Studying Jewish history is more important than ever in an age when strong cultural identity is looked upon with growing distrust, Jewish scholar David Myers said in his opening remarks at Northeastern’s seventh annual Morton E. Ruderman Memorial Lecture.
“Identity has taken on a negative connotation in modern political discourse,” Myers told a packed audience in the Raytheon Amphitheater earlier this week. “Yet group memory provides positive meaning that connects the past with the present. In our current state of turmoil, it’s necessary to remember the importance of a long-term perspective.”
The lecture honors the memory of Morton E. Ruderman, who graduated in 1959 with an engineering degree and died in 2011 at the age of 75 after establishing the trustee Ruderman Chair in Jewish Studies.
Myers said that he believes there is a serious threat to the institutions and foundation of democracy around the world, whether it’s in Turkey, Poland, Britain, or the United States.
“We are seeing attacks on the free press and the judiciary; on political opponents and standards of veracity,” said Myers, a history professor at UCLA and CEO of the Center for Jewish History in New York City. “So the question is: What does Jewish history have to teach us about this? My contention is that based on their experiences in the 20th century,the Jewish people are canaries in the coal mine. Their experience presents us with clear warning signals.”
As in his book The Stakes of History, Myers described three primary goals of Jewish history and treated the audience to a lively tour through the pivotal Jewish historians that helped establish and expand the field.
“Jewish historians believe it’s their task to console readers—to let them know that there is an unbroken chain of culture and memory.”
The first goal is liberation—to free Jewish history from distortion and dangerous myths. Myers said this remains as important today as it was when the founding father of Jewish studies, Leopols Zunz, published his seminal work in 1818.
Two hundred years later, in February 2018, the Polish parliament passed a law that made it a criminal act—punishable with three years in prison—to say that the Polish state bore any responsibility for Nazi crimes. Polish authorities stripped Princeton University professor Jan Gross of his Order of Merit medal, which the country had awarded him in 2002 for his book Neighbors, which describes in graphic detail the slaughter of 1,600 Jews by Polish villagers.
This is just the most recent attempt at distorting Jewish history, he said.
Myers’ second goal is consolation. “Jewish historians believe it’s their task to console readers—to let them know that there is an unbroken chain of culture and memory, and that they are neither the first nor will they be the last to have these experiences.”
Witnessing is Myers’ third goal. As an example, he told the story of Elias Teherikower, who, in 1926, shot and killed a man in Paris who he held responsible for the brutal pogrom in Ukraine in 1919 that took the lives of many of his family members.
“During his trial the following year, he admitted his guilt,” said Myers. “And for his defense, he set forth the extent of the brutality, murder, and devastation. He was acquitted.”
“History provides the fuel for truth and reconciliation commissions. Without coming to terms with the past, there is little hope for reconciliation.”
But history isn’t solely a backward-looking endeavor, according to Myers. It’s also a tool for understanding our times and predicting the future. There is a problem-solving element to the discipline, he said, noting history is a key part of reconciliation efforts in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and even the Middle East.
“We have to understand history as told by the other,” he said. “History provides the fuel for truth and reconciliation commissions. Without coming to terms with the past, there is little hope for reconciliation.”
Myers concluded with the dying words of a Latvian historian, who was put to death by the Nazis in 1941. “Whenever I begin to be overwhelmed by doubt, I remember the words of Simon Dubnow. While he was being led to his execution by Nazi troops, he shouted out ‘Jews, write and record!’”