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Monday, 16 September 2013

THE STORY OF THE JEWS

I always found Simon Schama vaguely annoying - but no more.  His Story of the Jews is a masterwork of TV history.  This is hardly new territory.  Few stories are more familiar than that of the exodus during biblical times; and the Holocaust is a known tragedy.  However, Schama finds a series of through lines - tropes, images, concepts - chief among them the book, language, itself - to trace the journey of the Jews.  Never boring, often exceptionally moving, and invigorating in its intellectual muscle, Schama trembles, berates, mourns, laughs, observes, and finger-wags - he lives - the processes he explores.  Indeed, last night's episode (Episode 3) became like a the best kind of moral thriller - a terrible historical tragedy - as we saw Moses Mendelsohn, that great mensch - build bridges with German culture and society - a bridge snapped in two by Wagner in 1850, with the repellent publication of Judaism In Music - and from there, anti-semitism re-emerged in Dreyfus France and post-Bismark Prussia and Austria.

Schama scorns those who link the evils of banking with Jews (what about the Quaker bankers, he mocks), and he also, in his discussion of Herzel, the Zionist thinker, dares any thinking person to refuse to be a Zionist.  Starting into the camera he asks, was Herzel wrong, in saying that Jews in Europe would not be allowed to assimilate?  That they would be ultimately destroyed?  That they needed their own place to live, their own state?  Here, Schama is most brave, and controversial.  He doesn't note the paradox that German nationalism was the brute force that could not accept the Other, leading to the equal and opposite reaction of Jewish nationalism (Zionism).  Why is one nationalism better than another?  Well, at the end of the episode, we find ourselves among the severe rain-streaked stones of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial.  Stones speak louder than words.  This is a great show and should be seen by all, especially Guardian readers who tend to vilify Israel.
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