‘Belonging’: Simon Schama visits the Union

Will Bennett 14 October 2017

Finding out that historian Simon Schama was to appear at the Cambridge Union to speak about “Belonging”, the second instalment in his history of the Jews, made the startling amount spent on my membership immediately seem worth it. He had been one of the driving forces behind my interest in history at school; a discussion on his vigorous The Story of the Jews BBC documentary, which preceded the writing of these books, was what saved me in an interview for my 6th form.  The opportunity to interview him seemed absurdly surreal to me, and indeed it was: he rejected press two minutes before we history fanatics posing as journalists were given the opportunity to meet him.

This could have clouded my impression of an academic who, up until that moment, had been held in my highest regard for being warmer and more open-minded than others in the field, but his subsequent interview with Tom Sutcliffe brought me back around.

From the onset, Schama was even more vibrant than expected. Within minutes he was explaining how his book was one about universal human sympathy, an important theme to emphasise in the current political climate. He explained that the title “Belonging” was triggered by his encounter with a Syrian immigrant in the US who had lived there for years and was now faced with resurfacing tribal attitudes and the “politics of estrangement”; for him, this resonated with what Jews had repeatedly faced between the 15th-20th centuries covered in this book. He used the example of Jews who, albeit wholeheartedly attempting to convert during the Spanish inquisition, were still persecuted and prosecuted and again left with the question: how can we ever belong?

History graduate and ex-Director of Studies at Christ’s Cambridge and Brasenose Oxford, writer and creator of several history books and documentaries on various topics and current professor of Art History and narrative non-fiction at Columbia University, Schama really breathes life into history. His speech was enthusiastic and rapid, even hard to follow at several points in its desire to get everything out. His professor at Christ’s was vital in this attitude towards the depiction of history, with Schama attributing to him the fight for “forthright, polemical, rhetorical and dramatic” history instead of the “editorial interpretation” of that time.                          

His preference for this style of history – being “thrown through the window into the past” – is evident in his rhetoric, where he uses several anecdotes instead of a broad, theoretical approach. In the talk we were introduced to a Dutch free-thinking Christian from the 17th century who liaised with a Jew, along with 18th century Daniel Mendoza, the first famous British boxer, who proudly represented his Jewish heritage in subsequent memoirs. Schama highlighted his use of the word “story” rather than “history” in the title of the series, as Jews have never been able to depend on monuments or buildings for their history, but have instead relied on the story of their past maintained in the Torah and religious and cultural scrolls.

Throughout the talk, Schama’s assertion that “fundamentally, I’m an optimist” was justified. He stressed that he wanted the book to be about “vitality, not mortality”, but also repeated his use of the “death star” image, which he had employed in an earlier interview with the Guardian. He said that this death star had always been present in the Jewish story, but that it was still a story of “if only” and continuous hope.

Nonetheless, in response to one of the audience questions on whether he knew of any aspects of Jewish culture lost over the centuries, Schama reminded us all of the frightening number of Jewish lives that had been prematurely taken, including up to 200,000 in WW1 alone. He went on to deal with a wide array of political polemics from other audience members, from the American political elite not learning from the failure of Reagan’s tax cuts, to that of Northern Ireland and its past.  In response to “How would you title the last 10 years in the UK”, Schama persisted in his long, detailed answers, and though failing to give a concrete reply, emphasised the importance of facing up to “cultural alienation”, so as to avoid another situation like “Brexit [which] was so bloody strange.”

While my Simon Schama experience began with disappointment and frustration, it did not end so. His ability to eloquently explore this history of revival and the danger of estrangement in depth but with an uplifting spin, and his characteristic insistence on one last Jewish joke once the talk had ended, reasserted my initial excitement and respect for this immense historian.