By Gil Troy
The automaker Henry Ford first said: “History is Bunk.” As a trained historian, I am supposed to hate that statement, which repudiates my lifelong mission. But in the real world Ford’s claim sometimes is correct. Sometimes, being handcuffed to the past can shackle us to bad habits, old wounds, or insurmountable obstacles. For example, to resolve the boundary conflict between Israelis and Palestinians both sides will have to value the demographic patterns of today over the historical ties of yesteryear.
Nevertheless, history can help us frame our identities, gain perspective, and attain the wisdom we need in both private matters and public affairs.
Within the team working on the Engaging Israel project at the Shalom Hartman Institute, we have been debating history’s relevance in pushing toward A New Zionist Ethic, in developing a new language about Israel and Zionism for today. We recognize that most Jews today do not build their identities based on the Holocaust of 60 years ago, the Six Day War of 43 years ago, or the heroic Entebbe raid of 34 years ago. We understand that today, for most young people, “history” means their latest Google searches, not their relationship to previous ideas, heroes, actions, and movements.
Yet, we still need history as an anchor. Consider Ford’s quotation in full. Interviewed in May, 1916, the great industrialist and notorious anti-Semite said: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we made today.”
Some early Zionists wanted to bury the past, only wanting to live for today and tomorrow. But the Zionist movement has matured. In forging a vibrant, authentic modern Zionist identity – and modern Jewish identity – we must start with the past, history, and tradition. Without engaging the past, Israel makes no sense. In fact, every national identity, even in the modern world, begins with a particular people’s story, as a community. Our history, Jewish history, explains why Jews scattered throughout the world – and why Jews living amid the comforts of the new “Promised Land,” America, remain tied to the traditional “Promised Land,” Israel. From our history, we also understand our longstanding ties to our homeland, our collective rights to national self-determination, the cost of powerlessness over the years, and the tremendous opportunity we have in this generation to return to this land, both for self-defense and for self-fulfillment.
Most important of all, our connection to tradition enriches us, making us part of something larger than our individual selves, opening us to a fabulous library overflowing with great ideas, inspiring stories, enduring values, and valuable role models. In building modern identities that have meaning, history provides both the poetry and the prose. Romantic nationalisms of all types – American and British, German and French, Jewish and Palestinian – are all rooted in an heroic past, a sweep of history that propels us forward. That is the poetry. But the banks of knowledge that we can access – especially from the panoply of Jewish texts, Jewish teachings, and Jewish experiences, helps with the prose too, with the difficult challenge of finding meaning in the modern world – and the even more trying task of creating a just, democratic, Jewish society amid the chaos and trauma of the modern Middle East.
The founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, spoke of an “Altneuland,” an Old-New Land, in the utopian novel he wrote in 1902. We need the “Alt,” the old, to explain who we are, why we are where we are, and help guide us in figuring out where we are going. But we also need the “Neu,” the New, to build a Zionist identity and a Zionist state that is vital, dynamic, forward-looking, and speaks to this generation.
Many Birthright Israel students report that what most impresses them about Israel is its “depth.” We are blessed to have the profundity of our ideas consecrated by longevity, perfected by our predecessors. So yes, history can be bunk, but it also can be a bank of ideas, experiences, and memories that bring added value to our lives individually and collectively.
Prof. Gil Troy is a History Professor at McGill University, a Shalom Hartman Institute Fellow and a member of the Engaging Israel Panel.