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7 October 2017

Simon Schama’s Jewish history is immensely erudite – and compulsively readable

Belonging describes how even as Europe claimed to emancipate Jews, it persecuted them.

By Rowan Williams

Every Friday afternoon, the Ottoman sultan Selim II returned from prayers at the mosque to find a pile of delicacies waiting for him at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul – presents from a formidable Jewish merchant prince, Joseph Nasi.  Known as “the Great Jew”, he was the duke of Naxos, the lord of Tiberias, the sultan’s counsellor, strategist and bankroller, an intermediary with various European rulers and, not least, a patron and protector of the Jewish communities of the Levant. He sat at the centre of a huge network of commercial and cultural interests. He did a great deal to shape Ottoman policy in the delicate climate of the mid-16th century, with its rapidly shifting alliances and power balances, and it was not until the Ottoman navies were trounced at Lepanto in 1571 that his influence waned and the Sultan’s advisers lost their confidence in his judgement.

The fourth chapter of Simon Schama’s immensely erudite and compulsively readable book gives a glowing portrait of Don Joseph in all his glory. Schama shows, too, that it was largely because of his patronage that the vision of a Jewish return to Palestine edged nearer to realisation, through his sponsorship of Jewish scholarship and mystical writing in Galilee and the beginnings of a local textile trade controlled by Jewish businessmen (and businesswomen).

All this is especially vivid and poignant in the light of what has gone before. The “Great Jew” had started as a refugee. Along with other members of his family, led by his formidable aunt Beatriz de Luna (later known by her Jewish names Gracia Mendes or Gracia Benveniste), he had fled to Venice from Portugal, where, as in Spain, the alternatives for Jews were forced conversion or exile. Those who had undergone a nominal conversion – the so-called Marranos, “pigs” – were under constant suspicion and surveillance, and the penalties both for relapsing into Judaism and for trying to leave the country were extreme. The family took a roundabout route (including London), negotiated their way through Habsburg territory partly on the basis of a tangle of financial and personal links with the ruling house, and settled for a while in Venice.

There, the attempt to avoid an unwelcome marriage for one of the younger female members of the family resulted in a wonderfully Gilbertian interlude in which a mock abduction and marriage was arranged for the young woman so as to signal her unavailability. As a young man, the future Don Joseph played a prominent role in this comic melodrama; his later splendour in Istanbul is all the more relishable in the light of his picaresque youth – and the terrible vulnerability of those teenage years when he and his aunts and cousins were crossing a hostile continent as if leaping from one ice floe to another on a swollen river.

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Schama begins in 1492 because that was when the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim rule was completed and the kingdoms of the peninsula initiated an unprecedented process of ethnic and religious cleansing. The Jews of Spain and Portugal had a long history of cultural and intellectual sophistication and relative toleration, although the sky had been steadily darkening since the mid-15th century, and the advent of the Inquisition in 1478 was a sign of what was to come.

The Jews who remained in Spain and Portugal were trapped in the lethally absurd consequences of a forced conversion policy: if you converted under pressure, no one could be sure you were sincere, so your good faith was permanently in question.  Significant numbers of people – such as the family of Joseph and Beatriz/Gracia – went through the motions of public Christian ritual, hoping and planning for a future in which they could practise freely. Others – such as the family of the great Catholic reformer and contemplative Teresa of Avila – seem to have been more or less sincere in their conversion, but this did not save them from hostile scrutiny.

On top of this – though Schama does not have much to say on this specific issue – 16th-century Spain enacted the first unambiguously racial (as opposed to simply religious) discrimination against Jews in the shape of the various “purity of blood” statutes, which prohibited anyone of Jewish ancestry from entry into assorted corporations, town councils, religious orders, cathedral chapters and university offices. It was no wonder that the Ottoman empire profited so much from the influx of displaced Jews.

The story as it unfolds in Europe and the Middle East after the disruption of 1492 is one in which certain themes regularly and depressingly recur. There is the sheer physical insecurity – even for the merchant princes and the viziers of autocrats, a change of ruler or foreign policy could spell disaster, even violent death. There is the conscription of the huge international networks of Jewish traders and brokers into the dismal business of financing the wars and the vanity projects of European monarchs (as Jews had financed the building of abbeys and cathedrals in the Middle Ages).

Jewish financiers had no choice but to bankroll the destructive extravagance of 17th- and 18th-century rulers: while they could exercise limited influence through their wealth, they were also subject to the naked blackmail of knowing that their safety and that of their people depended on keeping monarchs happy, and that they would be the first scapegoats if things went wrong. Adults among spoiled and feral children, Jewish scholars, administrators and bankers serviced the staggering debts of “enlightened” and not so enlightened despots for generation after generation.

Yet again European Jewishness is caught in a catch-22 trap: forbidden entry into “mainstream” professions, Jews are restricted to trade and finance and are then reproached for their obsession with money. The rules of the social and religious game are fixed to make the Jew invariably the loser in the long term.

Schama describes the lives of a number of Jews who found their way under the net by way of the world of entertainment, including one of the first real English sporting celebrities, the late-18th-century boxing champion Daniel Mendoza. Schama’s account of Mendoza, incidentally, makes one think about the continuities in the story of British anti-Semitism; there is a nasty bit of anti-Semitic street doggerel from this period quoted by Schama that is echoed almost word for word in a would-be comic verse by GK Chesterton. Schama doesn’t mention this resonance (and Chesterton is beyond his period), but he does sketch something of the complex 19th-century English story of casual anti-Semitic tropes prompting sometimes agonisingly high-minded correctives (Dickens balancing Fagin with the solemn Mr Riah of Our Mutual Friend, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda).

