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Friday, September 19, 2014

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Lessons of the past

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It is that time of the year when I am asked why students of the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto should study history and, more specifically, ancient history. It is a fair question in our society, which is geared to business and the professions. This is even truer for us Jews, who tend to guide our children into the practical professions.

It is an understandable tendency on our part, since we wish our children to do well and be financially successful. However, this does not preclude gaining an appreciation for the past and its role in both our personal and collective lives. Sadly, today’s world has lost its historical perspective, as the events of the last few years are showing us. Some of these events are relatively recent, while others take us further back in time.

The current financial crisis was partly brought about by the ongoing deregulation of the last few decades. It has allowed a few people to become obscenely wealthy at the expense of the vast majority. Many of the rules that were removed were put in place because of the lessons of the Great Depression of the 1930s. As that disaster faded from public consciousness, so did the rules that were put in place to prevent it from happening again. It is a lesson we forgot with dire consequences.

Politically, we have the lessons from the foreign-policy debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever one may think of former prime minister Jean Chrétien, he had the historical foresight to keep us out of the Iraqi quagmire. But because of our treaty obligations, he initially got us involved in Afghanistan, which once again is destabilizing as we extricate our troops from its bloody and war-torn soil.

The problems in Iraq can be traced back to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, when the Turkish Ottoman Empire had the misfortune to be on the losing side. It was carved up by the victors, primarily Britain and France. It was the British who received the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which was known to the ancients as Mesopotamia and to us as Iraq.

When the Hashemite allies of the British were kicked out of Arabia by the victorious Saud clan, the British created the protectorate of Iraq for one of the Hashemites, while carving Transjordan out of the Palestine Mandate for the other. Neither of these states had a cohesive history to bind them together. Consequently, we are now paying the price for their instability.

The case of Afghanistan takes us further back in time to the conquests of Alexander the Great and his victim, the once mighty Persian Empire, neither of whom could maintain control over this desolate, mountainous and fiercely independent patchwork of hostile tribes.

More recently, the British tried to take it over in the 19th century and were defeated, while the Russians tried to do the same in the 1980s with similar disastrous results. As someone once said, those who do not learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes.

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