The long Jewish struggle to find a place of belonging

by Ann Beaglehole / 15 January, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Jews Belonging Simon Schama

Simon Schama: a passionate meditation on living together in a common homeland. Photo/Alamy

Comprehensive and personal, Simon Schama's history of the Jewish people is a rewarding read.

It was not quite what they had expected: no sign of olives and wines; no milk and honey. When the nine Jewish pioneers from Odessa reached their promised patch of land in Palestine in 1884, they found a mix of rock and swamp. Shivering in a wooden shack, they nursed blisters and swatted away insects. Their hands were raw from pulling up esparto grass and wild alfalfa, briar and nettle. The neighbouring villagers of Qatra looked on with bemused suspicion at these newcomers toiling over the land themselves. When the Jews built the first stone houses at Gedera, it was apparent they meant to stay.

In historian Simon Schama’s engrossing Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492-1900, the second volume in his comprehensive cultural history, he shows why, and how, Jewish not-belonging elsewhere led them back to Palestine. It made no difference what Jews did over the ages, they were always treated as alien invaders of someone else’s land.

Despite a few efforts at Jewish emancipation in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, the safe havens were always provisional. Jews needed a place where they belonged – “a piece of earth where we can live like humans”, as an Austrian author commented.

Belonging spans the period from the Inquisition’s “snapping jaws” to the end of the 19th century. It brings to life the sights, smells and sounds of past Jewish communities in diverse locations. Especially in Europe, Jews were vilified for standing apart from society and successfully taking part in it. They were rarely free of the sense of helplessness at the hands of gentiles.

Karl Marx, Benjamin Disraeli and Alfred Dreyfus. Photo/Getty Images

Karl Marx, Benjamin Disraeli and Alfred Dreyfus. Photo/Getty Images

Schama demolishes the myth of Jewish life in the Islamic world as one of neighbourly harmony, irremediably changed by the rise of Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel.

The book gives snapshots of the lives of ordinary and exceptional Jews, and of the non-Jewish heroes who stood up for tolerant humanism in desperate times. They include philosopher Baruch Spinoza, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, US Navy Commodore Uriah Levy, Karl Marx, and the Rothschilds.

Stories about Jewish food, comedy, synagogue music, literature, scholarship and strong-minded Jewish women abound. Snippets from Schama’s own family history pop up. If you read nothing else in this book, you should read the chapter about Jews in China. It is an inspiring account of the tolerance and humane behaviour extended to Jews and other religious minorities during the Ming dynasty of the 17th century.

The powerful last chapter begins with the disgraceful treatment of Alfred Dreyfus as a traitor in late-19th-century France. It ends with the visit of Theodor Herzl – founder of political Zionism – to Palestine in 1898, his hopes pinned on the German Kaiser to help bring about a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

At more than 700 pages, this is not a short book, but it rewards the reader right to the end. Belonging provides answers on matters such as why Jews were persecuted, and why they were often in demand even by the cultures that despised them. The book will help to improve understanding of the ongoing Middle East conflict.

Belonging is not simply a Jewish history, it’s also a passionate meditation on living together in a common homeland and getting on with each other despite our different religions and cultures. 

Belonging: The Story Of The Jews 1492-1900, by Simon Schama (Bodley Head, $40)

This article was first published in the December 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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