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Simon Schama’s New History of the Jews Has Little to Say about Judaism

Oct. 11 2017

While praising the second volume of Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews for its “infectious energy and its readability,” and admitting the “impossibility” of covering 408 years of the history of a people scattered across the globe in a mere 800 pages, David Abulafia finds the book’s omissions nonetheless inexcusable. In particular, he writes, the volume—which covers the years from 1492 to 1900—puts far too much emphasis on the Sephardim (descendants of those Jews who fled Spain before and after the expulsion) at the expense of the more numerous Ashkenazim, not to mention those Jews who fall into neither category.

Schama does . . . devote some space to the fascinating Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, and mentions the black and white Jews of India; but vast swathes of the Jewish world barely appear: North Africa, Iraq, Iran, Bukhara, and so on, though Yemen earns some space when a French Jew named Joseph Halévy goes out there to collect early Semitic inscriptions and comes across sword-bearing Yemenite Jews with limited knowledge of the outside world. . . .

The reason Schama says so little about these places appears to be that he considers that nothing happened in them: he talks of life in Yemen as an almost timeless history of subjugation and poverty—not that the Yemenite Jews with their silver swords quite fit that image. There were indeed cycles of persecution in Yemen, but so there were in Europe, as he shows. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, wealthy Jewish businessmen emerged, some of whom played a key role in the rise of Bombay, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

And that’s not all Schama misses:

[The book contains] virtually nothing about the schisms in Judaism that saw, in the 19th century, vigorous challenges to traditional orthodoxy, especially in Germany and the United States. In the U.S. the great majority of professing Jews belong to Reform or Conservative synagogues, not Orthodox ones. This reflects changes in the conditions of Jewish life in the New World and the need to find an accommodation with surrounding society. But Schama is not terribly interested in the religious dimension to Jewish history. Sure enough, there is something about the Sephardi kabbalists of Safed and about the ḥasidic movement, which owed a great deal to Safed mysticism; but, as one can see from Shama’s chaotic transcriptions of Hebrew words, he is a bit confused about the holy.

Read more at Standpoint

More about: History & Ideas, Jewish history, Judaism, Mizrahi Jewry, Simon Schama

Hamas Sets Its Sights on Taking over the PLO

Oct. 20 2017

Examining the recent reconciliation agreement between the rival Palestinian organizations Fatah and Hamas, Eyal Zisser argues that the latter sees the deal as a way to install its former leader, Khaled Meshal, as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and thereby the Palestinian Authority. It wouldn’t be the first time something like this happened:

Even the former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat . . . took the PLO leadership by force. His first steps, incidentally, were with the Fatah organization, which he cofounded in January 1965 in Damascus, under Syrian patronage. Fatah was meant to serve as a counterweight to the rival PLO, which had come into existence [earlier] under Egyptian patronage. Arafat, however, was relegated to the sidelines in the Palestinian arena. It was only after the 1967 Six-Day War that he exploited the resounding defeat of the Arab armies to join the PLO as the leader of Fatah, which led to his gaining control over [the PLO itself].

Meshal [most likely] wants to follow in Arafat’s footsteps—a necessary maneuver for a man who aspires to lead the Palestinian national movement, particularly after realizing that military might and even a hostile takeover of [either Gaza or the West Bank] will not grant him the legitimacy he craves.

It is hard to believe that Fatah will willingly hand over the keys to leadership, and it is also safe to assume that Egypt does not want to see Hamas grow stronger. But quasi-democratic developments such as these have their own dynamics. In 2006, Israel was persuaded by Washington to allow Hamas to run in the general Palestinian elections, thinking the Islamist group had no chance of winning. But Hamas won those elections. We can assume Meshal will now look to repeat that political ploy by joining the PLO and vying for its leadership.

Read more at Israel Hayom

More about: Fatah, Hamas, Khaled Meshal, Palestinian Authority, PLO, Politics & Current Affairs, Yasir Arafat