Book review – The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BCE – 1492 CE

Colin Shindler commends the first volume of a witty and wide-reaching history of the Jewish people across centuries

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Reviewed by: Colin Shindler
Author: Simon Schama
Publisher: The Bodley Head
Price (RRP): £25

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In his new book, Simon Schama traces the remarkable odyssey of the Jews through the records of ordinary people of the time – from the papyri of the Jewish garrison at Elephantine near Egypt in the sixth-century BC to the collection of records known as the Cairo Genizah more than a millennium later. Schama acts as a virtual tourist guide to centuries of this history, genially pointing out the sights as the reader travels with him on the book’s journey.

As a historian, Schama prefers to analyse the political environment that led to a particular event, rather than attribute it to divine intervention and inherited Jewish tradition. After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in AD 70, the rabbis steadfastly led the Jews, from one generation to the next, into an ever-expanding diaspora. Through their writings, these rabbis often imagined their people’s past through the lens of halakah, or Jewish law. In contrast, Schama describes the mishnah, a compendium of rabbinical commentary, as “supra-historical”, and liberated from what he terms “historical eventuality”.

The ancient tension between ‘princes and priests’ – layleaders and rabbis – within Jewish communities is a recurring feature down the centuries, and Schama himself embodies the iconoclasm of the Jewish dissident. He concludes that the prophet Ezra, who led the Jews back to ancient Israel from Babylonian captivity, was the compiler and editor of the final version of the Hebrew Bible. He also clearly does not attribute much veracity to the idea that the Book of Deuteronomy happened to have been discovered by Hilkiah the High Priest in the Jerusalem Temple one day. Schama leaves little space for the idea that, although human beings may indeed have written the Bible over time, they were inspired by God to do so.

Both Christianity and Islam come in for dissection. ‘Jesusism’ started as a sub- section of Judaism, but Saint Paul moved “the heart of Christian theology from Christ’s life to his death”. The fourth- century Christian leader John Chrysostom initiated the demonology of the Jews, “unfit for work, fit for killing”. He was clearly delighted that the scholar- emperor, Julian, only reigned for a few short years, 361–63, and was thwarted in his attempt to revert the empire to a rational paganism and to persuade the Jews to rebuild their temple. In AD 414, the first report emerged of a Christian child being kidnapped by unscrupulous Jews – the template for medieval blood-libel.

Schama argues that Islam’s core doctrine was also essentially Judaic, but that the Prophet Mohammed took umbrage at not being recognised as a prophet in an age (according to the rabbis) when prophecy had long come to an end. In the midst of this rift, Arabia Judaica, the home of Judaised Arabs and Arab Jews, boasted a rich cultural and religious life. The town of Khaybar was 60 per cent Jewish. There was even the kingdom of Himyar in Yemen which had converted to Judaism.

Jews from the Arab world and, later, Muslim Spain developed trade routes, populated by relatives and friends, which stretched as far as Samatra. As Schama points out, “its wealth was moral and spiritual status” – not from worldly assets, but from scholarly endeavour. Even Jewish businessmen wrote poetry.

William the Conqueror brought Jews with him from Normandy, yet just 30 years later Europe’s chivalrous heralds were busy massacring Jews on the journey to Jerusalem during the first crusade. The blood libel case of Hugh of Lincoln followed in Henry III’s reign, and his son, Edward I, instigated an anti-Jewish campaign during 1278–79 and delivered 269 community leaders to the hangman, before the final expulsion of Jews from the English realm in 1290.

Holy water was sprinkled on to the idea of Jewish conspiracy. Jews were often perceived as rich deicides: the wealth of the deliciously named Licoricia of Winchester, for instance, was appropriated to pay for the heart of Westminster Abbey, in which monarchs have been crowned for centuries.

Schama’s book is extremely well- written with many insightful comments and witty and irreverent asides. I look forward eagerly to the second volume, covering the years after 1492 and set to be released in 2014.

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Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London and the author of A History of Modern Israel (Cambridge University Press, second edition, 2013)