It’s so subtle you might miss it, but the last episode of Civilizations, Simon Schama’s astonishingly moving 9-part documentary on the history of World Art, begins and ends with discussions about Judaism, and with those discussions come a hugely important implication for the future of Judaism from this famously Jewish historian.
The name of the episode is ‘What is Art Good For?’ The story begins in Terezin, as Schama takes us through the 4,500 pieces of art which survived from Terezin’s children, 99% of whom didn’t make it and god knows how many of whom could have been extraordinarily creative adults. The art gives us a window into the respite from the everyday torments inescapable from their eyes. Every day, they must have seen a brutal humiliation, or a beating, or a rape, or a murder; but an art teacher named Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, rather than bring money or extra clothing in her trunk to the camp, brought art supplies, and helped the children escape their torments – may her memory be a blessing.
The episode ends in Israel, with the story of Michal Rovner’s installation: Makom, a series of portable structures made from discarded historic stones taken from the ancient wreckage of biblical cities – Yerushalayim, Chevron, Yaffo, Nablus – continually assembling and dissembling as the exhibit tours the museums of the world. In other words, the portable structures literally move around the world like refugees; temporary homes for people whose continued presences in their current locale are never guaranteed. The stones might be permanent, but the people living in them are always changing, and each civilization that comes and goes from Israel adds a new chapter to an achingly poignant, brutally tragic story.
Walk inside the portable houses and you see tiny Hebrew calligraphy. Suddenly the calligraphy seems to move against the sand-colored stones as a backdrop, and you suddenly realize that you’re not just looking at letters but at human beings wandering through a stone backdrop that clearly looks like a desert. Other Hebrew letters literally bend up and down, as though shuckling as they daven a silent Shmoneh Esrei at a morning minyan.
For the vast majority of recorded history, the most obvious refugees Rovner’s piece would recall to memory were us. But now, we are, at least many would argue, refugees we’ve created. The point of art is not to preach, the point of art is to contemplate, and whatever her politics, Rovner is much too great an artist to let us feel anything more than a small nagging doubt that this installation is not just about the wanderings of Jews, but also the wanderings caused by Jews. The respect for Jewish tragedy is so obvious and great that nobody could possibly see such a work and think that anything but the ultimate respect is paid to our traditions. And yet beneath that subtle but unmistakable thought-truth that this installation might also be about Jews persecuting Palestinians lies a second unmistakable thought-truth, simultaneously comforting and disturbing, that even if Jews are by far the longest most well-acquainted residents of the kingdom of diaspora, diaspora is an experience shared at one point or another by every civilization in the history of the world. And therefore the point of commonality that Jews share with the world is not our strength, but our vulnerability.
But nobody wants to be vulnerable, so the world’s relationships to Jews, who remind people the world over of themselves in their weakest moments, will always be complicated.
The West views the world in precise, linear, Cartesian terms. For the average American and European, most things fall into binary categories, they either ‘are’ or ‘are not.’ This is not the Jewish way, which subjects everything to critical analysis so merciless that paradoxes are unavoidable. Think of Rav Yehuda HaNasi telling God Himself that ‘Lo BaShamayim Hi’ – meaning that Hashem’s divine intervention on a legal matter was unwelcome because He gave us His laws so that we can struggle to ascertain their meaning. Or Rambam’s (Maimonides) posit that though there is one God, His oneness cannot be comparable to any other concept of ‘one’ because He is infinite. Or Spinoza believing that God is indistinguishable from his creation and that Nature is therefore God. You could think of a hundred other more secular paradoxes created by Jews: Freud’s theory of the unconscious, speculating that our conscious motives might not be our true motivations; or Isaiah Berlin’s theory of Value Pluralism, positing that it should be possible for societies and people with irreconcilable worldviews to live together harmoniously; or Wittgenstein’s paradox: “…no course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with a rule.” And let’s not even get started on Einstein’s theory of relativity….
Personally, I believe that paradoxical thinking is inherent in anybody raised in a Jewish tradition; if Jewish adaptability and Jewish humor and Jewish achievements in the face of adversity can be said to have a source, then it is Jews’ historic comfort with irreconcilable thoughts. But because we exist among societies raised to think that all thoughts must be reconcilable within a single worldview, any divergence from their worldview can escalate into lethal danger. When times are good, our ability to let other people perceive the world differently is celebrated, but when the going gets tough, the contradictions of being Jewish make us viewed as enemies.
