Angry mobs of activists are roaming American streets pulling down or defacing statues of historical figures. In some cases, governments and private institutions are joining their efforts by agreeing to take down examples of public art that reflect worldviews that are either now considered offensive or long gone out of fashion. Some are doing so because they’ve been intimidated by the 21st-century Jacobins who march under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement. Others are acting out of genuine conviction that they must join in the purging of the public square in order to virtue signal their abhorrence for racism.
The assumption on the part of many of those watching this spectacle with horror is that those involved simply don’t know or appreciate history. But this isn’t entirely true. While most Americans’ grasp of their nation’s past is shaky, what is going on isn’t so much the triumph of ignorance as it is that of revisionism. In this respect, the struggle in Israel over the efforts of the “new historians” to embrace the Palestinian nakba (“catastrophe”) narrative yields some insight on the attacks on America’s conception of itself as a nation conceived in a struggle for liberty.
When Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was first published in 1980, his attempt to tell the story of America as an unending series of atrocities against people of color and the poor was cheered by many intellectuals. Yet it was also roundly denounced as being a cartoonish version of history that was the moral equivalent of early traditional efforts to depict America’s founders as flawless humans, such as Parson Mason Weems’s vastly influential 1800 book, The Life of Washington. Weems’s hagiography, which invented the myth about the first president and the cherry tree, largely set the tone for the works of others who helped inspire Americans to think of their nation as a uniquely inspired experiment in democracy.
By contrast, Zinn’s America was as consistently villainous as Weems’s Washington was virtuous. Despite the simplistic and often misleading nature of his writing, Zinn’s influence has grown over the decades with many schools now using it—or other works inspired by this book—to teach American history.
Following in Zinn’s footsteps was last year’s Pulitzer-Prize winning “1619 Project” published by The New York Times. Most responsible liberal historians saw it as an error-ridden flawed account of America’s past. But its portrait of America as irredeemably racist has helped inspire support for the post-George Floyd protests.
Lost in the revolutionary zeal of the protesters to erase all vestiges of the country’s past that do not pass muster by our current standards of morality is all sense of nuance about the complicated nature of American history.
Slaveholders perpetuated a great evil. Those associated with the Confederacy were also guilty of treason. And the belief of most Americans in the century that followed in the country’s “manifest destiny” involved notions of white European superiority over Native Americans and others.
Yet this willingness to rethink America as a nation born in sin and continuing, despite much evidence to the contrary, to be as racist as it was in the past requires us to forget that the arc of the nation has actually been primarily one of a continuous expansion of liberty.
The dynamic of such revolutionary moments is that once you start toppling statues, nothing is safe. Along with the Confederates, stalwarts of the Union like Ulysses Grant are also now being overthrown. The same fate is befalling images of Washington, Thomas Jefferson and anyone else who can be linked to slavery or mistreatment of native peoples, like Christopher Columbus and even Theodore Roosevelt. The great good that many of them did is now deemed irrelevant in light of the new radical catechism about racism.
This parallels to some small extent the intellectual battles that have gone on in Israel as the so-called “new historians” sought to demolish the country’s view of its past.
This movement arose in the 1980s at the same time as the peace movements that pushed for concessions to the Palestinians. Israelis had been raised on the idea that their country had come into existence as a small, beleaguered people fighting for a foothold on their ancient homeland against Arabs who thought only of their extinction. The unpleasant details of a war of survival that had resulted in a massive population transfer—in which hundreds of thousands of Jews and Arabs fled or were forced out of their homes—were ignored.
New historians like Benny Morris punctured the myths that the Israelis were blameless. Their research revealed that in some cases, Arabs were compelled to leave their homes by Israeli forces.
Though much of their work largely ignored Arab intentions and rejection of peace, this view of Israeli wrongdoing has gradually gone mainstream. It bolstered sympathy for the Palestinian nakba narrative about the birth of Israel as a crime. This post-Zionist spirit has also infused much of Israeli popular culture as the simplistic patriotism of the country’s early decades has been replaced by cynicism.
But though the new historians had an outsize impact on the country’s intellectual life, their influence pales when compared to the actual lived experience of Israelis.
Israelis are not changing the names of streets and institutions named for David Ben-Gurion, their first prime minister, nor have they pulled down the few statues of him (most of which depict him doing headstands). In no small measure, that’s because they are still close enough in time to the country’s precarious beginnings and the memory of the Holocaust that made its belated creation necessary. Most reject the idea that Jews have no right to a state or that its creation is a sin for which they must atone. Moreover, they also know that—notwithstanding attempts to recast the story of the conflict as one in which they are primarily to blame—it is the Palestinians who made war inevitable and continue to reject peace.
This is not entirely analogous to Americans’ rethinking their country’s history of slavery and discrimination against African-Americans, or their concerns about contemporary racism and police brutality. But most Israelis don’t reject their founders’ actions as evil because they know that the price of doing so involves the sacrifice of their own rights and security.
Many Americans have been taught a revisionist version of their history that casts it in a dark light. They don’t understand that the struggle of Washington and Jefferson for liberty—and that of some of their flawed and all too human successors—has relevance to the world we live in today. Whether or not you agree with everything about America’s beginnings, the idea that it came into existence in a struggle for liberty inspired generations of Americans throughout its history to successfully fight for that noble objective.
Even if some were deeply wrong about slavery, their battle for freedom and that of all those associated in one way or another with the founding of the American republic, which remains the last and best hope of humankind, places them very much on the right side of history. The same cannot be said for those who wish to tear down their statues.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.