I won’t attempt to replicate Craig’s perceptive article or repeat too many excerpts from Schama’s final episode “Return”. As it happens, my collection of quotations and observations were similar to Craig’s, so maybe great minds really do think alike.
Condensing this enormous topic into five hour-long parcels was a huge undertaking for Simon Schama, and one of his major dilemmas must have been what to leave out. It would be churlish of me to keep complaining about crucial facts that were omitted.
His approach was to recount an anecdote here and a biographical vignette there and allow the deeply emotional resonance to tell the story.
The presentation was superb: Schama’s emotions were engaged, and sometimes barely under control, but this made for gripping television. The photography and graphics were stunning. And his command of vivid speech, the arresting phrase, the big idea, allowed him to carry off a mode of delivery which had him for long stretches talking alone to camera.
But what about balance? Even before the series finished some were protesting that he was being allowed to present propaganda for the State of Israel, that room should be given to challenge his claims.
As Craig and others have pointed out there was a considerable amount of precursory outrage at the fact that this series was to be broadcast at all on prime time BBC TV. I imagine Schama and the BBC were conscious of that and bore it in mind all along, especially when it came to pitching the final, most contentious episode. If that episode appeared too “Zionist” the Israel-bashers would accuse the entire series of being wholly propagandistic. Sad to say, Schama had already taken a risk, merely by openly declaring himself a Zionist, so I suppose any criticism of the Israeli government’s policies coming from him would suffer exaggerated scrutiny from all sides and hand over ultra-potent ammunition to Israel’s detractors.
While watching this series I suspect some of us were keeping half an eye on the broader effect. Would it influence anyone, or change someone’s mind? Would it lead to a more sympathetic climate at the BBC?
Bearing that in mind, the favourable reception the first four episodes received almost made up for the omissions in the final one.
As a staunch believer that the BBC and media in general has done Israel an injustice with its obsessive reporting of Israel’s alleged misdemeanors and transgressions and under-reporting of those perpetrated by the Palestinians, I feel that we have to be grateful for small mercies. We certainly shouldn’t persist in ransacking the gift-horse’s mouth in pursuit of perfection. We must be like Chaim Weizmann who had hoped for “the reconstitution of Palestine as a Jewish National homeland” but who graciously settled for the offer he did receive, “a Jewish home within Palestine”.
The BBC was actually mentioned in this episode. When Hitler’s extermination machine was in full swing, as Craig recounts, Szmul Zygielbojm tried in vain to alert the world to the atrocities that were happening in Europe. He broadcast an appeal on the BBC
“saying things you don’t usually hear on the BBC . He said “it would be a crime and a disgrace to go on living, to belong to the human race, unless immediate action is taken to stop the greatest crime ever known to human history.”
Imagine something like that happening now, what with the BBC’s irrational fear of value judgments.
“How had it come to this? British squaddies forcibly deporting Jewish survivors of a genocide?” Schama asks, over historic black and white footage of the British army who forcibly turned away Jewish refugees and holocaust survivors from Palestine where they had sought refuge. I hope this serves as an antidote Peter Kosminsky’s one-sided version of that particular period, in his technicolour fiction/ history “The Promise”.
Before this episode was aired, Hadar Sela of BBC Watch provided background to one of the interviewees featured in a BBC preview. Thankfully Schama did not dwell on the plight of Yacoub Odeh the professional anti-Israel activist; to have done so would surely have sown seeds of doubt over all the earlier content.
Schama’s stint on a kibbutz predated the 1967 six day war.
“The capture of the Old City of Jerusalem…caused even the most secular minded Jew to be swept away by a sense of the miraculous"He said. Would it be churlish to quibble that he did so without referring to Jordan’s illegal reign when Jews were excluded from the area, or hinting that it was seen as a reunification rather than a ‘capture’?
