The importance of history
When we are not ignoring history altogether, we look at events only in terms of how they affected the Jewish people
Carthage ruins Photo: seth frantzman
Last Tuesday Channel 10’s investigative TV program Hamakor (The Source)
broadcast a report on the syllabi being taught in the national school system,
with a special emphasis on history.
The report concluded that the history
syllabi are antiquated and lopsided, and that the graduates of the education
system are completely ignorant with regard to many important world developments,
events and personalities, but highly proficient (at least until two minutes
after the matriculation exam) regarding rather esoteric details from Jewish
history, such as the dispute between the Pharisees and Sadducees in the period
of the Second Temple on when one starts counting the Omer.
Of course, in
a complex society such as ours it is no simple matter to reach agreement as to
the balance that should be struck between world history and Jewish history, as
to what is important and relevant and what is not, or what life lessons one
ought to draw from the study of history.
But what is still worse is that
too many people think that with so much information available, it is more
important to teach children how and where to find information than to confer
knowledge – as if creating a solid frame of reference for our youths is a
I got thinking about the importance of knowing history
and learning from history after reading a recent blog by Professor Aviad
Kleinberg, from which it emerged that in answer to a question about historical
leaders who impressed him, Binyamin Netanyahu answered: Hannibal.
Because Hannibal had derived the maximum from limited resources, and realized
the incredible feat of reaching the gates of Rome, said Netanyahu. The fact that
Hannibal’s adventurous escapades led to the disappearance of Carthage from the
face of the earth was totally ignored.
HISTORICAL DETAIL is apparently
not one of Netanyahu’s fortes. Twenty-four years ago, during the 1988 election
campaign, I attended a debate between two young politicians who were running for
a Knesset seat for the first time – Efraim Sneh from the Labor Alignment and
Binyamin Netanyahu from the Likud. One of the issues they debated was whether
autonomy for the Palestinians was a viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian
Netanyahu argued that it was, citing the example of the
Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia as an example.
True, on the eve of the
Second World War the Germans in the Sudetenland had autonomy in the Czech-Slovak
state. But what happened subsequently was that Nazi Germany annexed the
Sudetenland, and as a sequel took control of the rest of Czechoslovakia. Then,
after the war, all six million Germans from the Sudetenland were expelled to
East and West Germany. A successful autonomy, worthy of emulation? But
Netanyahu’s admiration for Hannibal, or his miserable choice of the Sudetenland
as an example for promoting the autonomy idea, is perhaps not surprising. Not
looking at the complete historical picture seems to be part of our national
A people that views the besieged Jews in Masada, who preferred to
take their own lives rather than surrender to the Romans, as role models, and the Bar-Kochba revolt as a magnificent act of heroism, despite the fact that the
revolt and the defiance led to over a million Jews in Eretz Yisrael being killed
by the Romans, or dying of starvation, while the rest were banished from the
country – has a problem with the way it looks at history.
is another horrific event from which we refuse to derive the full historical
While we quite rightly commemorate the Holocaust as the greatest
catastrophe that befell our people, and a central argument in the justification
of the existence of a Jewish state, we fail to take a broader historical view
that seeks to understand how regimes such as the Nazi one come to power, and
what leads a people to commit the sort of crimes committed by the Nazi regime,
or to turn a blind eye while such crimes are committed.
In other words,
when we are not ignoring history altogether, we look at events only in terms of
how they affected the Jewish people, rather than in terms of their effect on and
implications for humanity in general.
The fact that several of our
Knesset Members did not flinch as they referred to the Eritreans and Sudanese in
Israel as “a cancer in our midst” and “the carriers of diseases” and not as
human beings who “have eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, sense, affections and
passions... who bleed when pricked and laugh when tickled” (to paraphrase
Shylock’s monologue in The Merchant of Venice) seems to me a direct consequence
of this distorted approach, which the education system continues to
The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and
was a Knesset employee for many years.