Books interview: Simon Schama

Simon Schama speaks to Ellie Cawthorne about his new book, which looks at the lives of Jews – from rabbis to bare-knuckle boxers – across four centuries…

Historian Simon Schama.

This article was first published in the December 2017 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Your new book spans more than 400 years of Jewish history – from the turn of the 16th century to the end of the 19th. What are some of the central themes you cover?

For more than half a millennium, the life of a Jew was one where you never knew whether you were going to be holed up in a ghetto, expelled from your country, or accused of murdering Christian children to drink their blood. It could be a very transitory life. What intrigued me was what Jews could make of that transitory life while staying put in one religion.

My central theme was whether or not Jews were given the chance to fulfil two compatible lives – one as a member of the country in which they settled, the other being life as a Jew. While some countries made that relatively easy, others made it incredibly difficult. That’s the real heart of the book, and the idea behind the title Belonging.

How did different societies across the globe view and treat Jews in this period?

It really depended what the dominant religion was in any given society. In most of the societies that I discuss it was Christianity. Jews in Christian societies laboured under two difficulties. Firstly, they were inevitably part of the Christian story. Christians believed that the second coming couldn’t happen – in other words the entire Christian story couldn’t be fulfilled – unless the Jews became Christians. So there was a constant pressure to convert. Sometimes, close proximity or friendship between Jewish rabbis and enlightened cardinals yielded real mutual sympathy on this issue. But at other times, the inability – or impossibility – of converting Jews created an extraordinary sense of grudge. It could trigger irrational fury. This obstinacy also stoked a feeling that Jews could never be persuaded to convert because they only ultimately belonged to each other and to themselves.

Christian societies also saw the horrific perpetuation of the idea of blood libel. It’s extraordinary how through the 18th, 19th and even into the 20th century, many people still genuinely believed that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals. That belief saw Jews transformed into vampiric monsters.

Things were slightly different in Muslim societies, where the Jews were less a matter of paranoia than contempt. In Turkey for example, there was a good degree of peaceful coexistence, partly because the Ottoman empire had a relatively (though not entirely) relaxed attitude to the profession of other faiths. It was possible for Jews and non-Jews to live in the same street, or sometimes even the same house. However, there were moments that proved things could very easily go downhill.

The book also highlights instances of Jews thriving in the societies they lived in. Can you give us some examples?

While the Jews feature in both the Christian and Islamic stories, they don’t feature at all in Confucianism or Buddhism. Ming China, for example, was structured around Confucian ethics, meaning that the idea of religious domination was completely insignificant. So in this period, China was one country where Jews could slip in (as did Muslims) as just another slightly obscure, eccentric cult. The documentation of Jewish lives in China isn’t as rich as we’d like, but there are stone inscriptions that give us a sense of what was going on. You could find Jews as army officers, mandarin bureaucrats, tax inspectors and school inspectors in Ming China. That was exceptionally unusual for the time.

Similarly, in American history, we can find all kinds of examples of Jews being able to do things that they weren’t able to do elsewhere in this period. Many people did have to battle anti-Semitism, but we do see Jews acting as soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War, as dry goods store owners, or actors and actresses. It may be hard to believe today, but America was built on inclusiveness (with of course the very dramatic exception of the African-American population). It was a country of immigrants, meaning that in this period it didn’t have a ferocious exclusive patriotism.

You look at a colourful array of characters, from poets and political leaders to actors and army officers. Who did you find most fascinating to research?

The book is very much the story of Jews rather than the story of Judaism. Jewish history can often end up as an endless procession of rabbis, philosophers and religious thinkers. While I do feature plenty of those figures, I really wanted to look at the characters that aren’t traditionally dealt with in Jewish history.

One person whose story I’m particularly fond of is Leone de Sommi Portaleone, an actor and manager who was also a kind of practical rabbi responsible for [the Italian city of] Mantua’s Jewish community in the second half of the 16th century. Interestingly, the Jewish actors in his stage company were accepted as part of the city’s cultural scene relatively unproblematically. This may not have prevented a ghetto being imposed in Mantua in the early 17th century, but for a while, Jews in the city were part of a genuine feedback loop of cultural curiosity.

An equally fascinating character was Sarra Copia [1592–1641], a brilliant, heroic, eloquent, funny, feisty woman who lived in the Venice ghetto. Copia got a terrible crush on an elderly Christian poet and diplomat called Ansaldo Cebà. They shared this weird, slightly creepy, semi-romantic relationship through a series of letters, in which Sarra consistently refused Cebà’s attempts to persuade her to convert to Christianity. She was fabulously out-there, really brave and very funny; I rather loved her.

Another incredibly important figure was Daniel Mendoza [1764-1836]. Mendoza was a bare-knuckle boxer in Georgian England whose spectacular career overthrew a lot of stereotypes about Jews. His exploits may not have been the beginning of Jewish toughness but they were a gigantic step into it. Mendoza was certainly no pussycat. He was motivated by a desire to show that Jews were not weak or passive, always with their backs hunched over books. Through his crude form of brutish physicality, Mendoza wanted to re-embody what it meant to be a Jew. You can definitely see a bit of Muhammad Ali in him. He realised that he was seen as exotic, but rather than running away from that fact, he made it a central part of his persona.

Mendoza’s story is a perfect example of a moment of exuberant, almost flamboyant breakthrough, where a Jewish figure found a place in the public consciousness of their home culture while still being seen as distinctly Jewish.

Prejudice and persecution are an inevitable part of this story – what forms did anti-Semitism take during this period?

I start the book at a moment when the church seemed to repudiate the idea that Jews should be distinguished by dress code. However, things very quickly backtracked to a point where Jews were forced to wear different clothes from everybody else. They were thought not to be fit to dwell with other citizens, and the 16th century saw the ghettoisation of Rome and Venice. The Venice ghetto was locked at night and guarded by patrols. Things were even worse in Rome, where elderly Jews were stripped naked and pelted with rotten fruit by jeering crowds, in so-called ‘games’ that were supposed to be terribly funny.

We go all the way from these acts of confinement and public humiliation through to full-blooded pogroms and massacres. In 1648, for example, many, many thousands of men, women and children were slaughtered in Polish Ukraine for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

One of the most chilling things that I discovered during my research was a list of ways to kill Jews, drawn up in late 19th-century France as a response to the Dreyfus affair [in which Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus was accused of treason]. This list thinks up all manner of hideous deaths for the Jews, from burning them alive in glass furnaces to dissecting them alive in anatomy classes or shredding them into dog food. Its virulence and bitterness is shocking. There was no torment invented by the Nazis that wasn’t first voiced by the French in 1899. So you name it, Jews went through it.

Why is this subject still so pressing and relevant to reflect on?

That’s a gigantic question. I didn’t write the book with an eye on today at all, but the modern hostility to people on the move does make this story feel prescient. The question of whether or not it’s possible to belong to two communities at the same time remains an issue for people all over the world. I feel that we have been on a ride towards a world divided; between people who are perfectly happy living with strangers, and those who only want neighbours that look, sound or pray just like themselves. Now we are seeing those two visions colliding. And the latter is so deeply wired to our viscera, our guts, that it’s become a monster.

Simon Schama is a historian, author and broadcaster who has written and presented a number of programmes for the BBC, including A History of Britain and The Story of the Jews. His books include: The Face of Britain, Citizens and Landscape and Memory. He is professor of art history and history at Columbia University

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Book: Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492–1900 by Simon Schama (Bodley Head, 800 pages, £25)