Can understanding yesterday help in shaping tomorrow?

Israeli and European scholars exchanged spirited words at the Israeli Presidential Conference.

June 21, 2013 02:06
3 minute read.
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Facing tomorrow banner. (photo credit: Courtesy)

In a particularly academic session Thursday afternoon at the Israeli Presidential Conference, Israeli and European scholars exchanged spirited words in response to the question, “Can understanding yesterday help in shaping tomorrow?” The panel opened on an very grim note, as German Dr. Joseph Joffe, a fellow in international relations at the Hoover Institution, paraphrased Georg Hegel.

“What experience and history teach us is this: that people and governments have never learned anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it.”

In a nod to the conference’s ever-present theme, “Facing Tomorrow,” he offered a sober reflection on the proper use of history by forecasters and policy-makers.

“History doesn’t tell you how to play the stock market or solve the Middle East conflict. It makes you a lot smarter and wiser. While history doesn’t predict the world, it helps you to understand it a bit better.”

French Dr. Diana Pinto, a fellow at the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research, struck a different chord, suggesting “the past is all we have. The present is too fleeting, and the future can’t be known.”

Pinto closed on a note of stern warning. “History is full of backlashes. Barbarism follows civilization, and not just the other way around.

War follows peace and calm, not just the other way around,” she said.

University of Haifa Prof. Majid al-Haj, however, challenged the usefulness of history as it is written, emphasizing instead the importance of cultural literacy in decision-making and public awareness.

“I don’t trust history, because it is imposed by those who have the power, because it is usually written by men, and because it ignores minority groups and those who don’t have power.”

Highlighting his experience as a member of Israel’s Arab minority, Haj quickly turned the conversation to the role of history in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though he cited the study of history as helpful to understanding his Jewish neighbors’ motivations and grievances, the professor of sociology argued that the best remedy for both embittered sides would be a program of multicultural education.

“In a country where there is a little land and a lot of history, each group has its own narrative–and the principle of multiculturalism is to accept those narratives even if we don’t agree with them.”

By contrast, Joffe repeatedly suggested that historical awareness could actually be toxic to the cause of easing Israel’s disputes with its Palestinian neighbors.

“We would be better off without a sense of history!” he rebuked the panel. “Our competing national narratives – like the Holocaust or the Nakba – drive the conflict, and if our brains were blank slates, we could probably deal with our problems a lot better.”

Prof. Benny Morris of Ben- Gurion University of the Negev maintained that an understanding of history can be a useful tool to decisionmakers in the region. Citing the work of British historian Basil Liddell Hart, he said history can teach leaders not what to do, but rather what not to do.

Citing Israel’s muddled 2006 air campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon, conceived in response to the failures of the 1982 ground invasion, he concluded: “It is easy to identify mistakes, but the process doesn’t necessarily lead to solutions.”

Closing on a dire note, Morris described the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel and wondered whether a historical comparison to Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s was justifiable. Either way, he worried that a failure to draw the right conclusions from history could be catastrophic.

“Israel’s leaders and public might have no choice [but] to make the wrong choice,” he said.

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