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


Europe Has a Chance to Change Its Attitude toward Israel

Dec. 15 2017

In Europe earlier this week, Benjamin Netanyahu met with several officials and heads of state. Ahead of his visit, the former Italian parliamentarian Fiamma Nirenstein addressed a letter to these European leaders, urging them to reevaluate their attitudes toward the status of Jerusalem and the West Bank, the Israel-Palestinian peace process, the gravity of European anti-Semitism, and the threat posed by Hamas and Hizballah. In it she writes:

For years, the relationship between Europe and Israel has been strained. Europe tends to criticize Israel for simply defending itself against the continual threats and terrorist attacks it faces on all its borders and inside its cities. Europe too often disregards not only Israel’s most evident attempts to bring about peace—such as its disengagement from Gaza—but also chides it for its cautiousness when considering what solutions are risky and which will truly ensure the security of its citizens.

The EU has never recognized the dangers posed by Hamas and Hizballah, as well as by many other jihadist groups—some of which are backed by [the allegedly moderate] Fatah. The EU constantly blames Israel in its decisions, resolutions, papers and “non-papers,” letters, and appeals. Some of Europe’s most important figures insist that sanctions against the “territories” are necessary—a political stance that will certainly not bring about a solution to this conflict that . . . the Israelis would sincerely like to resolve. Israel has repeated many times that it is ready for direct negotiation without preconditions with the Palestinians. No answer has been received.

The European Union continues to put forth unrealistic solutions to the Israel-Palestinian issue, and the results have only aggravated the situation further. Such was the case in 2015 when it sanctioned Israeli companies and businesses in the territories over the Green Line, forcing them to close industrial centers that provided work to hundreds of Palestinians. The Europeans promoted the harmful idea that delegitimizing Israel can be accomplished through international pressure and that negotiations and direct talks with Israel can be avoided. . . .

[Meanwhile], Iran’s imperialist designs now touch all of Israel’s borders and put the entire world at risk of a disastrous war while Iran’s closest proxy, Hizballah, armed with hundreds of thousands of missiles, proudly presents the most explicit terrorist threat. Europe must confront these risks for the benefit of its citizens, first by placing Hizballah on its list of terrorist organizations and secondly, by reconsidering and revising its relationship with Iran.

Read more at Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Europe and Israel, European Union, Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israel diplomacy