HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

History, Myth and Meaning: Living in the Present with the Past

by Jonathan Woocher Issue: Teaching Jewish History
TOPICS : Jewish Studies

I recently finished reading Ari Shavit’s personal history of Israel, My Promised Land. It’s a compelling narrative, and a disturbing one for anyone who cares passionately about Israel’s future (as I do). What makes Shavit’s observations about the present and his hard-headed but not unhopeful concerns for the future so persuasive is the vividness of his depiction of Israel’s past—how the Jews came to Palestine, how the Zionists resolved to fight for independence, and the terrible price the Palestinian Arabs paid in the course of a war that he nonetheless believes was necessary and just. His chapter on the fate of the Arabs of Lydda (Lod) during the War of Independence is both chilling and terribly sad. And, if anyone ever doubted it, he makes brutally clear that for many, if not most, Israeli Arabs (not to mention the Arabs still living under occupation in the West Bank or hemmed into Gaza), the victories of 1948 and 1967 that we celebrate are truly, and perhaps irrevocably, a Nakba—a catastrophe.

Shavit’s book is important for many reasons, one of which is that it appears destined to make the wider Jewish community in America aware of debates about Israel’s founding that have long been part of the Israeli academic scene but have been mostly ignored here. In so doing, My Promised Land resurfaces a broader theme that is relevant to any teaching of Jewish history: what are we teaching as “true,” and “true” in what sense? No doubt, there will be some in the Jewish community who contest Shavit’s account and challenge its accuracy, or at least its completeness.

But I suspect that even among those who accept his narrative of the events there will be hesitation about whether students should be exposed to it. What we do with uncomfortable stories from Jewish history is as much a challenging issue for educators as what we do with difficult texts (the two often overlap). If Israel’s leaders during the War of Independence indeed ordered or encouraged the forcible eviction and sometimes killing of Arab inhabitants of Palestine—even, as Shavit makes clear, out of a conviction that Israel could not be born as a Jewish state without such actions—how do we teach this to today’s Jewish youth? Do we teach this at all?

These are questions that are applicable to far more than just the history of Zionism and Israel. They arise in almost every context in which we seek to connect our students to their past and that of the Jewish people. I remember the kerfuffle a few years ago when Rabbi David Wolpe gave a sermon expressing the view that the Exodus may never have happened. Every Hanukkah brings discussions among Jewish educators about which Hanukkah narrative to teach: the one in the book of Maccabees, the one the rabbis of the Talmud advanced, or a synthetic, nuanced and ostensibly more “truthful” one pieced together by modern historians. In fact, historians would likely argue (with evidence to back them up) that there is no event in Jewish history that is not far more complex factually and subject to multiple interpretations than the way we typically depict these events in our commemorations (where we might argue “memory” is more important than “history”) and, often, in our schools (where substituting memory for history is more problematic).

This is important because in Judaism and, I would suggest, in human life generally the past is a vital source of meaning in the present. Up to a point, there is no problem in asserting that history need not be “factual” to be “meaningful” and even “true.” This is the category of narrative that we call myth—stories that reveal fundamental truths about our lives and the world, regardless of the facts. I would agree with those who argue that it does not matter whether the Exodus actually happened, and certainly whether it happened as recounted in the Torah. The power of the narrative and its paradigmatic role in Jewish life transcend its facticity.

However, in other historical situations it’s not as easy to say that what actually happened does not matter when varying versions of the past can have dramatic consequences for attitudes and behaviors in the present. In the long run, it did not benefit Israel or our relationship with it that several generations of young American Jews knew only a mythologized and romanticized version of its history. This is true as well for our own American Jewish history and for many events in the Jewish past—the story of the Maccabees among them.

Of course, there is no single “right” version of history. All history is selective and interpretive (reading Shavit, one might well conclude that both the Israeli-Jewish and the Arab-Palestinian narratives of the events leading up to Israel’s founding are “true” despite being almost diametrically opposed). And, the “facts” on which history is based are often difficult to uncover or disputed. Nonetheless, history is important, as is the effort to reach as full and truthful an understanding of it as we can achieve.

I firmly believe that in today’s world our students are ready for history that is complex and challenging. I want them to read Shavit (and even to begin learning about Israel’s triumphant but disturbing path to statehood at an earlier age). I want them to debate and discuss our past without apologetics and without embarrassment, and to do the same for our present and future. Encountering the problematics of history may not always be comfortable, but avoiding them or airbrushing them is far worse. Our identity as Jews, struggling to realize timeless values in an ever-changing, often recalcitrant world, is grounded in both myth and history. We need both, and we need to help our students understand how both contribute to a life lived with integrity and purpose—which, in the end, is what I think we want our schools to be about.¿

Dr. Jonathan Woocher works in a senior capacity with the Lippman Kanfer family on its philanthropic and educational initiatives. jon@lippmankanfer.org

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