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February 06, 2005

Memory vs. History

In 1982, Yosef Yerushalmi was invited to speak at the University of Washington's annual Samuel and Althea Strom Lecture Series on Jewish Studies. His lectures were collected and published in a book, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. It in absolutely indispensible reading for anyone who wants to understand the traditional and modern Jewish views of history.

Yerushalmi's point was that after the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews stopped writing history. The history they did have, they committed to memory. Thereafter, anything that happened, locally or nationally, would be seen as a reflection or repetition of what had gone before. Jews would retain a very keen sense of the meaning of history, but historiography as a serious pursuit would all but end until the Enlightenment. New interpretations of history would be either undiscovered or rejected.

I think something similar has happened with today's left with regard to Iraq. I see little historical analysis, and little attempt to understand Iraq on its own terms, in relation to its own history over the last century. I do see a great deal of argument-by-analogy to Vietnam. The Vietnamese elections went well, too! We had an insurgency in Vietnam, too! Fallujah is Tet! And so on. The meaning of History is clear (US Military Bad!) and room for new interpretation just doesn't exist.

It's a blinkered way of looking at things, and it bears more than a passing resemblance to a religious, rather than a rational, view of the world. There may be some similarities between Vietnam and Iraq - it would be surprising if occupations didn't resemble each other in some superficial ways. But harping on those surface similarities doesn't leave any room for real understanding. And throwing around the year 1920 like a Red Sox fan who still hasn't gotten over the Curse reveals more poverty of knowledge than depth.

Moreoever, as in rabbinic Judaism, such an understanding of history tends to lead towards passivity and prevents the emergence of a positive program. After all, if history ends in failure, trying to push it forward can only end in catastrophe.

In early 2003, my friend Mike Eisenstadt, and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near-East Studies, co-edited and contributed to a volume looking at Iraq in light of the British experience there. U.S. Policy in Post-Saddam Iraq: Lessons from the British Experience actually looks at Iraqi history. It examines the context and causes of the mostly-Shiite 1920 rebellion, and Britain's attempts to rule the country by proxy through a gloss of democracy that excluded more than it included.

In fact, it's remarkable how many mistakes we've avoided making, or at least have reversed, if you go by Mike's suggestions.

I've disagreed with Mike a lot over the years, especially regarding Israel and its relations with the Palestinians and other Arabs. But this is a well-thought out piece of work, especially for people looking for analysis instead of polemic.

Posted by joshuasharf at February 6, 2005 03:05 PM | TrackBack

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