Merging with the landscape in Prospect Park, Brooklyn: even Orthodox are models of hybridity. Photograph: Irina Rozovsky.
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On Simon Schama's Story of the Jews: There is no one version of the Jewish past

David Cesarani praises Simon Schama's erudite, playful and personal history reinterpretation of Jewish history.

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words (1000BCE – 1492CE)
Simon Schama
Bodley Head, 512pp, £25

No one writes a history of the Jews without an agenda. The first effort that Jews made to write Jewish history, in a manner recognisable to us as history, was an arresting statement about the Jewish present and, quite explicitly, the Jewish future.

Until the mid-18th century, Jews simply did not think in historical terms. As Simon Schama notes pithily, with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70AD, “Jewish time stops.” Josephus, who chronicled the disaster, was the first and, for centuries, the last Jewish historian. He was comparable to Herodotus but unlike the Greek and Roman historians he had no acolytes. For Jews, the loss of the Temple – and with it self-determination – was a punishment by God. Until the Messiah came, they would be suspended in an eternal present framed by exile and suffering.

Jews escaped this preconception only under the influence of the European Enlightenment and histories that did not ascribe everything to God’s providence. However, Christian scholarship on the Jews was hardly inspiring. European thinkers from Voltaire to Hegel regarded the Jews as a bizarre and unpleasant historical anomaly. Their beliefs and practices were apparently handed down unchanged from biblical times. Some radicals were willing to set aside the charge of deicide but nearly everyone agreed that the Jews were an alien people with obnoxious traits. To most (apart from those radicals), this more than justified their political and social exclusion.

The first histories composed by practitioners of the Jewish Enlightenment were intended to counter this disdain and justify Jewish claims to equality. But these authors, such as Nachman Krochmal and Leopold Zunz, were fighting on two fronts. They wanted to show Gentiles that the Jews had a glorious past but they were also campaigning for reform within Jewish communities, to erase the infamies that critics identified. Their research demonstrated the mutability of Judaism. It suggested that customs considered at odds with the zeitgeist could be amended, or even scrapped. The past became a weapon of change.

Heinrich Graetz, the first notable Jewish historian, was a product of German universities. A Hegelian, he believed that Jewish history was a progression from tribalism towards universalism. He gloried in the Jewish dispersion, because how else could the progenitors of monotheism be a light unto the nations? The hero of his multi-volume history, published between 1853 and 1870, was Moses Mendelssohn, who reformulated Judaism in an Enlightenment idiom. By contrast, Graetz despised the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim of eastern Europe who cleaved to tradition and rejected modernity. Yet he was not just an apologist. He expected that once the Jews shed their objectionable peculiarities, European society would embrace them as equals.

The rise in anti-Semitism towards the end of the 19th century forced Jewish thinkers to reconsider. Simon Dubnow, a Russianeducated scholar, turned his back on the universalistic dream cherished by Graetz. Dubnow had emerged from the Pale of Settlement, where Yiddish-speaking Jews comprised a majority in numerous districts. They lived a semi-autonomous life with many characteristics of a national group. Whereas Graetz renounced Jewish nationality, arguing that Jews were distinguished only by their religion, Dubnow understood Jewish history in terms of nationhood, its loss and the struggle to recover it. The Jewish future would consist of gaining minority rights in the Hapsburg and the Russian empires where most Jews dwelled.

Dubnow’s vision earned the scorn of Zionists. They agreed that the trajectory of Jewish history led to the reawakening of national consciousness and self-rule – but saw this taking place in a Jewish state. Zionism spawned a school of historians who characterised the diaspora as an entirely negative experience, a miasma of powerlessness. To Ben-Zion Dinur, the doyen of the “Jerusalem School”, Jewish history was about charting continuous manifestations of Jewish self-government and the revival of national pride, culminating in the establishment of modern Israel.

Yet the 20th century offered little comfort to Zionists. Rather, it seemed to demonstrate the resilience of Jews in the diaspora. This dynamic appeared self-evident to Salo Baron, the first Jew to hold a chair in Jewish history in the US (at Columbia University, where Schama is now ensconced). Born in a border region of the Austro-Hungarian empire with a dense Jewish population, Baron studied at University of Vienna and migrated to the US. He observed how social and economic movements in one region could lift the Jews, while in another they created circumstances that doomed them.

Unlike Dubnow, Baron did not regard politics as the motor of change in Jewish history. In his 18-volume history of the Jews, the crucial determinants of their fate were international trade, warfare and administrative centralisation in the places where they lived. Nor were Jews the passive objects of political upheaval. They were agents of change, if only by migrating in search of a better life. From his vantage point on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, capitalist urban modernity offered the Jews the most enticing prospect.

In the 1960s, increasing numbers of professional Jewish historians began to graduate from US universities such as Columbia. They identified closely with the dilemmas of Jews in Europe two centuries earlier. Then, thinkers such as Mendelssohn confronted the challenge of Enlightenment rationalism and the possibilities offered by the French Revolution. Was it possible to be a French citizen and an observant Jew? How could Jews emerge from the ghetto without losing their distinctiveness? As Arthur Hertzberg, my teacher at Columbia, put it: “Jewish history became a question of how to enter modernity and still have the kids come home for Friday-night dinner.”

