'Heritage' peers into the deep well of Jewish history

To some extent, we are all Jews. That is the major message, if there is any single message, in the WNET (New York) milestone series Heritage: Civilization and the Jews (PBS, Monday, Oct. 1 and Tuesday, Oct. 2, 9-10 p.m., and for seven successive Mondays thereafter, 9- 10 p.m., check local listings).

''Heritage'' is monumental television, destined to rank with Sir Kenneth Clarke's ''Civilisation,'' Prof. Jacob Bronowski's ''The Ascent of Man,'' and ''The Bill Moyers Journal'' in the select hierarchy of contemporary TV programs that have had a profound effect upon the lives of their audiences.

We are all Jews, according to the series, in the sense that this group of 14 million people - representing a fraction of 1 percent of the world population - has throughout its 3,000-year history played a central and influential role in the world's religion and civilization. And much of the world's culture has been integrated into the Jewish way of life as well.

Although the series thoroughly investigates Jewish morality, ideas, and legend, ''Heritage'' does not proselytize for Judaism. Certainly the religion at various stages in the development of society is explained and debated. But the series simply uses the history of Jews as a unique and endless thread in the woven robe of civilization - and as the yarn is unraveled, the viewer comes to understand the garment as well as the basic cloths.

Almost six years in the planning and production, filmed in 19 countries at a cost of over $10 million, ''Heritage'' is not so much a television show as it is a television environment, an electronic university to be used as an effective instrument for learning and discovery. In fact, more than 100 college and universities are offering it as a course for credit.

Guide and teacher, on-screen host and chief consultant for the series, is former Israeli UN Ambassador Abba Eban. This historian, statesman, scholar, and writer (he is the author of a Summit Book based on the series) makes 54 appearances on camera from locations across the world.

To the accompaniment of a majestic musical score by John Duffy and splendid film footage, Ambassador Eban carefully enunciates for Jew and non-Jew alike this tale of shared heritage from the glittering empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt, to ancient Israel, Judea, Persia, Greece, and Rome, to modern-day Europe and America.

Although the culmination of the Jewish experience leads almost inevitably to Israel, there is no slighting of the Arab world. In the fourth segment, there is a sincere tribute to the Arab cultural influences on society as well as an acknowledgment that Jewish society flourished under Muslim rulers for many years.

Executive producers of the series are Marc Siegal and Arnold Labaton, with John G. Fox acting as producer, all under the aegis of WNET's Robert Kotlowitz. All of them, as well as the many writers, directors, and cinematographers involved, should be congratulated for their perseverance as well as their skill.

I am certain that, even with its long lists of consulting experts, there will be dissenters who question the show's interpretation of Jewish history. But any interpretation of such a civilization is bound to be subjective. Perhaps ''Civilization and the Jews'' will trigger a whole series of restrospective electronic studies of other religions, cultures, and philosophies.

A chat with Abba Eban

A shirt-sleeved Mr. Eban is relaxing in his hotel room overlooking New York's Central Park. Born in South Africa (''I had the good sense to emigrate when I was six months old''), he was brought up in London, educated at Cambridge, and settled in Israel, where he is now a member of the Knesset.

Does he feel this series will help dispel some of the anti-Semitism in the world?

''It's a question I haven't even asked myself. The series tells the truth, and I don't think that has to be justified by consequence any more than writing a poem has to be justified by the effects. I think it will give people a deeper and more accurate vision of what the Jewish heritage is.''

Might some viewers interpret the series as a treatise of justification for the existence of the state of Israel?

He shakes his head vigorously. ''You don't even meet the modern state of Israel until the eighth and ninth segments. And I've never thought of Israel as a state that requires justification of its existence, just as I don't believe that Gabon needs to have its existence justified. Don't forget that Israel is now one of the oldest states in the modern world. We are the only nation that speaks the same tongue and upholds the same faith and inhabits the same land as it did 3,000 years ago.''

In the series, Eban talks about the Jewish mysteries of preservation, resonance, suffering, and renewal. Could he expand on them?

''Certainly. The Jews have preserved their identity under conditions in which no other people has ever managed to preserve identity. The Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Byzantines, the Assyrians, and the ancient Egyptians - all of whom persecuted Jews - have gone, yet the Jewish people still exist. Scattered all over the world, but there is still the sense of kinship. That's unusual.

''As to resonance - the world is full of the sound of Jews. Fourteen million out of 4 billion, yet their impact on culture is so great.

''Suffering. Other nations have suffered, but not with the intensity of Jewish suffering. Jews are blamed for the Black Death, for capitalism, for communism, for the Industrial Revolution, for the agricultural revolution. And then there was the Holocaust.

''The fourth is renewal. I call it the mystery of reunion. Normally when you have an explosion in which a nation splits, the language goes off and the land and religion are somewhere else. But Israel brings all these elements together. It hasn't happened before.''

Mr. Eban insists that there should be no religious controversy over the series, since his approach is historical rather than theological. ''There was a Jew called Jesus who was born in Bethlehem and lived in Galilee and preached, and by his preaching he came into conflict with the established church. Those are historic facts that can't be disputed. What may be disputed is whether one ought to accept his teaching or not. But we don't enter that province at all.''

Several times in the series, Eban mentions the strength in diaspora, in dispersion. Now he elaborates.

''On the one hand it sounds like disaster. We are scattered. On the other hand, by being scattered, by surviving in one place while we are persecuted in another, we tend to preserve ourselves as a people.

Does the series answer the age-old question of whether Jews are a race or a religion?

''It doesn't, because that question doesn't deserve to be answered. You don't have to have a single-word definition for everything. It's very complex. It is not only a religion, a culture, a nation, a race. Perhaps a people is the best word, because that's a very incomprehensive term.

''The best definition is by the French historian Ernest Renan. He said a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle, a common glory in the past, a common hope for the future, to have done great things together, to wish to do them again. These are the elements in the identity of Jews.''

What does ''Heritage'' teach viewers about today?

''That their culture has deeper roots and more diverse horizons than they imagine, that the destiny of the human race is to be diverse. And problems are bound to arise. But the real tragedies come from intolerance of diversity.''

Mr. Eban believes that the great story of civilization is in the intermingling. ''There is something Jewish in all of Western civilization, and there is something Western in all of Jewish civilization. In other words, most civilizations have a Jewish component, but Jewishness also has many non-Jewish components.''

Does he feel that ''Heritage: Civilization and the Jews'' is objective?

He laughs. ''When your Justice Holmes left the Supreme Court at the age of 93 , he said: 'I've always tried to be scrupulously fair, avoiding partiality on the one hand and impartiality on the other.' Henry Kissinger once explained what he called 'Eban's Definition of Objectivity' - 100 percent acceptance of all Eban's views. So I suppose that's what we all mean by objective.''

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