There’s a lot of debate in the Jewish world about what contemporary antisemitism is. Too many Jews on the Right are defending Trump for his obvious antisemitic dogwhistles, claiming that Trump’s support of Israel and Jewish family members absolves him of his obvious antisemitic actions and associates; too many Jews on the Left are defending BDS, claiming that denial of the right of a Jewish state to exist is not obviously antisemitism. Our tradition clearly instructs us that both ideas can be true, and both clearly are. But part of the nature of Jewish adaptability is that our paradoxical casts of mind can adapt in ways that seem utterly contradictory. I neither know how Jews can defend a President who clearly encourages neo-Nazis or how Jews can defend a movement whose goal is clearly to end the existence of Israel, but hundreds of thousands of American Jews see ways around those contradictions that I don’t.
And since so many Jews can adapt themselves to antisemitic movements, why shouldn’t it also be possible to take the concepts which lead people to antisemitic beliefs and redirect the people who believe in those concepts into something more productive? And this is where Simon Schama’s documentary goes from merely a great documentary into something profoundly subversive.
Even without that transcendent last hour, everything about Civilizations is subversive. The very name implies that it is a successor documentary to Kenneth Clark’s once prodigiously famous documentary, Civilisation. In 1969, Clark, a famously conservative art-critic, utilized the Art History to convince an audience that civilization is a concept that emphasizes beauty, comfort, human feeling, nobility, against the barbaric art of those who wish to destroy Civilisation. It was never said outright (at least not in my memory), but the unmistakable implication was that the bastion of Civilization was the West, fighting a perilous and eternal imperial battle against barbarian hordes on every other continent.
Fifty years later, Civilisation is both embarrassingly dated and a monumental piece of television. It may not have been generous to other cultures, but it came to its conclusions more honestly than it now seems; and it turned millions of middle and working class people into art critics. The vast majority Western Art was the almost exclusive property of twenty generations of Kenneth Clarks, but Clark’s documentary liberated Western Art to be properly appreciated and loved by a mass international audience, regardless of their social background. In 1969, it was probably the best effort anybody was going to make to show that art belongs not just to its owners but to whoever learns to love it.
If you ever watch Civilisation, be charitable. Don’t be taken in by Clark’s upper-class twit-demeanor. Civilisation is obviously a work of its time, and Kenneth Clark was an emissary from a generation of war that had seen death and suffering unimaginable to most of the world today. Intellectual survivors of generations like his ought to be forgiven for associating anything that does not conform to traditional notions of harmony and beauty with the chaos of war. To Clark, the harmonies of Rubens and Rembrandt were synonymous with peace. What Clark wanted was to make a series that evangelized art as a means to create peace within his society, and in that sense, Civilisation is still a very great TV show and of a progressivism we all would do well to emulate.
But a world only born in the late 60’s has reached a ripened maturity in the late 2010’s. Whatever one thinks of multiculturalism or globalization, we are now a multicultural, globalized world. The history we have a moral obligation to learn is Western History no longer. It is World History, the history of any civilization that has documentation. Whether or not Western Civilization was the dominant civilization of its era, it is no longer, and it is every bit as important to learn about those who were marginalized by Western Civilization and learn as much as we can about their achievements in an era of Western pillaging.
There’s obviously no way of knowing how Civilisations will view in 50 years, but at the moment, the way Civilisations explains the cultural exchange between West and East seems pretty brilliant. We’re taken through most of the great artists of traditional art history, and we’re shown precisely how Eastern artists affected them. Almost all of the names of these artists of the East and Antiquity and the New World are lost to us, and however ingenious their work, it was rarely ever meant as a showcase for the glory of the artists themselves. We are pushed face to face with worldviews completely different from our own, places and eras who use art for stunningly different purposes than the West even used it in its pre-modern era; and yet, the exchange between cultures was always there. At some point, patterns common to Islamic or Indian or Japanese art would suddenly appear in Western paintings, sometimes with ubiquity, and at some point, some printmaker in Japan would draw according to the rules of Western perspective, or some Islamic painter would start painting people rather than ingeniously intricate patterns. Mother Nature finds as many ways to unite us as divide us, and for however long we have historical documentation, someone always seemed to find a way to exchange knowledge between cultures.
And yet, with this new knowledge also comes limitations. We now live in an anti-oppression world where one’s racial and gender and sexual identity defines us nearly as much as it did in eras that oppressed with alacrity. How does a liberal tradition which believes that people should be treated according to the content of their character adapt to this era when one’s gender the color of one’s skin is coming to matter nearly as much again as it did to people in eras without enlightenment? How does a globalized era, so accustomed to cultural exchange, adapt itself to an era when so many intellectuals believe that cultural exchange between the powerful and the powerless is not exchange but cultural appropriation? How does a Jewish tradition, accustomed to pointing out the weaknesses in all arguments, adapt itself to an era when feedback is discouraged from those who do not share the inner experience of being a person of color, or a woman, or of the LGBTQIAPK+ community?
