Edmund Burke famously stated that “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” and this adage has proven true time and again.
However, what of those who know history but reject its lessons, and instead manufacture alternative traditions based on partisan fantasy or political ideology? Will they merely repeat the mistakes of the past or ensure a future where truth is subjective and morality relative? If the latter, they risk creating a world devoid of ethical integrity and intellectual honesty.
Unfortunately, historical revisionism has become part of the American political process, and those who use it to promote radical narratives are the ones most responsible for today’s irrational hostility towards Israel and the Jewish People.
Progressive extremists are particularly shrill in denouncing Israel for supposed acts of aggression and callousness that in truth are neither outrageous nor extreme, but instead consistent with international law and Jewish historical rights and tradition. They are especially indignant when Jewish history conflicts with the claims of Palestinian-Arabs, whose national narrative is a chimerical study in antisemitic rejectionism with little or no foundation.
This was apparent when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking for President Trump, acknowledged the legality of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria. The Union for Reform Judaism (“URJ”) responded with a statement urging the President to recant, declaring: “Any unilateral move…would place serious and critical obstacles to a viable two-state solution, damaging the prospect of renewing the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and causing a long-term threat to Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state.” But President Trump’s position reflected sentiments that prevailed before the Obama administration and an understanding that Palestinians oppose a “viable two-state solution” because they deny Israel’s legitimacy. That denial is actually the most “serious and critical” obstacle to peace.
American critics are impertinent when they claim to know what is best for Israel. And the URJ’s statement is emblematic of this conceit in that it (a) seems oblivious to the impact of Palestinian rejectionism and (b) fails to acknowledge that Israeli "settlements" in Judea and Samaria actually conform to international legal norms and standards. This was recognized well before the Obama administration’s eight-year effort to delegitimize the "settlements". It was Obama’s collusion with the United Nations in 2016 to undermine Israeli sovereignty that constituted a change in US policy, not Trump’s restatement of protocol.
Prior administrations did not resolutely deny the legality of the "settlements" (which were built on ancestral lands where Jews had lived for thousands of years), but believed they could be negotiated based on political considerations. Indeed, Americans commonly recognized Jewish indigeneity throughout the Land of Israel.
Israel’s acquisition of these lands in 1967 was lawful because it was defending itself from an aggressor nation (Jordan). Neither the Law of Belligerent Occupation nor the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibit Israel from maintaining possession of territories seized from an aggressor nation that acquired them in violation of international law. Specifically, Jordan annexed Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem illegally in 1948, before which they had been holdings of a defunct empire. These lands were never independent or part of any autonomous nation-state after Rome conquered the Kingdom of Judah in 136 CE, and certainly not a state of “Palestine” that never existed. Their liberation by Israel if anything reimposed legitimate sovereignty after a two-thousand-year hiatus.
Once upon a time, Jewish progressives embraced their people’s history with religious-like zeal and were willing to die for its modern political realization. Though they eschewed traditional observance after the Enlightenment, they typically substituted faith in history for belief in G-d; and while many of them claimed to profess atheism, they nonetheless continued to express their innate religious sensibilities as historical determinism. They knew where their ancestors came from and believed Jewish national destiny was tied to the ancient homeland.
This ancestral link to Judea, Samaria, Jerusalem and the rest of ancient Israel was the basis for recognizing the right of Jewish self-determination in the Mandate for Palestine of 1922. While these lands constituted colonial holdings of successive empires after the fall of the Second Jewish Commonwealth, they never comprised independent sovereign territories between the years 136 and 1948. Furthermore, they were commonly recognized as ancestrally Jewish and for maintaining a Jewish presence for more than 3,000 years – long before the Roman, Arab, and Ottoman conquests.
Unfortunately, the old Israeli left sometimes sacrificed historical virtue for the sake of partisan politics. Though Menachem Begin made a policy of never questioning his political opponents’ patriotism, for example, Labor ideologues were often quick to label him and Herut Party members as Nazis and fascists, thus perverting the context and meaning of those terms for partisan purposes. This was eventually coopted by Israel-haters to misrepresent the past so as to deny Israeli sovereignty and Jewish national claims.
Historical revisionism is now used to empower BDS, justify antisemitism, and delegitimize Israel by falsely depicting it as a colonial creation built on the ruins of a mythical country called Palestine. But historical and archeological analysis corroborates Israel’s Jewish past while offering no support for Palestinian authenticity. Though the Jewish homeland was the target of multiple conquests before 1948, colonialism was enforced by Greeks, Romans, Muslim Arabs, Christian Crusaders, and Ottoman Turks – not Jews. And the history of jihad in the region is one of subjugation, the influence of which continues to inflame anti-Jewish passions today.
Despite the historical record, ambivalence regarding Israeli sovereignty long ago infected the political mainstream without protest from Democratic leadership. In his final television address as Secretary of State, for example, John Kerry inveighed against Israel and pushed the canard that she could not be both Jewish and democratic. He never expressed concern over the religious and ethnic supremacism that permeates the Arab-Muslim Mideast) and his apparent disregard for Jewish ancestral rights was inexcusable.
Similar bias motivated the Obama administration’s collusion with the UN in 2016 to orchestrate a resolution declaring that Israeli "settlements" violated international law (despite much precedent to the contrary) so that the US could withhold its veto and effectively reverse American policy. The Simon Wiesenthal Center recognized this as an attack on Israeli sovereignty and proclaimed it the most antisemitic incident of the year. This assault against Israel on the world stage was nonetheless tolerated by Jewish progressives, and even lauded by some. When Jews fail to condemn such conduct, they enable Jew-hatred masquerading as political dialogue; and denying Israeli sovereignty is indeed a form of antisemitism.
Whereas early Jewish progressives regarded their people’s history with reverence, their political descendants lost all sense of its noble origins and lofty mission. Furthermore, today’s left has altered the past to conform to a worldview that disparages Israel and traditional Judaism.
As Rav Saadia Gaon explained more than a thousand years ago, the Jews are a nation founded on Torah whose national survival requires loyalty to its laws and principles. Without Torah, he said, the Jewish nation would have disappeared like any other ancient people swallowed by the sands of time. Is Israel’s disappearance the goal of those who now seek to deny Jewish history and suppress Judaism's eternal values?