Television Review: The Story of the Jews

Written by Civil Service World on 13 September 2013 in Culture

The Story of the Jews 
BBC Two, Sundays, 9pm

The best line in Simon Schama’s five-part The Story of the Jews comes from one of the historian’s family members. The first episode sees the presenter questioning his relatives on the nature of Jewishness during a Passover meal. One of those gathered round the table jokes that “the Jewish imagination is paranoia confirmed by history.

This characterisation, while glib, is borne out by Schama’s narrative, which, after a tour of the past 150 years of archaeology in Biblical Israel, quickly settles into a conventional chronology. Exile, persecution and the destruction of Jerusalem are all-too recurring themes.

Schama later explores the similarities between early Islam and Judaism, arguing that Jews were better off under Muslim rulers than under Christians during the medieval period. This section sets the scene for subsequent episodes, when more recent events in the Middle East are set to be covered.

Schama’s overarching argument so far is that Judaism is based on a “sanctification of words”. Despite the tribulations of the Jews, the central texts survive – the Torah, the Bible, and later the Talmud and the Dead Sea Scrolls The centrality of the word of God to the religion provides a rallying point of faith and community, he argues.

From the outset, Schama makes no bones about his Jewish background. At points, he indulges in some subjective flights of fancy, even closing the second programme with the qualification: “That’s how I feel, anyway.” Whether this closeness to the subject undermines the series as serious history is a moot point, for it cannot be denied that Schama’s passion brings the story vividly to life.

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