THE Jewish Historical Museum sits serenely in a quiet corner of Amsterdam. The elegant, unobtrusive building almost seems to insist that it does not want to make a fuss.

However, it testifies loudly and irrefutably to an awful truth. Simon Schama, in the second instalment of his trilogy on the history of the Jews, states it starkly: “For the Jews, safe havens are always provisional.”

The museum, not far from the Portuguese Synagogue, tells how the Jews fled from persecution to arrive in a city that not only preached tolerance but practised it. Here was a brave new world for the refugees from religious persecution in Portugal or Spain, or both. Here was a city where they could build synagogues, work in trade or business, walk the streets in safety. Here was a place where they could be Jews.

The museum also, of course, tells another story, the one that is almost unspeakable. It is that of the Jews of Amsterdam under the Nazis. It is a chronicle of the pungent, reeking evil of yellow stars, train rides to horror and to murder on an industrial scale.

These two themes jostle and jar in Schama’s history that already stretches languidly to more than 1300 pages. The Story of the Jews does not shirk from the horror – how could it? – but presents it as a recurring theme in the first two parts of a history that the author charts from 1000BCE to 1900CE with an unrelenting verve.

Schama points out that yellow stars, ghettoes and holocausts were not only the preserve of life under the Reich. The Jew has always been under siege, personally and as a religion and race. Why? Talmudic sages assert, as Schama notes, that the persecutions result from transgressions that must be punished by whatever instrument God chooses. “The coldest possible comfort,” writes Schama.

The more convincing theory is that the Jew has almost eternally been viewed as The Outsider by the Gentile. They have been cast as the killers of Christ, the purveyors of child sacrifice, the manipulators of temporal power in politics and capital. The gaudy, even absurd nature of the allegations has not proved an obstacle to their enduring power. Anti-Semitism can unite both Muslim and Christian fundamentalists who otherwise find it difficult to agree on what day it might be, except that it is pre-Armageddon.

This has placed the Jew, male or female, child or adult, believer or non-believer, in a threatening world for a millennium or two. It has placed a singular, unique burden about them. The threat of annihilation has been a clear and present danger. Hamas and Iran, among others, suggest strongly it still is. Schama plots his way deftly through these recurring crises but his story is intensely personal. First, it is told in his way. Those who have followed the professor of art history and history through his previous books and television series know that he is not a proponent of linear narrative. This second instalment has a start point in the expulsion of the Jews from Portugal and the Inquisition in Spain but it drifts and wanders, though with purpose, all over the world.

It also sparkles with life. It teems with character. Schama re-invents those such as Moses Mendelsohn, the brightest flame in the Jewish Enlightenment, Baruch Spinoza, a revolutionary thinker on the precise nature of the divine, and Shabbatai Zevi, the most unlikely candidate for Messiah.

But he is at his best in placing hitherto relatively obscure figures on the docks at Amsterdam, in the plains of Hungary or in the synagogues of China and India where missionary Jesuits were astounded to find that they had been preceded by Jews who sought not to evangelise but to live quietly, securely. His portrait of Daniel Mendoza, the 19th century boxer, serves as an exemplar of how Schama can make personality and character out of historical research.

At its heart and in its considerable soul, Schama’s history of the Jews is one of human beings and how they lived and died. It charts economic tides, explains the varying strains of religious thought and places the Jews in a system, whether pre-Christ or 19th century, that is leanly but adequately described.

This is the compelling, irresistible story not only of a people, but people. There is triteness in suggesting that the Jews have generally been fated or condemned to lives of grave uncertainty, pervasive prejudice and sustained attempts at extermination. But history suggests that this is an accurate summation. It is how they have survived, endured and even prospered that grips the emotion while engaging the mind. This is Schama so it is a work that has been culled from a restless intellect and a hunger to explain.

It offers enjoyment but it repays meditation. There is a sense that this is a deeply spiritual book. There is proper lamentation made all the more painful by Schama’s concise, exact descriptions. However, the awful trials are regularly met by the most inspiring of human qualities.

There is quiet faith when there could (should?) be loud disbelief. There is shining hope when there should be glowering despair. Schama leaves us with Zion on the horizon and optimism almost tangible as the 20th century lurks in the wings. “All would be well,” he writes in a painful poignancy that embraces the hope of the present in the face of the inescapable enormity of the future.

Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492-1900 by Simon Schama is published by Bodley Head, priced £25