Well, all I can do for the moment is answer those questions in the context of this documentary. When it comes to subjects of for even a well-intentioned straight Jewish man of sterling liberal credentials who looks white, Schama graciously cedes the floor to other distinguished historians whose identities are more commensurate with the subjects discussed. In the episodes which speak about religion or how the human body is depicted, Schama cedes the floor to Mary Beard because when speaking of such subjects, the implication is unmistakable that religion and physicality are the means by which men have always curtailed the freedom of women. In the episodes that speak about globalization and imperialism, which is also a history of all the bloody deeds of Western conquer and slaughter, the presenter becomes the British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga. And all throughout the documentary, Maya Jasanoff, the half-Indian half-Jewish American historian of the British Empire, is a continual presence. Nevertheless, Schama’s position at the center of the project is in no way threatened by diversity. He is the series’s predominant presence, hosting 5 of the 9 episodes, and clearly the principal authorial voice for the whole series. It does not hurt to collaborate with well-qualified experts whom, by the nature of who they are, can speak to specific concerns with greater authenticity.
But Schama is not white, he is Jewish – and half-Turkish Sephardic at that. Whether you view intersectionality as a direly needed world-historic force or just a dangerous game for the intellectually immature, it is as important for Jews to find a secure place in this new multicultural world as it is for Jews to find a way to be accepted in any other era. Whether or not you agree at all with any of these various ideas about representation and patriarchy and neoliberalism, there is all too ample room for an enormous Jewish role in all this, but the price for giving the prestige of Jewish suffering to these causes has to be predicated on three unconditional recognitions: unconditional recognition of the of the State of Israel’s necessity, unconditional recognition that Jews are people of color, and unconditional recognition that the Shoah is a crime uniquely evil in the entirety thus far of documented human history. If they did this, the vast majority of Jews would have demonstrated en masse with Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March. Jews are sufficiently civically minded that there would have been no reservations at all, we would have given scores more of our time, our money, our cachet, and our clout. But this is our price.
To a non-Jewish mind, it may seem obscene to phrase these conditions in such transactional terms; as a ‘price’ for our advocacy. But whether or not such terms make sense to them, it makes sense to us. Whether or not other people understand that we are people of color, that our survival is predicated on the State of Israel, that the Shoah was worse than other manifestations of oppression, we know that all three are true.
So if you’re looking for it, the implication from Civilisations is unmistakable. Amid all these relatively new ideas about how art views women through a predatory male gaze, or of how so much of the Western tradition was built from artists who got their ideas from looking at the spoils of imperial looting, is the unmistakable notion that there must be a place for Zionism in the new politically correct world of intersectionality and multiculturalism. We were continually massacred under European yoke millennia before non-Westerners knew what a European was, we have been refugees for millennia longer, and our story of oppression is the story of stories. Until intersectionality places Jews at the very center of its discourse, it is as thoroughly corrupt as any ideology that wends its way through the hearts and minds of humanity. It may seem a paradox to the average intersectionalist that any story of victimhood is more obscene than another, but the paradox exists because of documented facts about the Shoah and thousands of other documented events in Jewish history, and they do not lie. If white people are the progenitors of the world’s power imbalance, then no peoplehood has ever suffered from white people for longer or at greater cost.
It is up to us, though, to convince the people who believe in this ideology that a thorough acceptance of us is the key to their moral redemption. Whether or not you approve of intersectionality, our survival may depend on adapting to it, and by adapting to it and inserting our voice within it, we might just save the movement, and therefore save ourselves. If this means that we have to refrain sometimes from criticizing people of other identities for the political choices they make, or understand that occasionally Jews are paradoxically complicit in the perpetration of white oppression, that is the price we pay as Jews. Adaptation is what we do.
Yes, so far, intersectionality has proven a very dangerous concept indeed for Jews – our precarious position at the bottom of the Western hierarchy means that Israel, rather than much more secure countries, is necessarily singled out for condemnation as the ultimate modern imperial occupier, because we are the one peoplehood of substantial European extraction whose right to exist is still a matter of debate. You may not agree with intersectionality, I disagree hugely with large notions from it, but if you want Jews to prosper within an intersectional world that shows signs of only getting more so, you have to allow some Jews to adapt to its ideas without cutting them off from the mainstream of Jewish life. Like every other era of Jewish history, if we want them to adapt to us, we have to adapt to them first.
We’re obviously better at it…