I thought Schama’s obvious disdain for the settler’s beliefs jarred with his accepting attitude towards Odeh’s, and his questions over “borders” revealed political naivety. “How would you re-draw the green line?” He asked Tzvi, seemingly trying to to elicit an incriminating response. His voice-over cut in:
“Meeting Tzvi was not easy for me. I recognised the sincerity of his views, but profoundly disagree with them. “A sense of territorial entitlement prescribed by the Bible is not a development of the Zionism of necessity, but a threat to it, for the Bible is many things, but a blueprint for peace in this land it is surely not. If in fact settlements have to be part of the Jewish state, you’re going to be a minority presiding and ruling over an un-emancipated majority. You will genuinely be in the imperial situation. Which Zionism has never wanted to be.All these things may be felt by the Palestinians as well.”
“It might be a question of whose roots are deeper. I’d just like to say my roots are here too.” Tzvi was replying.
Here I thought Schama’s attitude was quite unfair. He appeared to imply that Tzvi was expressing Biblical literalism, when he merely seemed (in the bit of film that was shown at least) to be expressing resentment at Palestinian intransigence and Jew-excluding nationalism, which Schama himself evidently accepts, and expects Israeli Jews to comply with uncomplainingly.
In fact he seemed uncomfortable with Israel’s defensive or retaliatory military adventures altogether. He was sad that Israel had strayed from the ideals of Martin Buber (“Do not do unto others what is hateful to you. The acid test was how Jews treated the Arabs of Palestine.”) as though straying from those ideals was simply a matter of choice.
“I’ve always thought Israel is the consummation of some of the highest ethical values of Jewish tradition and history, but creating a place of safety and defending it has sometimes challenged those ethics and values.”
His disappointment that his idealised version of Zionism hadn’t been sustained was expressed in no uncertain terms, but he didn’t explore the reasons why not. He didn’t take Arab antisemitism into account, a failing which is at the root of the problem with the BBC and underlies the whole of the left-wing’s love affair with Islam.
Surely, even so, in this, of all episodes, the virulent antisemitism behind Arab rejectionism needed to be confronted.
"The Holocaust put paid to the idea that when, facing annihilation, the Jews had any reason to expect much in the way of protection, succour or asylum from anyone. So it was not just what the Nazis did to the Jews. It was what everyone else failed to do that made the moral case for Israel."
Says Simon. So, one might wonder, what does he think everyone else should have done by way of protecting the Jews? Something idealistic, maybe, without doing anything hateful? Or something Jabotinky-like perchance? Here lies the anomaly in Simon Schama’s position.
I’ll have to reproduce what I saw as the most telling quotation in full.
“The separation barrier was a response to a devastating wave of suicide bombings unleashed a decade ago in which more than 500 Israelis died.Today, it cuts Israel off from the West Bank, except where it cuts deep into the occupied territories to protect some of the larger settlements treading Palestinian territory and making life for the Palestinians a daily ordeal.I don’t know why, walls are big in Jewish history. Walls of lamentation, walls of the temple, ghetto walls - this.Jabotinsky talked about an iron wall if there were to be a chance of a Jewish state surviving. Well he got it in this, didn’t he?
I want to say that nobody including me, ultimately has the moral right to say that shouldn’t have happened, the wall shouldn’t have happened.Before the wall happened hundreds of people were dying every year from terrorist attacks. After that, very very few.In some senses, if you don’t live in Israel, you’re morally obliged to be nearly silent. All the same I also want to add to that huge moral caveat this: the bible is full of encounters between men and God; between men and other men, between even enemy brothers.
It’s very difficult for me to even stand here and sort of say that that sort of Judaism, the sort of openness of encounter has a chance of a true life here. A Jewishness, a Judaism that looks - scurries beneath the shadows of these towers for safety. Not ultimately the Judaism of bravery. Not, ultimately a Judaism of life.
So while saying all the right things, the caveat undoes it all. As I watched, I knew there was a ‘but’ coming up. The self-confessed contradictory paradox lies within Schama’s idealised model of perfection. Much of this story was a lamentation over the tragedies that have befallen the Jews. Yet here he is, decrying their long-awaited fight-back. What does he want? Another tragedy?