So what is the agenda of Jewish history in a postmodern world? According to the Israeli historian Moshe Rosman, “Postmodernity has led to the emergence of a new, as yet not fully articulated meta-history that can be termed ‘multicultural’.” The unity of the Jewish story has been replaced by a multitude of local histories in which Jews mingle with their surroundings, morphing through varied degrees of hybridity. Jewish identity is constantly under construction and no one period or location is privileged over another. There is no Jewish authenticity. “The essence of Jewish history is diversity.”

Schama fits perfectly into this mould. He begins his narrative not with Abraham and the patriarchs but with a community of soldiers and their families residing on the island of Elephantine in the Nile, around 475BC. These people observed many practices that we associate with Judaism. Brilliantly exploiting the fragmentary sources, Schama evokes their everyday life as well as their beliefs. They were “worldly, cosmopolitan”, speaking the vernacular and interacting with the locals. The first Jews were “obsessed with law and property, money-minded, fashion-conscious, much concerned with the making and breaking of marriages”. It all sounds like Manhattan.

That is the point. Schama is not writing a conventional history of the Jews. Note the title: he is offering stories told by and about Jews. These stories have been chosen artfully to illustrate the syncretic nature of Jewish thought across the ages and from one continent to another; the porous boundaries between those identified as Jews and others around them; the Jews’ voluntary integration as against their periodic forced segregation. His reading of Jewish law and the commentaries, which rabbinical scholars may find selective to say the least, is bent towards demonstrating the inclusivity to be found even among the guardians of ritual purity.

Schama is always readable, with uproariously funny riffs on everything from eccentric archaeologists to rabbinical advice about depilatories. He has a gift for rendering dryas- dust material into the demotic, referring to a bitty inscription as a “Hebrew tweet”. However, this liveliness comes at a price. Anyone expecting to find a conventional account opening with the hoary question of Jewish origins and the veracity of the Bible will be frustrated, not to say confused. Don’t expect to find the prophet Samuel, Saul, his kingly creation, or the tales of David and Solomon. He sidesteps the hallowed preoccupation with the singular genius and unique continuity of the Jews.

Swaths of the book deal with visual representation. Schama’s look at the historicity of the Bible opens with a digression on Victorian explorers, cartographers and painters who depicted the Holy Land. He dwells on the wall paintings of the synagogue at Dura and the mosaics at Zippori, ostensibly because they give an insight into Judaism in its formative stages, around 240AD, following the destruction of the Temple and reification of the oral law. “Judaism as it was being remade was, in some respects, actually constituted from images almost as much as texts.” In this crucial respect, it was linked to, not separated from, the culture around it. The mosaics at Beit She’an show “the openness of Judaism to the cultures amid which it dwelled”. Schama offers a scintillating explanation of illustrated Hebrew manuscripts, notably the earliest Haggadah used for the Passover service, as ocular retorts to the demonic figurations employed to disseminate Judaeophobia after the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

There is another reason for this proclivity for visual points. The book is tied to a television series and is driven as much by what could be filmed as by what the primary and secondary sources disclose. Although Schama displays a wide breadth of learning, his book is not overburdened with footnotes and most of the sources are in English. He prefers exciting new revisionist works over plodding, older scholarship. The result is a breezy, often racy series of vignettes, usually centring on a place or a personality, stressing the material and the quotidian. Although Maimonides bulks large and there is a beautifully wrought segment on Hebrew poetry, he barely explores the evolution of Jewish thought.

More problematically, he skips chunks of history too awkward (or dull) to accommodate. A terrifically moving rendition of how Jewish populations in Mainz and Worms were annihilated during the First Crusade, in a chapter puzzlingly titled “Women of Ashkenaz”, opens without any explanation of how Jews got there. The women appear much later, in an eccentric argument based on “some evidence” that as well as figuring prominently in business, they wore prayer shawls and participated in services.

Schama loves to toy with stereotypes, teetering on the brink of decency. From the beginning, “To be Jewish was to be bookish.” The cardo (or main street) in Hellenised Jerusalem was “chapter one in a long history of Jewish shopping”. All Jews “like pickled cucumbers”. When Babylonian rabbis discussed rich women using flour as an abrasive, it was “the first time the Jewish princess takes a bow in literature”. Needless to say, there is a clutch of guilt-tripping Yiddisher mommas. Oh, and Jews are good at business: “There was nowhere Jews wouldn’t go for something precious to sell.”

This is classic Schama: playful, ironic, immensely erudite, exuding humanity. It is also deeply personal, with references to his parents and memories of his boyhood. While The Story of the Jews may not be a comprehensive guide to Jewish history, it is a scintillating reinterpretation that makes the furthest reaches of the Jewish past seem familiar, even contemporary. To some, this will appear a postmodern fad but the gains balance the losses. And it will provide countless boys and girls with much welcome relief from the stodgy volumes that routinely serve as bar and bat mitzvah presents.

David Cesarani is the Research Professor in History at Royal Holloway, University of London

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era