There is also a solid background of powerful and resourceful community leaders right across Europe who, in spite of everything, survived and passed on a legacy not only of material resources and culture but of intellectual and spiritual vitality. It is notable how many of these great figures combine business skills with a passion for Talmudic or Kabbalistic learning.

Of the individuals whose portraits are splendidly drawn in this book, perhaps the greatest hero is Moses Mendelssohn. He was one of the major intellectuals of 18th-century Europe, a valued friend to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and other leading German thinkers and artists, a commentator on the political and moral philosophies of the age – and, as Schama disarmingly concludes, quite simply an unusually good and decent human being. No one could have done more to “normalise” the presence of Jewish thought and practice as part of the fabric of European society, though it would be a mistake to see Mendelssohn as a mere assimilationist.

And yet – as Schama notes at the end of his chapter on Mendelssohn – his children were abused and threatened in the street like those of any other Jewish family. Mendelssohn wistfully looks forward, writing about such incidents, to a dawning of “the light of reason”, but confesses that all the signs are rather that night is falling.

The cruel irony was that what announced itself as a dawning of reason three years after Mendelssohn’s death proved to be no help at all. The French Revolution set out to liberate Jews from Christian oppression but assumed, no less than the most reactionary ancien régime prelate, that the underlying problem was their Jewishness. Pace Mendelssohn, “enlightened” thinking had not generally been friendly to the Jewish sense of an abidingly distinctive identity (Voltaire’s anti-Semitism is startlingly crude).

The revolution wanted to save Jews from Judaism, turning them into rational citizens untroubled by strange ancestral superstitions. It ended up taking just as persecutory an approach as the Church and the Christian monarchy. The legacies of Christian bigotry and enlightened contempt are tightly woven together in the European psyche, it seems, and the nightmares of the 20th century are indebted to both strands.

In some ways, this prompts the most significant question to emerge from the wealth of detail and anecdote that Schama lays out.  Judaism becomes a stark test case for what we mean by pluralism and religious liberty: if the condition for granting religious liberty is, in effect, conformity to secular public norms, what kind of liberty is this? More than even other mainstream religious communities, Jews take their stand on the fact that their identity is not an optional leisure activity or lifestyle choice. Their belief is that they are who they are for reasons inaccessible to the secular state, and they ask that this particularity be respected – granted that it will not interfere with their compliance with the law of the state.

This question is currently a pressing one. Does liberal modernity mean the eradication of organic traditions and identities, communal belief and ritual, in the name of absolute public uniformity? Or does it involve the harder work of managing the reality that people have diverse religious and cultural identities as well as their papers of citizenship, and accepting that these identities will shape the way they interact?

Yet again, we see how Jews can be caught in a mesh of skewed perception. The argumentative dice are loaded against them. As a distinctive cluster of communities held together by language, history and law – with the assumption for the orthodox believer that all of this is the gift of God – they pose a threat to triumphalist religious systems that look to universal hegemony and conversion.

The Christian or Muslim zealot cannot readily accept the claim of an identity that is simply given and not to be argued away by the doctrines of newer faiths. But the dogmatic secularist finds this no easier. Liberation from confessional and religiously exclusive societies ought, they think, to mean the embrace of a uniform enlightened world-view – but the Jew continues to insist that particularity is not negotiable. So we see the grimly familiar picture emerging of Judaism as the target of both left and right.

The importance of Schama’s book is that it forces the reader to think about how the long and shameful legacy of Christian hatred for Jews is reworked in “enlightened” society. Jews are just as “other” for a certain sort of progressive politics and ethics as they were for early and medieval Christianity. The offence is the sheer persistence of an identity that refuses to understand itself as just a minor variant of the universal human culture towards which history is meant to be working. And to understand how this impasse operated is to understand something of why Zionism gains traction long before the Holocaust.

This deeply engaging book ends with a sympathetic but not uncritical account of Theodor Herzl, one of the fathers of political Zionism. Schama makes it plain that Herzl’s project for the Holy Land, with all its passion and confusion and its uneven awareness (to put it mildly) of the realities on the ground in Palestine, was born of the failure of “emancipation” in Europe. The book ends in 1900: it is chilling to realise why, after dedicating two volumes of his history of the Jews to cover nearly three millennia, Schama reserves at least another volume for chronicling how that failure turned into the worst crisis ever.

One can battle against the persistence of distinctive Jewish identity, as the Inquisition and the French Revolution did (and as 20th-century tyrannies did most comprehensively). Or one can be grateful for a warning about the danger of thinking that we have arrived at the end of history, where there is no longer any need for argument or persuasion because all reasonable people will be transparent to each other. We need such warnings, if only because our impatience to arrive at this supposed paradise drives us repeatedly to the persecution of the “other”.

Judaism often sees itself as simply an embodied warning against idolatry, against supposing we are divine, omnicompetent, rational and self-creating. To live as a people under divine law, managing (and sometimes wrestling with) an identity that is not chosen, is at the very least a challenge to infantile optimism and the rationalised violence that can accompany it.

Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492-1900
Simon Schama
Bodley Head, 790pp, £25

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer