Historical understanding is essential

The JC essay


By Rabbi Dr Jeffrey Cohen, January 23, 2012
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Last month, the House of Commons All-Party Group on History issued an alarming report showing that the subject was being increasingly neglected in comprehensive schools. In one Merseyside district, only four out of 2,000 18-year-olds passed the subject at A-level. Experts now speak of "the death of history" with rapidly falling numbers of pupils passing exams in it in deprived areas, and it becoming "virtually extinct" in many areas of the UK.

As Jews, our religious psyche is shaped by knowledge of our history, and our rituals and festivals are rooted in historical commemoration, so such indifference to the subject should be alien. Yet, to our shame, Jewish history is also widely neglected in our Hebrew classes, Jewish schools and yeshivot. Among the majority of right-wing Orthodox communities, approaching religious texts from an historical perspective is regarded as irrelevant, if not heretical. Such an attitude has gained greater currency among the United Synagogue rabbinate since the closure of Jews' College. With very few, notable exceptions, our rabbis are absent from any scholarly context.

Given that we are called upon to defend our historic right to Israel in the face of widespread revisionism and ignorance, coupled with the need to remind the world of the horrors of the Holocaust, any disinterest or lack of historical perspective among the gentile masses must also inevitably undermine our effectiveness in promoting the cause of "never again". The Torah also calls on us to be historically informed. "Remember the days of old; consider the epochs of many generations," it says in Deuteronomy, chapter 32. "Ask your father and he will tell you; your elders and they will relate it fully to you."

Some 20 years ago, I picked up my son's A-level history book. The section on the Second World War gave a clear and full account of the political events leading up to the war, and its military conduct, but allocated a mere page and a half to the Holocaust. The author, and the education authorities who selected the book, had blatantly deprived the maturing students from gaining an insight into the greatest atrocity in European history and the ability of racism to destabilise the world.

The author had deprived students from gaining an insight into the greatest atrocity in European history

Is promoting understanding part of an historian's brief? Decidedly, it should be. At the heart of the study of history is diplomacy, the purpose of which is to find common ground and, above all, avoid conflict and war.

Hegel went further, defining political history as involving "the idea of the state as invested with a moral and spiritual force beyond the material interests of its subjects". Racism seeks to eradicate that moral and spiritual force, replacing it with social unrest, violence, subjugation, war and genocide. As the most extreme modern manifestation of racism, consideration of the experience of the victims of the Nazis should figure prominently and paradigmatically in every history syllabus.

Presenting a sanitised view of history is wholly unacceptable. The educationalist's brief must be to educate, not merely to impart facts; to stimulate the intellectual and emotional faculties so students can develop a mature approach to life and an informed, sensitive attitude when assessing social, political and moral issues.

The psychologist Erich Fromm distinguished between "having" and "being". The former simply possess the facts they have studied, enabling them to be recalled for an exam. The latter, on the other hand, enter into a "being" relationship with the facts, relating existentially to their implications, and becoming changed in character, outlook and behaviour, by their consideration.

How profound Edmund Burke's observation is that "those who don't know history are destined to repeat it". On a recent school trip to Auschwitz, as the Jewish students were standing in awed silence, a bus drove past. Its young Polish passengers started shouting antisemitic slogans. What a worrying manifestation of the dangers of not learning from history. It is a tragedy of our age that the popular desire to discard last year's fashion extends also to last year's, and last century's, history.

Rabbi Dr Jeffrey Cohen is the former rabbi of Stanmore and Canons Park Synagogue

    Last updated: 11:19am, January 23 2012