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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