If you are interested in politics–on Israel, or the Middle East, or anywhere else for that matter–you, like me, probably spend a lot of your time reading the news. You probably look beyond newspapers and to thoughtful magazines or blogs, be it The New Yorker or Commentary, Shmuel Rosner or Little Green Footballs. That’s well in good, and in our harried day, even those media sources can seem a beast of burden.
But we would do well, the near-90 year old historian Walter Lacqueur argues, to take history seriously, too. His new book, "Best of Times, Worst of Times," reviewed this week at TNR this week, makes a forceful case that wonketry alone risks putting us at a real disadvantage in our attempt to understand the present. "The greater danger as far as democratic societies are concerned is lack of memory and understanding of the dynamics of societies and governments that are not like them," he writes.
Lacqueur should know: born in Breslau, in 1920, and having lost his parents in the Holocaust, he fled to Palestine in 1938, then to the UK and US in the 1950s. Since then he’s had a prolific career, not only in the world of wonketry, like the foreign policy think tank CSIS, but at our great universities too: Johns Hopkins, Georgetown and Harvard, among them. Most importantly, his histories of anti-Semitism, Islamic terrorism, Zionism and the Holocaust have lent him a keen insight that even an avid reader his books could barely lay claim to.
But as the reviewer Jeffrey Herf, also a gifted historian, now at Univ. of Maryland, writes, Laqueur’s deep historical knowledge has not left him more comfortable with present day threats–and notably, radical Islam. Lacqueur chastises Clinton, and Americans of that era too, for caring too much about his coital dalliances in the Oval Office while Osama Bin Laden, in 1998, was publicly proclaiming his fatwas against the U.S. And yet, the response of George W. Bush–even more uninformed about Islamic terrorism–pursued a path no less dangerous.
It seems that neither the liberal’s Achilles’ heal –willful ignorance–nor the conservative’s crutch of boorish nationalism is the answer. What matters is a real engagement with the problems we face, a more meaningful understanding. From there, we can have our policy debates. But, as of now, Herf writes, we’re not even engaging at all. We could learn from what historians like Laqueur know best: history cannot predict the future, but it can offer insight into possible outcomes, in light of past tendencies. Which is to say, we are not controlled by history, but–and decisively–are shapers of it.