A remarkable montage opens the fifth and final part of The Story of the Jews, the BBC documentary series written and presented by the historian Simon Schama. It is early morning in Tel Aviv, and Schama is pacing the streets as the city comes to life. Cars snake around a busy intersection, someone tunes a radio, an elderly lady sits on a public bench gazing at the passing traffic. And then, suddenly, the familiar hubbub is pierced by the sound of a siren.
The proximate cause is not a surprise attack, but an annual act of remembrance. It is Yom Ha-Shoah, and for one minute on this day every year, Israelis stop what they are doing to pay silent tribute to the millions exterminated during the Holocaust. As Schama's visual representation of the siren's impact unfolds, drivers step outside of their vehicles, while doctors and nurses scurrying around a busy hospital become motionless. High school students put their pens down and stand quietly at their desks. At an army base, IDF soldiers salute as an Israeli flag flutters in the breeze. In a retirement home, the residents shuffle to their feet; one woman, her arm marked with tattooed numbers, blinks with an air of disbelief as she stands, head bowed, deep in reflection.
Then the siren fades, and the routine resumes. At least, it does for everyone except Schama. He continues to stand upright on the sidewalk, the outline of Tel Aviv's skyscrapers just visible behind him. He wears the expression of a man hearing that siren, whose mournful wail is like an endless stream of desperate, pleading voices, for the first time. Eyes brimming with tears, Schama cannot bring himself to look into the camera. "It could have been us," he finally murmurs.
But it wasn't "us," and the reason, as Schama buoyantly explains in the remainder of this episode, entitled "Return," is manifested all around him. At long last, the Jews have their own place under the sun, a state where they can map out a Jewish future without peering nervously over their shoulders. For a historian like Schama, with a liberal reputation, depicting the foundation of the State of Israel as the culmination of centuries of agonizing exile is an undoubtedly courageous act, confronting as it does the fashion among many of his colleagues for regarding the Jewish state as a colonial implant. For Schama to have driven home such a point in a series commissioned by the BBC, whose news broadcasts frequently portray Israel's actions in a negative light, is perhaps even more astonishing.
The story of the Jews is a series aimed at non-Jews. Elegantly filmed and directed, with a crisp script that succeeds in handling the historical facts with both sufficient rigor and appropriate emotion, it is tempting to believe that Schama had a specific type of non-Jew in mind as the series went into production: the academics, journalists, and artists whose eyebrows arch in irritation when the subjects of Zionism and Israel are raised at dinner parties.
To watch the entire series in one sitting is a bit like attending Schama's own salon for five hours. He is a considerate host with a charming personality, yet he does not indulge the prejudices of his guests. Instead, he takes them on a journey through Jewish history organized not so much by chronology as by recurring themes. Power and the loss of power, land and the loss of land, the unwavering determination of so many Jews to succeed in the arts or in commerce, the pain and the hurt that accompanied the Jews' rejection from the societies in which they lived, the attachment of the Jewish tradition to words and ideas, rather than icons—all this undergirds his treatment of the dilemmas faced by Jews whether in exile or emancipated from it.
This approach means that there are some glaring absences. The three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are all invisible. So too are Rashi, the greatest commentator on the Torah, and Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher. Such omissions are mainly forgivable; a television series is not an encyclopedia, and Schama clearly didn't want his viewers to be overwhelmed by an excess of detail.
From the outset, Schama, who is not a religious Jew, explains the persistence of Jewish identity through the lens of peoplehood. Investigating why modern Jews felt so intimately tied to their biblical forebears, he turns up at the London house where Sigmund Freud resided after fleeing the Nazi conquest of Vienna. Among the ancient artifacts collected by the author of Moses and Monotheism, a work in which the atheistic Freud essentially deconstructs the Bible, Schama finds a small menorah. "The Jews had given themselves an extraordinary possibility of enduring not just as a faith, but as a people, when everything else had been lost—land, kingdom, power," he says. "That was the meaning of the menorah."
Schama also displays a postcard Freud sent to a colleague while visiting Rome in 1913. The picture on the front showed the Arch of Titus, decorated with representations of the Romans plundering the Second Temple after the fall of Jerusalem. On the back, Freud had written simply: "The Jew survives it!"