Review of Simon Schama – The Story of the Jews Episode 5: Return

LeftCentral Review

This final episode deals with the creation of the state of Israel, it begins on Yom HaShoah. We hear a siren wail; symbolically life comes to a stop, busy traffic, hospitals, colleges all the bustle of daily life grinds to a halt. People desist from chatter, as they are filmed standing in complete silence, attempting to remember an event which as Simon Schama says, is beyond words. He then explains that the state of Israel contains 50% of the world’s Jewish population, six million people, each survivor representing a defeat for the Nazi programme of total extermination. The Holocaust, argues Schama, finally made the moral case for the creation of Israel. Not only because of what the Nazis did but what everyone else failed to do.

Even at the end of the war, as the full horror of the Holocaust became known, Jewish citizens from Central Europe attempted to return but were confronted by horrendous conditions. They were harassed even murdered, forcing this beleaguered community to seek sanctuary elsewhere. This led them to Palestine, then under British control. Although, the British, Schama explains, were disinclined to offer hospitality to Jewish refugees. This is in marked contrast with the position at the end of the First World War, when the British Empire gave hope to Zionist aspirations through the Balfour Declaration. The significant role of the remarkable Chaim Weizmann is outlined; he sought the reconstitution of Palestine, as a Jewish national home. Instead explains Schama, the Declaration talked about a Jewish national home in Palestine.

British Imperialism seemingly benevolent was Janus faced. Given that the government at the time, also made promises to the Arab population. The British emissary carrying out this dual policy was T.E. Lawrence helping to fuel later Palestinian Nationalism, this perfidious approach highlighted by Schama. The duplicity evident if one reads A.J.P. Taylor’s seminal work, English History where he makes clear the obvious point that at the time of the Balfour Declaration (1917) Palestine was inhabited by an Arab population. This fact seemingly ignored by Britain who planned according to Taylor, to make amends by providing land in other Ottoman territories  (it should be noted that the Declaration also recognised the civil liberties of non-Jewish people in Palestine).

As Schama makes clear, the Declaration dovetailed with British Imperial interests. But it`s worth stating that this British “adventure” required the Empire to forsake the homes of people living many thousands miles from the UK. Also, British policy regarding Palestine was shaped according to Taylor by a Biblical interpretation but the Bible “happened to be out of date”. The potential for overcoming such fundamental difficulties are alluded to by Schama, when he reads the conciliatory letter from Prince Faisal, later King of Iraq, written to Felix Frankfurter. Faisal states that he along with other members of the Arab community “look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement” the letter also welcomed the Jewish community home. Such harmony short lived, as Palestinian nationalism developed. The reason for this reaction could also be linked to a rather less well known declaration of Balfour’s of 1919. In which he said, `Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit the ancient land`.

What Simon Schama attempts in episode 5, is an analysis of Israel through the prism of Zionism, albeit a liberal Zionist perspective. He does this by focusing on four individuals, Chaim Weizmann, Ze`ev Jabotinsky, Martin Buber and David Ben-Gurion. Schama exhibiting most sympathy for the views of Martin Buber, whose analysis is contrasted with Jabotinsky`s 1923 Iron Wall thesis.

Buber based his idea of a nation state within the precepts of Judaism, and the principle of Judaism that mattered most to him, we are told, was don’t do unto others what is hateful to you. Schama explains that the acid test for Bauber was how the Jewish community treated the Arabs of Palestine. Schama gives less prominence to the Bible and more weight to the role of the United Nations. The UN he explains, replaced the British in Palestine and in November 1947 partition was recommended, which on 14 May 1948 led to the creation of the state of Israel. This state quickly recognised by the United States – the role of the USA isn’t highlighted by Simon Schama. He does however explain that civil war in Palestine between the Jewish and Arab communities now became a war between Israel and neighbouring states, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in 1948. This and later conflicts are highlighted which lead to the geographical expansion of Israel, as the territory goes beyond the green line.

Schama also deals with the displacement of the Palestinian population from their homeland, explaining that this is considered a catastrophe or Nakba. Schama focuses on the area of Lifta on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Informing us that by 1949 around 700,000 Palestinians left the region and it is during this phase of the programme that he speaks with Yacoub Odeh, whose home was once in Lifta. He occasionally visits the area providing him with an opportunity to remind his family that this place was once his home “so they will never forget”. Schama doesn’t delay too long on this issue, he moves along highlighting the equally egregious dispossession and displacement of Jewish property and people that took place in Muslim countries from 1948. We are told around 700,000 Jewish people expelled. They found themselves scattered throughout the world often amassing in Israel “most of them Zionist by necessity rather than choice”.

In the summer of 1963 as a matter of choice, Schama visited Israel to work on a Kibbutz, in Beit HaEmek. We are told there are two-hundred and seventy Kibbutzes’ in Israel, a largely secular movement founded on socialist principles. He returned and interviewed Freddy Kahana the architect and planner of the community. The exchange between the two men a revealing one, especially when they discuss the fact that Beit HaEmek was once an Arab village called Kuwaykat.

The events of 1967 are explored as is the geographical extension of the state of Israel, the issue of the Settler Movement is then examined. Communities which Schama informs us are today considered illegal by the international community. Schama interviews Tzui Cooper, a residents living on the West Bank in Teko. And it is here that Schama is confronted by a Zionist mentality which extends beyond Solomon`s Kingdom or David`s Kingdom, which looks to Genesis as a blueprint for Israel’s future.

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