the Jews.
“Particularly to the non-Jewish world, Jews are mostly defined … through the frame of Auschwitz and the Holocaust, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Schama told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday. “And I can’t run away from that, but that of course is not the whole story.”
The Story of the Jews is a five-part BBC series and book out now in the UK; it releases in the U.S. this spring, with the series airing on PBS.
Many people who come to the Jewish story, he said, are nervous, whether because of “a kind of Jewish truculence” or because they do not want patronize.
“Part of the series states stop being so nervous,” he said. “We're all in this together.”
Indeed, the story of the Jews can be a case study.
“What happened to the Jews has happened in other measures to other people, it’s just that we've lived it very dramatically; we've written about it,” Schama told Amanpour. “We've made it the heart of our story, both the celebration and the lament.”
In putting together both a TV series and book on the subject, Schama wanted to paint the long arc.
“I was very concerned not to predetermine it. It ends in a sad place in the Holocaust Memorial,” Schama said, but that shouldn’t be where it starts. “The Jews have not lived separately, you know, until they've been forced to by other people or their own sense of nervousness, as with the security fence in Israel has made them to do that. The default mode for Jewish life is not to self-ghettoize. So Jewish history has been American history and Russian history and British history and French history and German history.”
At the heart of all modern history is the struggle between ethics and power, he told Amanpour, and it is particularly stark of the Jews.
“It still haunts Israeli life,” he said. “It's why a lot of my friends who are writing the stories of the Jews who are novelists, right, David Grossman, are kind of haunted about whether or not actually ethics comes first and power comes second, or whether we have an obligation to think about our survival.”
There are few place where that struggle is more apparent right now than in the Syrian civil war, as the international community hems and haws over if and how to intervene.
“It'll come back to haunt us. It came back to haunt us in the 1930s,” he said, referring to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler’s conquest into “a faraway place of which we [knew] little,” Czechoslovakia.
A big anniversary this year – the 500th anniversary of Machiavell’s “The Prince,” sheds surprising light on Russia’s attempt to use diplomacy to avoid a military strike on Syria.
“Machiavelli,” Schama said, “who looks weirdly like Vladimir Putin – same skinny face and beady little eyes – actually, they could have been brothers, Machiavelli and Putin – Machiavelli's point was out of unvirtuous calculations, things for the good of all can arise.”
“It is a Jewish position, really, to want to do more than wring your hands,” Schama told Amanpour.“Of course in the back of our minds is the sense in which … it's not what the Nazis did to the Jews that makes a case for Israel. It's what everybody else failed to do.”