Will We Ever Learn?

History may not instruct but it does reveal.
May 22, 2024
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The saying that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme, is attributed to Mark Twain. I take that to mean that circumstances are never exactly the same from one period of history to another, so people make the same mistakes, thinking that the situation is different. 

You would think, for example, after being restored to statehood after 2,000 years, an unprecedented event in recorded history, including the restoration of Hebrew as a spoken language, that the government of Israel would make it a top priority to overcome differences no matter how different the views. Instead, we witness vitriol and bitter rivalry that shred the fabric of the nation. At a time when enemies encircle the country intent on its extinction, what are the politicians thinking?

History may not instruct but it does reveal. There were Jewish kingdoms in Israel before the existence of Christianity and Islam. The last of the kingdoms was lost to the Romans in 70 C.E., in part because of the hatred between different groups. The Jews had stockpiled enough supplies to outlast the Roman siege, but they burnt their rivals’ stockpiles and ensured the enemy’s victory. The result was 2,000 years of exile and all the horrors that followed. 

It has been said that Jews are not so much a people of history as of memory. History is universal, memory is personal. We remember Jewish freedom from slavery on Passover; we remember the 40 years of wandering in the desert on the way to the Promised Land on Sukkot; we remember the covenant on Mount Sinai on Shavuot; we remember the tragedies that befell the Jewish people on Tisha b’Av. We need also to remember the cost of a lack of unity. “Never again” applies not only to Holocaust remembrance but also to rival groups in society that can cause its downfall yet again.

Either we find a way to impose on quarreling leaders our demand for cooperation or we sit back and contribute through indifference to the demise of our great countries.

America suffered the Civil War and lost more citizens than in all the wars fought subsequently. “A house divided cannot stand,” said the deeply insightful Abraham Lincoln. Americans need to remember these words and be inspired by them. Politicians with different views, in recent history, did work together to achieve great results for the country — Republican Arthur Vandenberg worked with President Truman to pass the Marshall Plan — and there is no good reason for them not to do so now.  

Discord is a trap of our own making. We prepare our own downfall to the great glee of antisemites in the case of Israel and of dictatorships in the case of America.

It is not only the history of the Jews and America that is instructive. The greatest empire in the history of the world, until the British Empire, was the Roman Empire. Historians document the powerful empire’s collapse due to its internal divisions, which made it vulnerable to invading forces. 

Israel and America are democracies that represent more than two countries. They are among the few nations that are a bulwark in a world of autocrats who seek to turn the world back to a time when nations were ruled by dictators and kings with little or no regard for their citizens. 

If today’s politicians will not acknowledge the danger and commit themselves to finding a way to work together for the nation and the future of democracy, then citizens need to unequivocally remind them of their duty. Grassroots movements spring up from committed citizens and they can be highly effective.

A seminal story of the Talmud is the well-known quarrel between two men who brought catastrophe to the Jewish people (Gitten 55-56a). A wealthy and influential man invites his friend Kamtza to a gathering. It is his enemy Bar Kamzta who is mistakenly invited. Bar Kamzta appears at the party to the host’s dismay and the host insists publicly that he leave despite Bar Kamzta’s plea that he be spared the humiliation. He even offers to pay for the entire banquet, but the host is unyielding. 

The key to the story, for our purposes, is not the fact that he was forced to leave but that, as the Talmud says, “since the Sages were sitting there and did not protest, learn something from it that they were content.” Because his moment of humiliation was ignored by the great sages of the time, who were all present at the banquet, Bar Kamzta decides to inform against the Jewish people to the king. Because the notables of the day were silent and insensitive, and seemingly too weak or too divided to take action in the face of public humiliation, the Jewish nation was lost. The “light unto the nations” was extinguished. 

History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The West is not Rome, and the enemies are not invading tribes of two millennia ago. Today, though, America and Israel and the West are evolved countries faced with unrelenting forces dedicated to our division and ultimate downfall. Citizens in free countries have a choice: Either we find a way to impose on quarreling leaders our demand for co-operation or we sit back like the sages at the banquet and contribute through indifference to the demise of our great countries.

Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Waterloo.

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