On the Use and Misuse of History: The Netanyahu CaseRoundup
Previously in this series on Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech: "Is It 1938?", "The Mystery of the Netanyahu Disaster," "The 'Existential' Chronicles Go On," "On Existential Threats," and yesterday's roundup of reader mail.
1) "The historical equivalent of hollering." From a history professor at a university in the Southwest:
I am no fan of Bibi's, but I'd also like to note that this ahistorical use of the past makes historians' teeth itch. (I'll just blithely speak for the whole profession.) More centrally, both our political leadership and Israel's desperately need to develop a wider grasp of that past.
History offers up a depressingly vast number of small states perceiving danger from larger, well-armed, unpredictable neighbors. It provides at least that many examples of threats to continued Jewish existence in a given region. The constant reiteration of this particular event [the Nazi-era Holocaust] achieves little more than dumbing down the discourse: it's the historical equivalent of hollering.
To paraphrase Levi-Strauss, the Holocaust is not particularly good to think with. Its extremity serves as a bludgeon. Its use is nearly always intended to cut off debate or critique, to seize the moral high ground, and ideally to incite panic. I don't know the best response to the Iranian threat, which I take seriously. But I suspect hysteria is unhelpful—and if that's true, so is raising the specter of the Holocaust, as Netanyahu does every time he discusses this topic.
Ask your average historian whether the past repeats itself. She'll tell you it doesn't -- only that it sometimes rhymes. The past can be a rich source of insight, surely. But much of what we ask our students to do centers around analyzing the complex causes of immensely complicated events. There are almost always at least three solid ways to interpret any given historical question. In short, the past is not a simplistic instruction manual for the present. It almost never provides any kind of predictive template.
There are other good reasons to argue with Binyamin Netanyahu beyond his misuse of the past. But since his perception of Iran is based at least in part on that misuse, I stand by my reason. ...
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