No one has ever really defined history. All attempts yield partial results, at best.
The study of the past? Negatory. The past, by definition, no longer exists. You can’t study that which does not exist.
The record of the past? Perhaps, in part. But a record always incomplete, inaccurate and distorted. Distorted in all cases by an imposed retrodictive narrative and coherence that says more about those who produce and consume the distortions than that which they presume to record.
The “usable past”, sometimes aka the “lessons of the past”? Again, perhaps, in part. But beware of anyone who dredges up these “lessons” too easily or too often, usually in questionable support of their preferred and questionable agendas. Still, those enamored of “lessons” might consider Professor Philip’s Three Absolute Laws of Universal History:
Some stuff works better than others.
Everything goes wrong eventually.
All truth is provisional.
Perhaps Israel might find some value here. America, too.
Which is why I mention it.
For the past few months, when not distracted by chemotherapy and related nuisances, I’ve been playing with – OK, meandering around – a set of ideas that may lead nowhere, or perhaps to something rather important. Specifically:
In this ugly era of global Islamism, global climate change and global civilized corruption and ineptitude, Israel and America need each other. The world needs both countries, as they could be. For many reasons, the Israeli-American relationship’s a mess: at best, running on auto-pilot, at worst on a slow glide path to disaster. Neither government, nor any likely successor regime, can fix it. That requires people.
But neither country really has citizens. Some Americans may be struggling to reinvent citizenship, while Israel must discover it for the first time (more on that later). Somehow, both countries must find their way to an effective 21st century citizenship, despite the oligarchs who currently dominate, despite the inertia and cynicism, despite the “lessons of history” that bait so many political, economic, cultural and religious traps.
Which brings me back to history. Specifically, the definition of history I discovered in a silent, brutal, reverent place.
As an historian, I don’t much care for museums. The more beautifully they’re done, the more their “museum-ness” overwhelms their subject matter. But last week, for the first time in nearly a year, I felt recovered enough to start a series of day trips.
First on my list: the Museum of Underground Prisoners at the Acre Fortress, an 18th century Ottoman megalith built on Crusader ruins, used by the British as a prison during the Mandatory years, site of the famous 1947 “Acre Jail-Break.”
That era fascinates me. I confess a certain affinity for Jabotinsky and Revisionism, for Etzel and Begin, and a high regard for Dov Grüner, a humane and eloquent young Irgunist executed there. So I went, prepared to endure an overcrowded, tediously well-done set of displays and a bookstore/souvenir shop hawking, among other items, a selection of “Acre Jail-Break” T shirts.
My expectations, mercifully, were wrong.
The Museum itself is a minimalist affair. Most of the site consists of empty rooms and corridors. The Ministry of Defense (spelled with an “s”), which runs the facility, has arranged a set of modest, spacious displays relating to the prison, to prison life, and to the lives of those executed there. The placards tell with measured neutrality of the various fighters – Haganah/Palmach, Etzel, LEHI – who found themselves prisoners. You’d never know how often, back then and beyond those walls, they’d harassed and betrayed and killed each other.
The neutrality is fitting. The democracy of prison, and of common suffering and cause, take precedence here.
The day I went, few visitors were about. No shepherded tour groups, raucous despite themselves. No young people that I noticed. There was an absolute, indeed reverential silence throughout. I spent some time wandering the emptiness, then stood on an outer corridor, looking down on the central yard. It would have been easy, no doubt with an assist from that maudlin old movie, Exodus, to imagine the place as it must have been: the crowding and the noise, the smells, the routine brutalities, the routine endurance and courage.
But the silence took precedence, as did certain thoughts whose very banality attests to their truth.
Respect for those who never lived to enjoy their victory, or who lived but could never quite inhabit it.
Recognition that, whatever your respect, this was and always will be their world. Not yours. You can understand the horrific human cost of creating Israel, indeed, the horrific human cost of most things that we enjoy and take too much for granted. But that’s as far as it goes. This was their place, their history . . .
Their fragment of finality.
And perhaps that’s a decent enough partial definition of history: the apprehension of fragments of finality.
Including our own.
I sometimes find it hard to avoid the sense that both Israel and America, perhaps civilization itself, are living in a fragment of finality. Perhaps some people feel the same and shrug it off, while others await Final Redemption or revel in their learned helplessness. And some, perhaps, wonder how they might engage the concept of citizenship in a manner relevant to the age now upon us.
So what’s a citizen? Perhaps an initial answer might be, to adapt Aristotle’s definition of honor: those who meet their responsibilities and demand their due.
Those who died at Acre were never citizens. They never got the chance. But they did that which came to them to do, always at great cost and often with honor. Their due, which they cannot claim, exists beyond their fragment of finality. That’s up to us, those of us who choose to do that which comes to us to do.
So perhaps what’s needed today is a new underground, this time of citizens, unwilling to accept the present disarray as an irreducible, unchangeable fragment of finality.
Is that really any more outlandish or impossible that what those guys, interred and enshrined in their fragment of finality, believed and did to get themselves locked up in Acre?
And then out.
Next week: How?