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Whose History?

The diagnosis is correct. The prescription is troubling. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wise to be concerned about the weakening Jewish identity of many Israelis, an issue for Jews everywhere but especially poignant in what is supposed to be the national homeland. The powerful collective identity forged during the early years of Israel’s modern existence has given way to a splintered sense of self, particularly among the young.

But his proposed national heritage project, aimed at preserving Jewish artifacts and teaching schoolchildren about Jewish and Zionist history, is a flawed response. Estimated to cost the equivalent of $100 million, the project has been duly criticized for including sites in the disputed cities of Bethlehem and Hebron. There’s a deeper concern, however.

The thrust of the project appears to be in telling only one narrative, the Jewish one, as if no other kinds of people ever lived on the land. A quick trip to any archaeological site will counter that notion.

The understandable desire to tell our history is not incompatible with recounting the history of others. America struggles with this continually. Consider the “sacred space” of Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, where the Declaration of Independence was penned and the Constitution signed and where the Liberty Bell once rang. Just steps away from the Bell is the site of the first President’s House, precursor to the current White House, a small, stately building that had an oval window now echoed in the famous Oval Office.

George Washington lived there. So did nine of his slaves. Talk about competing narratives!

So the National Park Service and the city are working on an interpretive plan that will appropriately commemorate the roots of the presidency while weaving in the stories of Washington’s slaves. This is a complicated task, which is why the project has dragged on for years and many believe won’t be finished — or finished well — by the deadline set for July 4 of this year.

But the struggle is the right one, and it’s been repeated across the U.S as we seek to understand and acknowledge the sorrier episodes of our past. Doing so doesn’t diminish the power of the American narrative. By similarly including sites of importance in Islamic, Christian and Arab history, Israel’s heritage program can confidently put its stake in the ground without airbrushing away the stories of others.

Netanyahu is fond of publicly pointing to artifacts that establish an ancient Jewish tie to the land. That should make him even more sensitive to the fact that Israeli Arabs and Palestinians can do the same. Just because they may deny the Jewish past doesn’t mean we need to repeat that bad example. There are better examples to follow.


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