Early chapters of the Jewish story

Issue: 142

John Rose

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000BCE1492CE (Bodley Head, 2013), £25

This book’s greatest strength is that it tackles the plethora of fresh archaeological evidence that is challenging some taken for granted assumptions about Jewish history.

Nevertheless, the title of the book, based on Simon Schama’s BBC TV series broadcast last year, signals a major weakness. We are offered a story rather than history. Are there no patterns that can be explained with a theory-or even competing theories? Maybe, but Schama isn’t telling, just hinting. Now one pattern is difficult to avoid: periods of Jewish and non-Jewish coexistence punctuated by murderous catastrophes that become genocidal over time. Without explanation we are left with a terrible, even mysterious, fatalism. Nevertheless Schama implicitly provides the elements for a powerful counter-argument, which is also signalled in the book’s title: words. Words, which define Judaism’s special characteristics, carried around the world because Judaism is above all a mobile religion and was so even in antiquity.

Schama is surprisingly frank about Judaism’s origins and its borrowings from the earlier “pagan” multiple god world. Indeed ancient Israel, nearly 3,000 years ago, was itself a “pagan” state. Cultic archaeological evidence finds the god YHWH, who would become much later the “only” god, in the company of his female consort, Asherah. Schama points out that even the First Commandment in the Torah “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”, “presupposes there were others-a matter of seniority rather than exclusiveness” (p76). The Dead Sea Scrolls describe several Judaisms, including an obsession with sun worship.

Furthermore Judaism was not alone in finally formulating a one-god religion. Egyptian and Babylonian religious cultures were already moving in this direction (the late Chris Harman described why the new Iron Age encouraged one-god belief systems in his People’s History of the World). Rather, Judaism’s uniqueness was to “sacralise moveable writing…as the exclusive carrier of YHWH law and historic vision for his people”(p37).

Synagogues, which thrive in the Greek Hellenist world of Egypt, came to symbolise this “sense of mobility…Jewish travel and resettlement” (p134), a Jewish diaspora centuries before Rome’s destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE.

But why? Here Schama will startle many readers. What distinguished these Jews was not just their religion but that they were “spears for hire” (p93). Additionally the great synagogue at Alexandria grouped congregants by trade and business (p91). We need to spell out the implications of this.

As Schama’s first chapter explains, earlier classical Persian imperial policy in Egypt sponsored a Jewish colony on the island of Elephantine on the river Nile. This is the first real historical evidence of a Jewish presence in Egypt, testimony to Jewish Egyptian relations, secured by intermarriage. It undermines the biblical exodus story from Egypt.

The settlement in Egypt established precedents that would resurface in different forms over the millennia. Jews offer mercenary, financial, trading and craft (and later medical and linguistic) skills to foreign rulers in return for the protection of their religion. This confirms and refines Marxist arguments in Abram Leon’s The Jewish Question.

But the dangers are obvious. When the natives tire of foreign rule, or later local oppressive rule, the Jews are likely to be on the frontline, which is what did happen to the Elephantine Jews at the end of the fifth century: they “were stigmatised…as tools of the Persian occupiers”(p24).

The pattern is repeated under Greek Hellenist rule and later throughout the Roman Empire. The Jewish revolt against the Romans (between 66 and 70 CE) did not significantly alter this pattern. But the revolt underlined that Jews were not simply “tools” of foreign rulers, that in different ways they could assert themselves. Rebellion was one way; proselytising was another. Synagogues everywhere attracted potential converts; a Jewish messianism would transform itself into Christianity and would in turn transform the Roman Empire.

Islam’s pre-history is even more compelling. Schama describes “Arabia Judaica”, a “complete culture of Judaised Arabs and Arabic Jews”, participating in a trading network across Mesopotamia, Palestine and today’s Saudi Arabia, including “trans-Arabian camel caravans…Arabian Jewish sailors, sculptors, scribes and poets, merchants, peasant cultivators and pastoral nomads living in tents” (pp231-232). How this culture contributed to the crystallisation of Islam is beyond the scope of this review. But the rapidly expanding Islamic empires would shift the balance-establishing variations of the unstable Jewish middle strata dependency patterns described above. But the Arabia Judaica tradition was by no means lost. The one thousand year old Geniza Cairo synagogue documents describe a “Jewish Islamic symbiosis” (p252), rooted in international trading networks that stretched from Spain to India.

Northern European Jews at the time of the Crusades are described in Schama’s chapter “Women of Ashkenaz”. William the Conqueror brings Jews to England for “their cash and carry services” part of their European trading network. The menacing dialectic at work is polemicised in the chapter’s subheadings: “Sacrificial Lambs” contrasted to “The Business”. By 1190 we have the Jews of York sealed in a castle to escape the baying mob. Many committed suicide and others were encouraged to “come down and exit as true Christians” but killed when they emerged. Debts owed to them, “inscribed on wood and paper, were ceremoniously incinerated” on the floor of York Minster (p306). At the same time Jewish woman banker Licoricia, a favourite with the nascent English aristocracy, is provided with an armed escort on her way to meet “high and mighty customers in the Great Hall at Winchester Castle, much visited by Henry III” (p320). When the rabbinical authorities deny her a divorce she appeals successfully to the Archbishop of York. Later she’ll be murdered and the Jews all expelled, a pattern repeated across Western Europe.

Schama closes this volume with the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion from Spain in 1492; he thinks the inquisition’s efficient machinery of murder anticipates the Nazi Holocaust. Schama, here, is in urgent need of Jonathan Israel’s fine study of European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism 15501750. Exclusion not extermination drives the anti-Semitism. This is in no way to minimise the atrocities-conversion was always an uncertain life saver-but the explanation matters.

Early capitalism and its emerging nation-states Christianised and modernised the mercantile roles of trade and banking. Later as capitalism stabilised, Enlightenment policies readmitted the Jews. Shakespeare’s Shylock appeals to a common humanity, yet leaves a medieval residue that will ripen as prejudice. Without explanations Schama’s second volume will fail to get to grips with the contradictions posed by modernity.