Simon Schama’s The Story Of The Jews on BBC2.

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice.

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice.

Simon Schama’s appropriately erudite The Story of the Jews continues on BBC2. One time Art Critic for the New Yorker and currently a professor at Columbia, Schama signed a much publicized book and TV deal with the BBC worth £3m in 2003. Simon Schama’s Power Of Art duly followed in 2006.

There, he took eight heavyweight artists ranging from Caravaggio and Bernini to Turner and Rothko, and somehow managed to find fresh and revealing insights into each and every one of them. Which is no mean feat when dealing with the likes of Van Gogh and Picasso.

This latest five part series is every bit as engaging, and manages to be sufficiently personal to genuinely move without ever dwelling for too long on inevitable pathos.

The first episode covered the first millennium BC, whilst the second took us up to the catastrophic expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and ’97. It was this that led to the creation of the first ghetto in Venice, which marks a decidedly ambivalent juncture. It was wonderful to be finally given a home. And yet, they were clearly marked out as Other.

Caravaggio's "The Taking Of Christ".

Caravaggio’s “The Taking Of Christ”.

It’s a vast subject of course, but it would have been interesting to have a bit more on the crucial period between the 2nd and 6th centuries AD. Christians and Jews had come increasingly to understand themselves in opposition to one another, and there were then as many Jews preaching hatred against Christians as there were Christians spewing vitriol against the Jews.

Incredibly though, no sooner had this mutual and profound mistrust become ingrained, one of the two sides suddenly “won”. As in the 4th century A.D., and almost overnight, the whole of the Roman Empire converted to Christianity. Not only that, but over the next few centuries, the rest of north and eastern Europe quickly followed.

Simon Schama's "The Story Of The Jews".

Simon Schama’s “The Story Of The Jews”.

So, it’s been suggested, that anti-Jewish element that was so central to the early Christian Church came to be codified as part and parcel of Medieval Christendom, based as it was on the Roman Empire and its Latin language. When then the Islamic Empire sprang up in the East soon after, it was all too natural for the West to lump the Jews together with their new foe.

This doesn’t of course excuse the unspeakable treatment of Jews by Christians in the Crusades that followed from the 11th century on. And indeed throughout the rest of history. But it does suggest an explanation as to why it is the West has always been so much more intolerant of Jews compared to the Islamic world where, at the very least, they were allowed to exist.

But that’s a minor quibble. This is a comprehensive story brilliantly told with a mixture of scholarship and, unsurprisingly, feeling. The Story Of The Jews continues on BBC2.

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  1. absolutely agree that he does a very good job, on a vast and complex story. Agree too that there are strange omissions. The subject is so big, so complex and covers such a big time frame, that i really think the BBC should have been braver, and commissioned a 7 or 8-part series, at least, (rather than 5 episodes) The subject certainly merits it, tons of fascinating material to sustain it, and Schama would have the credentials – and the “watchabilty” to carry it off. For me, even though I enjoy this series, and am certainly learning things, the whole thing is too compressed. Is it my imagination, or was there no mention of the 1st C BC siege at Masada? Or the Jewish community at Thesiloika? Or in SW India for that matter, where they had there own coastal kingdom. Too many vital parts of history, passed over or omitted for a truly representative history. Mixed feelings. Good series, but also the slight sense of a missed opportunity. They could have made the Jewish version of Kenneth Clark’s legendary “Civilisation”, but didn’t.

  2. Hi there Arran. 5 episodes these days is bordering on monumental, alas. Thanks for the comment!

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