Beyond identity born of trembling

Celebrated historian calls for an end to the 'Jewish history wars'. Matthew Reisz reports

May 20, 2010

One of Britain's most prominent public historians has called for an understanding of Jewish history that goes beyond Zionist pieties and the critiques of their opponents.

Simon Schama, university professor of art history and history at Columbia University in the US, made the call in London last week as he delivered the 17th Elie Kedourie Memorial Lecture on "The Jewish History Wars". The British Academy lecture series honours the celebrated professor of politics and expert on the Middle East who taught at the London School of Economics from 1953 to 1990.

Although Professor Schama's published and television work has covered American, British, Dutch and French history, he has now returned to themes he explored in Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel (1978), and offered his thoughts as "work-in-progress, ideas I'm still trying to clarify".

Professor Schama described how Professor Kedourie had grown up in Iraq and survived a terrible massacre of Jews by Arab nationalists in 1941, to which the British authorities turned a blind eye. He remained deeply pessimistic about all forms of nationalism ever after.

Professor Schama, introduced as "the most famous historian from somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic", admitted he had been far less sceptical in his youth.

After hearing a speech by the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1963, he had bought into the nationalist view of Jewish history "lock, stock and barrel", he said. According to this view, biblical archaeology had proven the links between ancient and modern Israel; Jewish history had been a story of "persecution and endurance" that culminated in the Holocaust; and peace-loving Israelis were under permanent siege by rejectionist Arabs.

Other forms of nationalism might be horrible, but Zionism had a "moral exceptionalism" that made it distinctive, he had believed.

Yet Professor Schama described how "the seamless garment of this historical narrative soon came apart" under attack from "iconoclasts at both ends of the historical spectrum". The so-called "New Historians" demolished most of the myths about the creation of modern Israel in 1948, and a new generation of "minimalist" archaeologists claimed that there was no evidence outside the Bible that "ancient Israel" had even existed.

In assessing such claims, Professor Schama said that he accepted "much of the sombre revision of 1948". However, he was far less convinced by the revisionist archaeologists and said he believed that further research had shown that "Judaism began when and where traditionalists said it did".

Asked where such arguments left Jewish identity today, he said there was a need to go beyond the view of Jewish history as nothing but persecution and suffering. "It would be a pity if the only identity we have is born of trembling," he added.

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