History lesson: He learned and forgot nothing
How did a professor from Oxford wind up in our provincial corner of the Levant? The answer is apparently family related.
Jezreel valley Photo: Joe Yudin
Without a doubt, the history teacher at the regional school I went to,
Dr. Yizhak Aviv, was an odd bird. As thin as a rail and very tall, he was
impeccably dressed in a tailored jacket better suited to Oxford where he came
from than to the rural school he found himself in.
I imagine he regarded
the kibbutz kids in the school as savages in dire need of someone like him to
civilize them, much as the missionaries in Africa, Asia and South America
regarded the natives there.
None of us understood what the professor
wanted from us when he inexplicably refused to allow us to come to school, as we
always had, in the brown plaid zip-up slippers that were standard issue on the
In the winter he forbade us to wear our parkas in the unheated
classroom, and in the summer he placed a strict ban on flip-flops, to say
nothing of bare feet.
How did a professor from Oxford wind up in our
provincial corner of the Levant? The answer is apparently
He was married to the daughter of Shunia, our fabled
school librarian. Shunia shared with Elizabeth Taylor the color purple, but
while that color made the actress’s eyes stand out, on the old librarian it did
the same for her nose.
“Shh” Shunia hissed at anyone who showed up in her
library. I used to wonder if librarians hushed everyone at home the same way.
But I’m not here to talk about Shunia and her fellow librarians, so I’ll get
back to the point.
It was obvious that Dr. Aviv loved history. “Oxford –
that’s where they do history,” he used to say, a reference to the exhaustive
research, the long hours spent in musty archives, and perhaps the earnest
academic atmosphere of the old buildings, green lawns, and ancient pubs where
the décor looks natural and authentic, not glued on and out of place.
Aviv felt a deep emotional connection to events that took place centuries ago.
It was instantly clear from his tone which historical figures he favored and
which he didn’t.
His words dripped with contempt and disgust when he
spoke of those he didn’t fancy. He found the Polish particularly worthy of
disdain, ridiculing them mercilessly and speaking of the “poor Poles” who were
conquered by one neighbor or another throughout their history.
ridicule was nearly as painful as the conquest itself. He also had contempt for
the Holy Roman Empire, which, he explained, was not an empire but just a
conglomeration of principalities. And it wasn’t Roman either, but German, and it
was not holy either.
I remember when I was in the IDF I sometimes heard
him giving a lecture on Army Radio. One night it was about the Spanish Civil
Even on my little transistor radio, I could hear the contempt in his
voice that told me right away where his sympathies lay.
But there was a
special place in the professor’s heart for the French Revolution.
the subject of his dissertation, and he knew it as intimately as if he himself
had manned the barricades on the cobbled streets of France, throwing stones with
one hand and raising the tricolor flag with the other. He described to us the
bloodbath during the revolution and the guillotines working overtime, and how
Napoleon emerged as the leader of the republic, proclaimed himself emperor, and
launched a campaign to conquer Europe. When he told us about the restoration of
the monarchy and the return of the Bourbon dynasty, he quoted a French saying
from that era: The Bourbons, it was said, “had learned nothing and forgotten
In other words, they didn’t learn from their past how to
conduct themselves, and didn’t forget the bad habits that had led to their
Recent events have caused me to remember Dr. Aviv. I was
reminded of him by the son of another distinguished historian. It seems as if
the prime minister, whose father was a history professor, has learned nothing
from the election results and forgotten none of his bad habits: Don’t change
anything, don’t make any decisions, just hold tight to the reins of power and do
as little as possible.
Translated from the Hebrew by Sara Kitai,