Amanda Read Sheik – Unconventional

In the wake of the October 7th Hamas terror attacks on Israel, social media commentary was rife with odd ideas about the existence of Israel and the Jewish people in their home country. It occurred to me how easily such misinformation can be absorbed and regurgitated, whether there is an intentional agenda behind it or not: lazy, hasty abbreviation.

While teaching history in school, I noticed whenever I mentioned something that students happened to be familiar with, they usually were aware of it because they “saw it in a movie,” or remembered somebody referencing it in a conversation. This highlights the modes of learning that perhaps come most naturally to human beings: narrative and dialogue. Sometimes this results in the most catchy and abbreviated version of the history (yes, even coming directly from a trained teacher) being what everyone remembers and spreads on the internet, so we need to be careful how we simplify a topic.

I may teach my kindergartner that the world’s ages are divided into Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, Revolution, and Modern time periods, though these are not exactly settled or completely accurate classifications in academic debate. But that sort of abbreviation at young ages is fairly harmless and only a stepping stone for understanding the complete picture. Other abbreviations, however, can be problematic, or even pernicious.

For example, in the 1920s some textbook authors spread the notion that it was rare to believe the earth was round until Christopher Columbus proved it to everybody through his exploratory voyages. This vast exaggeration of 15th century debate about the shape of the earth apparently originated with the short-story writer Washington Irving a hundred years prior, and was simply so poetic a fiction that it is recited to this day. In reality, Columbus proved nothing about the shape of the earth, and it wasn’t relevant to his Spanish crown-sponsored ventures.

Another hasty abbreviation is the story that the “liberal” Republican Party of Lincoln and the “conservative” Democratic Party of KKK infamy switched platforms in the 1960s, effectively making the Democratic Party the party of progress and the Republican Party the party of backwardness and racism. This grotesque caricaturing of both parties makes little sense in retrospect. The civil rights sections of both party platforms in 1960 actually echo quite similar sentiments (Democrats citing Thomas Jefferson, Republicans citing Abraham Lincoln). Republicans praised the civil rights accomplishments of the Eisenhower administration, and Democrats praised the civil rights accomplishments of the Truman administration. “Democrat-flipped-Republican” Southern states elected Republican and Democratic presidents alike depending on the candidate well into the 1990s. Most Southern Democratic seats that supposedly turned Republican to protest the 1964 Civil Rights Act didn’t turn Republican until about 25 years later. In the deep red state of Alabama, the state legislature gained a Republican majority in 2010 – the first time that happened since Reconstruction in the 1870s.

As for Israel, there is a trendy belief that the Jews lived in their Promised Land back in Bible times, and then disappeared until 1948 when the new State of Israel was established and Holocaust survivors emigrated there. A conservation project to reintroduce an extinct native species, apparently. Thus, casual media consumers may presume that anyone arguing on behalf of Israel’s right to exist and defend herself has some romanticized idea based solely on ancient history rather than the reality of Jewish presence in the land for millennia beyond that. Browsing the academic peer-reviewed Encyclopedia Britannica – a multimedia resource often assigned to students – readers find Palestinian Arabs to have been present in the region for 200 years, while Israeli Jews are discussed predominantly in the context of immigration waves between the late 1800s and 1948. That’s not necessarily inaccurate information in and of itself, but the emphasis avoids giving attention to the full picture.

This is why when the subject matter arises in current events, even educated people are missing historical context and are predisposed to choose the loudest side in the media debate over Israel vs. Hamas, no matter how horrifying the implications. Let’s be aware of how we explain history to following generations!

 

Amanda Read Sheik Unconventional Studio

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  • Amanda Read Sheik

    View all posts Unconventional Amanda Read Sheik is a writer, historian, artist, and educator who intends to help people think more carefully about their beliefs and choices.
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