JERUSALEM — Those words, “We are who we are because we remember,” uttered by our Israeli guide Azriel as we headed to Nazareth from Jerusalem, may be the closest to encapsulating my impression of Jewish identity. Everything — from the observance of the Shabbat to the celebration of the Passover — seems to be all about remembering the past.
Perhaps we can appreciate the importance of zakhor, a Hebrew term that calls for an active labor of commemoration, if we bear in mind that for much of the Jewish people’s history, their nation existed only in memory. And because this nation was a theocracy, it was inexorably linked with their religion and their way of life.
The first part of this history is familiar to most of us through the Old Testament. Jerusalem’s significance, for instance, lies in the fact that many important events in the Hebrew Bible are believed to have transpired there: from Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac to the rise of King David, the building of Solomon’s temple, and its restoration following the Babylonian captivity.
It was also the site of much tragedy and unspeakable violence. The historian Josephus recalls that during the Roman siege of 70 CE, the famine was so severe that one woman even took to eating her own baby. The glory of their temples past, moreover, is marred by the memory of destruction and sacrilege: conquerors looting their gold, trespassing the “Holy of Holies,” and forbidding them to draw near the place closest to their heart.
Indeed, for almost two millennia, the Jews were dispersed throughout the world—the original Diaspora. Blamed by many for the death of Jesus Christ, they would be the subject of conspiracy theories, blood libels, and deadly inquisitions. The Yad Vashem memorial, located on a forested mountain slope in an otherwise barren city, documents the culmination of this persecution in the Holocaust, calling on everyone to “never forget” humanity’s capacity for evil.
Memory, shared by one nation, is powerful because it can inspire determination and cohesion in times of crisis. From 1948 onward, the resolve with which Israel has defended itself — manifest in the unrelentingly tight security in its airports and its fearsome military — is anchored in the sense that if its people let go of their nation, they face annihilation.
Memory can also maintain ties of friendship and solidarity that could otherwise be lost. Near Tel Aviv, a memorial pays tribute to President Manuel Quezon and the Philippine Commonwealth’s decision to welcome Jewish refugees in the late 1930s. Just as they have not forgotten the nations who turned them away, they also have not forgotten those who helped them in their time of need.
But collective memory can also cause suffering, as when it privileges the narratives of some, or when it deprives other peoples’ memories of their own fulfillment. “Palestine is ours, too,” laments Muhammed, a student I met in Bethlehem, narrating his family’s story of displacement. Arbitrating between two memories, both of which are legitimate, remains the greatest challenge in the Holy Land.
Meanwhile, we in the Philippines do not seem to have any collective memory — even of the most significant moments in our history. We see this amnesia in full display today, as we mark another anniversary of Ferdinand Marcos’ imposition of martial law amid the dark clouds of authoritarian rule. How can we so easily forget the price that was paid by our forebears to defend our democracy? How can we so quickly forget the many evils the Herods of our country have done, that we still allow them to rule over us?
Beset by these questions in the Old City, where the streets have seen much blood throughout centuries, one’s mind can wander from a cynicism over the human condition to a hope in God’s sovereignty and justice. Regardless of one’s peregrinations, however, one lesson is clear: Only with a proper sense of history can a nation move from the tragedies of its past and pursue a better future.
“We are who we are because we remember,” our guide told us.
“Alas,” I should have told him, “we are who we are because we forget.”
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