Henry Ford, the founder of modern manufacturing processes, was a great hater and a classic anti-Semite. He posed himself as champion of the “plain people,” he described history as “bunk.” In an interview he gave to The Chicago Tribune in 1916 he stated, “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present. The only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.”
I feel that Ford’s attitude towards history was a contributing factor to his virulent anti-Semitism. Judaism and the Jewish people are founded on history and tradition. Moses bade us to remember the days of the past and to study and understand the happenings of generations gone by. Ignorance of the past creates the boors and ignoramuses of the present. A nation that has no recollection of its past, no heroes to treasure, and that feels that history is “bunk” is doomed to eventual failure as a society.
Perhaps even worse for a people than having no history is having a falsified version of it. The rewriting of history to conform to current political correctness and/or ideological purity is a widespread occurrence amongst scholars. One need only look at the textbooks of the Palestinian schools to realize the clear and present danger of falsifying history to meet current political goals. History as “bunk” is foolish enough. But history as lies is absolutely dangerous.
History in the Jewish world was not viewed as a science or a discipline until the 19th century. There had been historical works written throughout Jewish life, but they were almost ancillary to the main purpose of those works, which was to transmit the traditions of Torah. They were not history books in the modern sense of scholarship, but were recordings of oral traditions passed down through the ages. Through intensive Torah study and strict observance of customs, coupled with the sanctity of oral traditions of the past, Jews had an acute idea of their past and of the historical events that shaped their existence. However, in the 19th century, Heinrich Graetz, a former student of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, left Jewish observance, became “enlightened,” and wrote a magisterial multi-volume of Jewish history in a scientific fashion. Graetz’s work became the basis for all subsequent Jewish historiography. Graetz was meticulous in his research and facts. However, his overwhelming antipathy towards Orthodox Judaism, especially the Hasidic movement, colored much of his work. Thus, an otherwise accurate work of history became a polemic that gave a false picture of Jewish life, much more dangerous than “bunk.”
As a reaction to Graetz and his followers, the religious Jewish world began to construct its own works of history. These tended to be biographical in format and hagiographic in content. History was again reshaped to fit current mores. The books tended to be a collection of stories that allowed for no unpleasant details or human deviations from exemplary pious behavior. Great disputes within the religious Jewish world were ignored or whitewashed. The “enlightened” ones, meanwhile, continued to rewrite Jewish history to fit their conceptions of correct modern liberal democratic values.
Even the history of secular Zionism has been rewritten in a fashion that removes all of the former Zionist heroes from their lofty pedestals. Thus, today children in the Israeli school system have two totally different and usually opposite versions of the past. It is difficult to see how unity of national purpose can be fostered under such conditions.
History is not “bunk.” It should also not be inaccurate, misleading, and overly selective in viewpoint and presentation.