A few days ago, a member of the Illinois legislature attracted national attention by calling to abolish the teaching of history in public schools statewide, until a “suitable alternative” is developed that lives up to current standards of political correctness. This radical suggestion is of a piece with the recent moves to tear down statues and rename buildings, institutions, and even cities named for historic figures deemed by activists worthy of contempt rather than honor, and it is also related to the New York Times’s “1619 Project,” a misguided and error-laden attempt to rewrite American history so that the country’s sins take precedence over all else. Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy argue that Judaism and Jewish history can provide an important antidote to this nihilistic impulse:
Jews are preprogrammed to navigate history, not negate it. We have no choice. Our ancestors often behaved poorly. The Bible’s colorful lineup of flawed heroes challenges us to replicate their virtues and avoid their sins. While seeking to continue their noble missions and eternal values, we also learn from Isaac’s passivity, Jacob’s craftiness, Joseph’s arrogance toward his brothers, Moses’ anger, Miriam’s gossiping, and King David’s heroism and piety, amid epic sins.
Imagine if our enemies were correct and we Jews, “the Elders of Zion,” had the power to dictate history. We could write out of history every Western hero who hated us. But what would Catholic history be without the Crusaders—including Louis IX, an enlightened French king and notorious anti-Semite after whom St. Louis is named? What would Protestantism be without Martin Luther, that pace-setting rebel, reformer—and Jew-hater? And what would Spanish history be without Ferdinand and Isabella, who brought Spain back to Christian Europe, then expelled and persecuted hundreds of thousands of Jews?
When Sharansky was in [Soviet] prison, Voltaire was his honored friend. . . . Voltaire [famously claimed to be] ready “to defend to the death” his opponents’ right to be wrong and still speak. Yet by saying Jews “deserve to be punished” for their “barbarism,” this enlightened liberal helped legitimize “enlightened” liberal anti-Semitism.
Similarly, Fyodor Dostoevsky symbolized the Russian intelligentsia’s resistance to autocracy, one of the soaring souls whose example highlighted the Soviet system’s brutality and vulgarity. When KGB interrogators accused Sharansky of betraying Russian culture as “a Zionist agent,” the answer was obvious: “You want to say Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are on your side? They’re on my side.” Yet Dostoevsky perpetuated deadly Jewish stereotypes, warning that the Jews—the anti-Christ—were money-hungry hucksters, threatening humanity. . . . We don’t forgive our enemies or forget the damage they’ve caused, but we wouldn’t gain from a whitewash.