What History Can’t Teach Us

“Learn from history”, “history repeats itself”. The internal logic of these axioms blinds us to an important fact-  history gives us insight into only one of the options available to leaders at any crucial junction- the one they chose. We know nothing about what would have happened had they chosen differently.

I was raised on the narrative that Neville Chamberlain was at best naive, at worst, a coward. By capitulating to the Nazis when they took over the Sudetenland, and not taking military action against them in 1938, he allowed the Nazi monster to grow and flourish. We now understand that the Nazis were the epitome of evil and had to be stopped, and assume it would have been better had it been done earlier.

Yet what would have happened had Chamberlain taken preemptive military action in 1938? Would all of Europe, without our hindsight, have stood behind his decision? Would the British people have had the fortitude to withstand years of bombardment to maintain the autonomy of……the Sudentenland? How would the powerful isolationists in the US have perceived the situation in Europe had Great Britain initiated the war? Would Hitler have been stopped in 1938, before committing his heinous crimes, or would he have faced Allies who were more divided than allied, less committed to their common cause? We’ll never know, because history provides no insight about what wasn’t.

The world has watched Iran’s nuclear program with growing concern for over a decade. The concern is legitimate- nuclear weapons are terrifying in the hands of a stable democracy with a strong system of checks and balances. In the hands of a radical, Islamistic dictatorship with imperialist aspirations, they could destroy the world. It is an extremely delicate and volatile situation, and the consequences of the smallest misstep could be catastrophic. There is no guidebook to give world leaders the right and wrong answers, and although they loathe to admit it, they are simply hedging their bets.

So who do we bet on? In whose hands do we place the responsibility of analyzing reams of classified information, of weighing the expert testimony of diplomats and security personnel and making the best possible decision at this moment?

Should the decision be left to to a man who by countless accounts, does not have the patience to read a document longer than one page? A man who consistently disregards the advice of his own advisers, and fires staff who express professional opinions that contradict his own? A man who has the impulse control of a toddler?  A man obsessed with overturning every action taken by his predecessor, no matter the cost to his country? A man who is under investigation for a web of crimes and conflicts of interest so staggering that he has undermined the basic integrity of the office of the presidency? There is no historic parallel for such a question, there is only innate common sense to direct us to its answer.

And what of Netanyahu? Netanyahu has allied himself with Israel’s radical, messianic zealots, despite the fact that they negate the beliefs and interests of the majority of his voters.  Internationally, he has cozied up to dictators such as Putin, Orban and Hernandez, while alienating Western democratic leadership, and removed Israel from the bipartisan consensus in the US by enthusiastically supporting the extremely controversial Donald Trump.

In order to sustain his base of support despite his radical turn, he carefully and consistently curates a sense of existential terror in the Israeli public, positioning himself as its one and only savior. This has allowed him to pour taxpayers money into settlements, give handouts to ultra-Orthodox communities who do not work or serve in the army, and detain asylum seekers at enormous cost rather than allowing them to work and pay their way, among other transgressions. When his demons awake in the form of corruption charges, family scandals, or capitulations to radical elements in his government, he simply waves the flag of fear and all is forgiven and forgotten. It is such an effective strategy that it has become a critical element of his political survival. Can he represent the best interests of his people and of the world in the Iran agreement? Should we bet our future on him?

Hindsight may be 20/20, but the future is never, will never, be so clear. Leaders who claim absolute certainty about the future reek of hubris. Therefore we must put our fate in the hands of leaders worthy of our trust, leaders who consistently demonstrate strength of character, personal and professional integrity and good judgement. Doing so will not guarantee our safety and security, but it is the best chance we have.

About the Author
After having several life-changing educational experiences in her teens, Elana Kaminka has dedicated her career to creating those experiences for others. Originally working in the field of Israel programs, she became fascinated by the field of development and is now working in Tevel b'Tzedek, an Israeli NGO that both runs quality volunteer programs and does quality development work in Nepal.
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