A conversation with Simon Schama.

Simon Schama is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University in New York. He has published fifteen history books and two novels, titles including The American Future: A History, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, and a three-volume History of Britain. Schama is also an award-winning television presenter who has written and presented forty documentary films on subjects as far ranging as John Donne and Tolstoy.

This month sees the 69-year-old British historian publishing a book in the U.S. that takes on another epic historical subject. Released in the UK last year, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BC–1492 AD accompanies an impressive documentary series that was shown on the BBC and will be aired on PBS in late March 2014. A second volume, When Words Fail, covering 1492 to the present, will be released in the fall.

Was it a major turning point in Jewish history and relations with non-Jews when Christianity became the state religion of Rome in 380 A.D.?

The crucial figure there is Julian, the emperor who returns the [Roman] Empire to paganism. There are moments in the reign of Constantine, where [the Roman Emperor] does say clearly that Jews are a potentially infectious presence, and that good Christians should steer clear of them. But it’s really when Christian Rome returns for a time to paganism that there is nearly an all-out war to make sure that the Empire is built firmly on a Christian basis.

The worry is that Christians among the ordinary people don’t see the synagogue as a prohibited place. Very often Christians want Jews to have contracts sworn and so on. And the paranoia was always that Christians might relax into Judaism. So that is the point at which state policy in East Rome becomes more and more ferocious. It becomes forbidden to have any synagogues at all. And Jewish existence becomes unraveled from the fabric of everybody else’s daily life.

You say that throughout history the timing of Judeophobic attacks has always been the same: a city, country, or state goes into crisis and Jews are given the blame. Have Jews always had a precarious relationship with the state, and might that explain why they are so protective over their own state of Israel today?

The state of Israel, and the passions that are about it, are to do with a complete abandonment of the Jews in the 1930s, when all gates were shut to the Jews. There was only a tiny emigration to Britain, and there was no virtually no emigration allowed to the United States.

As more torment was known about the persecution of the Jews, there were fewer places to go. So that is why that particular side of Israel was built. Ultimately, only a Jewish state would provide the possibility of an open gate if the worst came to the worst.

So I wouldn’t want to project back from that twentieth-century story to a tale about the Jews always thinking the state is going to abandon them.

Given that Christians were for many years forbidden by canon law to lend money at interest, how important was the Jews’ role in lending money to maintaining Christendom?

Well that was absolutely crucial. Even though there were Christians who lent money, their rates of interest were much higher. The crucial thing was that the Jews not only occupied this otherwise reprehensible area of moneylending, through which all sorts of extraordinary monuments in the Christian world—certainly in England—were built. But Jews were also very heavily taxed for the mere privilege of being there. And their assets could be confiscated at the drop of a hat. If they were expelled, or if they had no immediate heirs, they stood immediate forfeit. You not only had lower rates of interest from Jews. But you also had taxes that you could wring out of them arbitrarily. And they had no option but to pay. Or if you decided that they had to go, you had an entire one-way killing, which was, to put it mildly, incredibly useful to raise armies and monuments.

You write about the period in 1492 when the Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain, and nearly half a millennium of Ladino culture was effectively ended in just eight days. Can you explain how such a deeply rooted culture was expelled so quickly?

Well it was a two-stage process. The crucial thing was the preaching of the friars, which essentially goes back to the fourteenth century. For a long time Jews had been accepted as being able to dwell in Christian society. It’s important to remember that Jews were protected by popes and bishops who laid down laws against them being physically assaulted. It was this sense that you couldn’t have a New Testament without an Old Testament. This was first spelled out by St. Augustine. It was important that the Jews be kept around so that one day they might be converted. Their accepting the truth of the Gospel was a necessary precondition of the return of Christ—the Second Coming.

So there was a kind of grudging toleration that worked to some extent for the Jewish community.

And how did this change?

What happened was that friars started to learn Hebrew. The argument that then began to be put forward was that contemporary Jews were no longer Jews of the Old Testament. And so what happens in the fourteenth century is the emergence of this idea that we cannot live with Jews in our own midst. They are seen as a constant threat and as a disgrace to us, whereas the older view was that we have to live with Jews because otherwise how are we going to convert them?

Was there a specific moment when things turned significantly worse for Jews?

The crucial moment is in 1391. Tens of thousands of Jews were murdered in the great Spanish cities like Seville and Barcelona. In Barcelona, nearly the entire Jewish community was wiped out. Of those who were not killed, half of them stubbornly remained Jews. The other half did convert, but those conversions were never taken by the friars and the Christian authorities as being sincere. We do know that many who converted to Christianity actually practiced Judaism secretly.

So it’s a two-stage process. First there is the demonization of the Jews, resulting in terrible bloodshed in Spain and Portugal in 1391. And then there is a century of paranoid suspicion that the new Christians are still actually Jews. Essentially that is was what the expulsion of 1492 was about.

It was also thought that the new Christians would be bewitched back, as long as unconverted Jews were allowed to say in Spain. So that produces the expulsion.

Words are central to Jewish culture. Are words a factor in its survival during these very turbulent times?

Yes, I certainly think so. This book ends just around the time of print. So when print arrives there is the whole other possibility for words surviving. It ought to be a comfort for human experience really, that whatever the horrors inflicted, in terms of physical exterminations, ultimately, because we are a language animal, our power to exist is in our power of apprehension. And the Jews have lived the most extreme form of having to endure suffering as a wordy people.

Do you think there is progress in history? Or, as your book seems to suggest, do you think that history, as the cliché goes, just repeats itself over and over again, without progress?

I don’t think history ever repeats itself exactly. I think particular peoples have repeated their own particular calamities. That is why I don’t like it when old Holocausts are used to represent whatever particular danger Jewish societies or cultures might find themselves in. I’m not in favor of forgetting the Holocaust. But every particular calamity has its own particular sorrow and peril.

But I guess the question is: have we made progress in the human race over time?

I don’t know. When I was a kid I used to think that one thing that would happen after the horrors of the Second World War was thatthe world would learn the possibility of religious co-existence.

But whether we are looking at Syria, Nigeria, or the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

So more of the world is certainly out of utter destitution than it used to be, and yet these ancient, visceral, tribal, world cultures of intolerance alas still flourish. The issue is really whether or not people with different belief systems can share the same space without killing each other. That is not a uniquely Jewish problem. It’s just that the Jews have lived it more extremely and relentlessly than anybody else.

What can history teach us about our lives today?

History is an illumination of what it is like to dwell inside a human skin, seeing it from both the good and the bad side. History does come with some moral remuneration. It ought to make us pause, like great philosophy, art, or poetry does. And it should make us break our habit of routine. History’s mission is to essentially break with the meaning of the contemporary. To break away from the idea that now is all that matters. It’s a kind of meditation on the human condition.  

JP O’Malley is an Irish writer living in London.