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.

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

When It Comes to Syria, Vladimir Putin’s Word Can’t Be Trusted

July 13 2018

In the upcoming summit between the Russian and American presidents in Helsinki, the future of Syria is likely to rank high on the agenda. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has already made clear that Moscow won’t demand a complete Iranian withdrawal from the country. Donald Trump, by contrast, has expressed his desire for a complete U.S. withdrawal. Examining Moscow’s track record when it comes to maintaining its past commitments regarding Syria, Eli Lake urges caution:

Secretary of State John Kerry spent his last year in office following Lavrov all over the world in an attempt to create a U.S.-Russian framework for resolving the Syrian civil war. He failed. . . . President Trump [now] wants to get to know Putin better—and gauge his willingness to help isolate Iran. This is a pointless and dangerous gambit. First, by announcing his intention to pull U.S. forces out of the country “very soon,” Trump has already given away much of his leverage within Syria.

Ideally, Trump would want to establish a phased plan with Putin, where the U.S. would make some withdrawals following Iranian withdrawals from Syria. But Trump has already made it clear that prior [stated] U.S. objectives for Syria, such as the removal of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, are no longer U.S. objectives. The U.S. has also declined to make commitments to give money for Syrian reconstruction.

Without any leverage, Trump will have to rely even more on Putin’s word, which is worthless. Putin to this day denies any Russian government role in interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. Just last month, Putin went on Austrian television and lied about his government’s role in shooting down a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. Why would anyone trust Putin to keep his word to help remove Iran and its proxies from Syria?

And this gets to the most dangerous possible outcome of the upcoming summit. The one thing that Kerry never did was to attempt to trade concessions on Syria for concessions on Crimea, the Ukrainian territory that Russia invaded and annexed in 2014. There was a good reason for this: even if one argues that the future of Ukraine is not a high priority for the U.S., it’s a disastrous precedent to allow one nation to change the boundaries of another through force, and particularly of one that signed an agreement with the U.S., UK, and Russia to preserve its territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its cold-war-era nuclear weapons.

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More about: Crimea, Donald Trump, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy, Vladimir Putin