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Schama on talking of Jewish history: ‘Stop being so nervous’

September 19th, 2013
08:26 AM ET

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.”

Filed under:  Christiane Amanpour • Latest Episode • Syria
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Starofdavidscotland

    Sharma does a beautiful job of explaining the beautiful and varied history of the Jews. And the disgusting vile racist PSC Palestine solidarity committee complaint to the BBC. These marxist uber left nufascists are just pathetic

    September 19, 2013 at 8:37 am | Reply
    • Shoshone

      Thank you for your courage in printing the truth. The world never wants to hear about what Jews need

      December 11, 2013 at 12:01 am | Reply
  2. shuaib

    why dont u add peaceful process in Jewish history why Jewish history starts with the war n ends with the war only

    September 19, 2013 at 10:43 am | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Why don't YOU add peaceful process in Jewish history if you believe that Mr. Schama missed it?

      September 19, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  3. ashok

    Leon Uris's Exodus was one's introduction to the modern Jewish story. Israel must now hasten the creation of a Palestinian state in order that strife and conflict are no longer part of the narrative.

    September 19, 2013 at 11:18 am | Reply
    • Thinker23

      A sovereign independent state was offered to Palestinian Arabs in 1948, 1967, 1978, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009 and they've rejected every single time. Israel can OFFER them peace and a state but it can not shove into the Palestinian collective throat against their will.

      September 19, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  4. samoosapur

    What is ironic and sad,is that here we have a story of how the Jewish people suffered in Auschwitz and how the Jewish people went right around the world erecting the Holocaust Memorial .

    It is a SHAME that what happened to the Jews is happening to the People of Palestine.The Holocaust of PALESTINIANS IN PALESTINE.bY THE very people who were victims are now the opressors. To name SABRA & SHATILA.

    September 19, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      I'm sorry but the Jews DID NOT attack any other state and DID NOT declare that any other state did not have the right to exist and had to be destroyed. During the holocaust the Nazis managed to reduce the number of Jews in Europe by 70%. The number of Jews in the pillar of Islamic democracy Iran dropped by 85% since the Islamic Revolution. The number of Jews in the Arab countries dropped by 99% since 1948. The number of Jews alive in the Palestinian controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza is EXACTLY ZERO. On the other hand, the number of Arabs living in Israel as full fledged citizens INCREASED EIGHT TIMES since 1948.

      Do you still think that " what happened to the Jews is happening to the People of Palestine", samoosapur? and WHO these "People of Palestine" are?

      September 19, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Reply
      • mane3rafnimshelasly

        The way we look at it is not in line with your view, the presence of Israel was an attack on the Palestinians and their land , it was an offering from the Brits to the Jews and offering of something that was not theirs to give first place, so in our dictionary THAT IS AN ATTACK , again your numbers make it look like the Jews were eradicated from Europe and Arabia, by the percentages you state while there is no mention if this was so |(which i Doubt ) or if this was movement to more safer places or in search for better options, I am not saying being forced to move is a good thing but you cannot compare it to being slaughtered which is what your word seems to suggest.

        September 20, 2013 at 5:49 am |
      • Immortal

        Dear Thinker,

        All numbers mentioned in your post was for forced immigration for Jews in other countries by Jewish Agency responsible to gather Jews from around the world to populate Palestine. They were not forced out nor were they slaughtered. In fact, Jews NEVER enjoyed better treatment anywhere in the world while they were under Muslim or Arab reign or geography. Agree with mane3rafnimshelasly, Balfour declared Palestine for Jews in his famous promise in 1917, so Jews are ATTAKERS, not Arabs; who were trying to win back what they lost by this declaration, losing to Israel while doing so.

        I bet this will haunt Israel for ages to come until people with the right for the land own it back again. Never doubt GOD's will, another thing Jews are good at.

        September 20, 2013 at 8:10 am |
  5. Sabadennis

    A very poor attempt at moral equivalence...the Israeli's are making a bad job of a Holocaust: the population of the West Bank has more than doubled since 1990 for instance! Neonatal survival is better in the West Bank and Gaza than Turkey. Israel is treating wounded Syrians in its hospitals. Palestinians in their "refugee camps" in the West Bank or elsewhere will not get citizenship if Palestine becomes a State.
    If only you would do some due diligence in your research and stop this kind of knee-jerk reaction whenever the subject of Jews and Israel comes up. I live in hope......

    September 19, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Reply
  6. dapper98

    samoosapur you must be a good politician because you lie without blushing.

    September 22, 2013 at 4:38 am | Reply
  7. hdq

    The Jewish History can explain why the Jews want to have a Jewish state in Paletine.
    It does not justify evicting one single non-Jewish resident from Palestine.
    The only peaceful and legal way to achieve a Jewish State in Palestine, is to compensate all the non-Jewish present residents of Palestine and all those who were expelled from Palestine from 1948 onwards for all the losses caused to them by the creation of that state and to provide them with an alternative acceptable to them ciitizentship outside of Palestine.
    Using history for political propaganda to justify crimes against person and property results in nothing but increase of Anti-Semitism.
    It makes those who use such propaganda to feel better about themselves, but it does not convince anybody else.

    September 23, 2013 at 6:55 am | Reply
  8. Ali

    Simon Schama should be invited to speak on talk shows more often, instead of these so called political analysts, in regards to the Jewish perspective. Because he is eloquent in his manner of speech, pragmatic, does not harbor a political agenda and has tremendous insight into the Jewish condition as it relates to world history. He can help Jews and non-Jews understand how we should frame history in order for progress in the middle east to move forward.

    December 17, 2013 at 10:19 pm | Reply

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