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 370 (photo credit: seth frantzman)
Carthage ruins 370
(photo credit: 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 trivial matter.
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.
Why? 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 conflict.
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 ethos.
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.
The Holocaust is another horrific event from which we refuse to derive the full historical lesson.
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 propagate.
The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.