“There will be no backlit camels in this series,” Simon Schama, the University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia explains of “The Story of the Jews,” which premieres on PBS on March 25 at 8 p.m., and begins not with ancient history, but with Sigmund Freud. “I didn’t want to start in the kind of fantastical world of Abraham, Isaac, the patriarchs. We have absolutely no historical evidence for that.”

HANDOUT IMAGE: “The Story of the Jews Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD” by Simon Schama. The book accompanies his five-part PBS series of the same name. (credit: Ecco)

If only disrupting the established narratives about Jewish identity and politics was as simple as presenting the evidence and getting a community that understands argumentativeness to be a core part of its identity to agree. Schama’s project in the five episodes of “The Story of the Jews” and two accompanying books is about history, of course. But as Schama and I discussed in two conversations, the first in January and the second earlier this week, Schama hopes to mine that history not just for under-discussed facts, but to advocate for a different framework for public discussions of Jewish identity and politics. In focusing on entries in that history that emphasize the integration of Jews in communities of other believers, and on cultural and artistic cross-pollination, Schama pushes not just for new answers to political questions, but urges us to consider whether cultural conversations might get us closer to the core of Jewish identity than political contests.

Schama says he chose historical locations, like Elephantine, an island in the Nile where Jews lived alongside non-believers, with an eye towards illustrating these ideas.

“They’re socially complex places,” he explained. “They were places where there was another way of Jewish. Not just about being super-Orthodoxly devout, or lost to the Jewish world. The vast majority of Jewish experience is lived somewhere in between.” And he wanted to highlight artistic artifacts, like the mosaic in the synagogue Sepphoris, one of the most important cities in Galilee, because “You need to give dramatically physical, visual beautiful evidence of the sense in which Jews lived their lives in many different kinds of places and with, not just along side, with, people who are not Jews.”

In those places, Schama says he’s trying to draw out evidence of cross-pollination, both to dispel ideas of historical Jewish isolation and backwardness, and to push back against the notion that in the future, “survival is kind of circling the wagons.” In Poland, the cradle of Hasidic Judaism, Schama said, Jews had clear and significant social roles in the communities where they lived, and Jewish burial grounds speak to a high level of sophistication.

“You were exorcists, and you were crop harvest blessers, and you had certain social services you performed. You were midwives, there were Jewish midwives, there were Jewish cosmeticians, and they did this for the Polish aristocracy,” he explained. “The stones are not plain, they’re not unornamented. They’re bursting with hares and foxes and angels and clowns…You were not this kind of person with a donkey in this mudheap not scratching a kopek together. On the contrary, you came from a kind of distinguished, almost courtly family of people who had a kind of access to magic, in a way. That actually took you into the Gentile world, not separate from it.”

 A doctrine of integration is not always an easy one to preach to a congregation that has experienced astonishing traumas at the hands of its neighbors, and that received its current national refuge as a kind of penance paid by the international system for its failure to prevent the worst of those traumas. The final episode of the mini-series, which focuses on Israel, begins with Schama marking Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust remembrance day in that country. He observes that for Israelis, who pause everything during two minutes of sirens, even pulling over to the side of the road, “it’s heartbreaking, then life goes on.”

Schama’s case is that attempts to disperse and eradicate Jews have actually helped root them more deeply in the communities to which they’ve been dispatched. And in the most brutal scenarios, those initial cruelties have rendered the Jewish people essentially impossible to destroy.

“What the most fanatical Christian view was, is that we were condemned to wander because of the crime of killing Christ. {That} turned, weirdly, into first of all a business opportunity in the Geniza period {when dispersed Jews formed trade routes}, and then turned into some sense of it actually being important to be among all the people of the world,” Schama said. And he recalls the writing of a Portugese “Marrano,” or forced convert to Christianity, who managed to escape his country and return to his Jewish faith. As the marrano ponders his own suffering and that of his coreligionists, “His answer is that what seems to everybody as a terrible punishment is cunningly organized by God so that when things go terribly wrong in one place…there’s always somewhere else for us to go to, another place to be,” Schama said.

Does that mean that Israel is over-emphasized in conversations about Jewish identity? Schama told me that it’s impossible to deny the significance of the Jewish homeland as a response to the ways the international community failed Jews. But he said that Israel and the diaspora are also expressions of the two halves of Jewish identity, “the providential mission of the Jews to spread light among the nations,” and the more prosaic, but no less human desire to live in safety and community.

“Even in numbers, it’s 6 million in Israel, 6 million outside, and 6 million dead. It’s completely in balance, to see both experiences as equally valid parts of Jewish life,” he said. “It’s kind of two haves of the collective brain, the poetic half and the prosaic half. And they have to be in some kind of balance for Jewish life, or human life to go on.”

In a similar attempt to achieve balance, Schama repeatedly emphasizes the role of art in Jewish history, and in contemporary politics. He repeatedly mentioned novelists like David Grossman, who play an important role in articulating an advocating for visions of Jewish life and Jewish democracy in Israel, keeping alive a vision articulated in the correspondence between Emir Feisal and Felix Frankfurter . But rather than trying to drown out the existing, and intensely polarized political debates about Israel and the nature of Jewish identity, Schama suggests a more subversive approach.

“All you can do is not shout back, but speak back rather than shout, and think back, and write back,” Schama said. “Even though that is a famous piece of Jewish social theater, competitive screaming.”