The lessons of history

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 21 Nov 2023

The Majdal Hospital was bombed as was the Al-Joura village, which stands on the site of Ashkelon. Israelis bombed food distribution centres in Dar Balah and Khan Younis.


These events were not recorded last week, but the last century, in 1948, following the notorious Nakba (Catastrophe), or the mass displacement and dispossession of the people of Palestine.

It is the duty of the historian to keep the past alive, but it is up to us to learn from it. So far, man has proved incapable of learning the lessons of history.

How can we be masters of the future without reflecting on the ashes of the past? Despite the repulsion at the sight of bloodied hands, we seem determined to keep them bloody.

Philosophers show little faith in the ability of man to learn from history. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) said: “Peoples and governments have never learned anything from history or acted on principle deduced from it.” True words indeed, as is manifested by the present conditions in Gaza.

A myriad sources inform us regularly of today’s atrocities perpetrated by madmen, consumed by hate. We have no need to repeat them here.

Traumatised by the man-made horror in Gaza, we shall endeavour to shed light on the past; to accede that history is doomed to repeat itself, because man remains a slave to his primal passions of hate and violence.

Is there any doubt that genocide is being practised by the government of Israel?

“Genocide” is defined as “the deliberate and systematic termination of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, with the aim of destroying it.” The word “genocide” did not exist prior to 1944, coined by a Polish/Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) to describe Nazi policies of systematic murder of Jews during the Holocaust. It is a combination of the Greek genos, meaning “race” and the Latin cide, meaning “killing”.

Someone should have come up with such a description sooner as genocide has existed throughout history. The fact that it became prevalent in the 20th century till now is baffling.

More democracies were established in the 20th century than at any other time. This is the century of great technological advances, yet it is also the century that waged two world wars in which more people were killed in such a short period.

One would have thought that man’s stellar achievements of the 20th century would have also honed his finer features, instead it has heightened his desire to kill by giving us weapons of mass destruction. The quality of our lives improved, the quality of our souls did not.

Genocide spread following the colonisation that occurred by the Europeans, Japanese and others during the 18th and 19th centuries. They disrupted the stability of native populations, of whole countries and whole continents, (Australia, America, and Africa). They seized their lands, possessions, natural resources because they felt superior and more worthy. It is a concept of distinction between “us” and “them” that triggers a process of dehumanisation, backed by a solid belief that they are not “fully human”. Palestinians are called “animals” by Israelis. In Rwanda, Hutus called Tutsis “cockroaches”.

By denying their humanity, they justify their elimination.

Genocidal acts against Armenians, Cambodians, Soviets, Chinese, are all but forgotten except for the holocaust of the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Images of the rape of Nanking, Cambodian killing fields, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, Indonesian slaughter of East Timor, Milosovich’s ethnic cleansing of Bosnia/Herzegovina, Darfur in the Sudan, have faded. All we remember are Hitler’s camps.

The focus, dedication and tireless efforts of Jewish groups determined to allow the world to “Never Forget” are to be commended. The irony is that very same powers that cried “Never Again” and proceeded to establish a United Nations body to oversee world peace and justice are the very same people perpetrating injustice in Palestine.

It is clear now that “Never Again” actually meant “Never Jews Again”, but does not apply to the rest of mankind.

In 1946 a law was passed declaring genocide to be “a crime under international law”. The UN rushed to update its articles on the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, proclaiming that “the whole UN Systems must attack the roots of violence and genocide, hatred, intolerance, racism and tyranny,” and the dehumanising public discourse, “that denies whole groups of people their dignity and their right.” How helpless is the UN now?

That such atrocities continue in a world that prides itself with noble notions of love, peace, equality and justice for all, defies comprehension.

Lest we forget, the main founders of the UN are themselves former colonialists, now in control of the Security Council, the right arm of the UN. Such nations are well versed in the methods of illegal settlements of other nations’ lands. They are well aware the establishment of a mainly European state right smack in the heart of Arab lands was in clear terms, a colonial project. Why would they not support it blindly? Old habits die hard.

How many more people have to die before the colonial powers wake up to the fact that they are complicit in the practice of genocide. Those who do not condemn the sins man commits against his fellow man should themselves be condemned as less than human.


Is there any romance left, any tenderness, chivalry, charity or are these merely traits of a dead past!


“Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power.”

 Charles A Beard (1874-1948)

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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