Better late than never. This is the principle that guided me when I recently decided to view Simon Schama’s 2013 television series” The Story of the Jews”. It felt fitting to watch this show ahead of the Passover Seder where my family and I will recall Jewish history. In his series, Schama attempts to do the impossible, to define Judaism and to unearth what it means to be a Jew. Schama is not only a respected historian, but he is also a gifted television personality. His description of a Jewish wedding in the Shtetl is so vivid, so colorful and so rich that one wishes he could travel back in time and follow the aged Rabbi, with his bad leg, as he leads the congregation in ecstatic dancing.
According to Schama, Judaism bears four, distinct traits. The first is abstraction. Of all the religions in the world, the Jewish faith is the most abstract. The Jewish God has no face, form or shape. He even lacks a name as God’s Hebrew name is literally “the name” or Ha-Shem. Abstraction does not detract from the Jews’ faith; on the contrary, declares Schama. It is infinitely harder to believe in an abstract God than in Jesus Christ or the Prophet Mohamed. Abstraction thus attests to the uniqueness of the Jews who for 2,000 years kept their faith in a faceless God.
Second, Judaism is characterized by mobilization. No matter how well Jews fared in one country or another, they always expected eventual expulsion. Be it in Medieval England, the Golden Age of Spain or 1920s Germany, the specter of rejection perpetually haunted Jews’ horizon. So while the Christian keeps a bible near his bed the Jew keeps a luggage. A trolley into which he can quickly, and painfully fold up his life and begin searching for a new provisional home.
Judaism is also historically marked by tension, by a constant desire to bridge the gap between Jewish life and life outside the Shtetl or Ghetto. On the one hand, there were always those who urged Jews to shun the outside world, to close ranks and live a rich yet distinct life from the nations around them. Others, such as Moses Mendelson, sought to bridge the gap between Jewish and surrounding life. By translating the bible into German, yet using Hebrew letters, Mendelson hoped to open up Judaism to the cultural and intellectual wonders of the world around it. Yet this was always one bridge too far. For no matter how well Jews assimilated, no matter how well they spoke German or composed German Operas, they were always shunned and always ended up reaching for their small luggage.
Finally, Judaism is just. Schama maintains that the Jews are inherently fair and strive to make the world a fair place for others. Perhaps this is the result of 2,000 years of hatred and persecution, or an oral and moral tradition passed from one generation to the next. Of all the Jews that shaped American popular culture, Schama explores the life of Yip Harburg who wrote the anthem of the Great Depression, ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime’. Harburg was able to write this anthem not because of his talents as a lyricist, but because he was brought up in the Lower East Side on the Jewish value of Tzedakah. In Scaham’s world, Tzedakah is synonymous with the value of Tikkun Olam, or making the world fairer for all.
Yet Schama also asserts in the show that the establishment of Israel alerted something fundamental in Judaism and in Jews. The Jews of Israel are distinct from the Jews of the past. For one thing, Israeli Jews are confident, to a fault. In one segment of the show, Schama stands beneath the West Bank Barrier Wall built by Israel following the 2000 Palestinian popular uprising. Schama is obviously uncomfortable when facing what he believes to be an edifice to Israeli confidence which has morphed into injustice. So powerful is Israel, so confident in its might, that it creates a wall that separates Palestinian farmers from their lands, homeowners from their houses and that tears apart Palestinian families. Though he does not say it, Schama seems to believe that confidence has robbed Israelis of their Jewish, moral inheritance.
The wall betrays the basic Jewish value of Tzedakah.
To explain how Yip Harburg’s people could build such as a wall in the first place, Schama begins his episode on Israel with the Holocaust. Israel, claims Schama, rose from the ashes of the Holocaust and it stands on the ashes of history when it builds barrier walls. Though this helps reconcile how Israel’s anthem changed from ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime’, to ‘Brother, Have You Placed the Mine’, Schama rejects Israel’s historical narrative which asserts that the State of Israel would have been established even if the Holocaust never occurred. Israel was a ‘state in the making’ as during the 1930s Zionist organizations created the institutions of statehood including schools and universities, health facilities, trade unions and an armed fighting force. Israel was thus established long before the gas chambers of Auschwitz first opened their doors.
But Schama fails to understand Israelis and Israel, for Israel remains characterized by three Jewish traits. First, Israel is an abstract state. It has no internationally recognized borders, and no internally agreed-upon borders. Right-wing, left-wing and centrist voters all draw different maps of Israel with very different borders. Some would include Gaza in Israel’s borders, while others would exclude the Palestinian territories in the West Bank. A country without borders is like a God without a face- it is fundamentally abstract. Second, Israelis remain mobilized. Throughout Israel, hundreds of thousands of citizens have applied for a second, coveted passport. Grandchildren send their grandparents to the attic in search of documents proving citizenship in Poland, ownership of property in Germany or birth registration in Romania. Those who did emigrate from Europe, opt for a Portuguese passport. Thus like our forefathers, Israelis also keep a luggage nearby, a trolley that can carry us to Montreal or Bucharest should we be slaughtered yet again by terrorists or Ayatollahs. The Separation Wall is not an edifice to Israeli confidence but to Israel’s innate lack of self-confidence.
Israel is also defined by tension, by a debate on whether Israel should exist as a ‘Villa in the Jungle’, to quote the racist Ehud Barak, or whether Israel should become an integral part of the Middle East be it culturally, intellectually or financially. Many wish to build a bridge between Jerusalem and Damascus, but for others it is a bridge too far. Historical animosity, and cultural differences, doom Israel to a life of solitude. A giant, robust and armed Shtetl.
It is, however true, that Israel is unjust. Yet Schama focuses on external justice, without exploring domestic injustices. Gaps between the rich and poor, institutional racism against Arab Israelis, homophobia, xenophobia and sexism- Israel is marked by all these scarlet letters and they will all be represented by extremist parties in the next Israeli Parliament. However, one must ask if Israeli injustice is markedly different than the injustice that existed in other Jewish communities throughout history? The answer is yes because in Israel, Jews are the majority, Jews hold power and Jews are lawmakers. It is only in this sense that Israel represents a fundamental departure from historic Judaism, yet this difference is one that Schama fails to identify.
Ultimately, Schama understands Jews, but not Israelis.