You know, I have less of an unqualified hatred for the “dates back millennia” line than I used to. I’m thinking this as I see my feed fill up with friends and colleagues complaining about Obama’s use of it in his speech to talk about the Middle East. To some extent, historians overreact to its use by politicians for two separate reasons.
The first is that of course it’s factually wrong and not at all innocently so. Which is to say that this line of explanation, whether offered as a quick throw-away or as a substantive claim, looks away from the history of the 20th Century and the very decisive role played by European colonialism and post-WWII American intervention in structuring many supposedly “ancient hatreds”. In the case of Israel-Palestine, that is particularly convenient for the United States (and for Zionists) because the direct and immediate causal relevance of the precise way in which the state of Israel came into being and the ways in which the current states of the Middle East were brought into the geopolitics of the Cold War are the major and direct causal underpinnings of contemporary conflicts. It runs from mature responsibility and from genuine analytic understanding all at once.
The second reason for the reaction is Invoking “ancient hatreds” not only is a misdirection of attention, it also naturalizes conflicts in the bodies and minds of the combatants. It’s a kind of shrug: what can one do? but it also turns more to psychology than history as the toolset for thinking through current politics, which is at best futile and at worst creepy.
So why do I qualify my dislike? First I think among historians we all recognize that there’s a strong turn to the modern and contemporary among our students and our publics, a presentism that most of us criticize. But I think in moments like this, we contribute some to that presentism. We should leave a door open for times before the 20th Century to matter as causal progenitors of our own times and problems. Sure, that argument has to be made carefully (shouldn’t all historical arguments be thus?) but I actually think all of the past is weighing on the present, sometimes quite substantially so. “Ancient hatreds” isn’t quite the right way to put it, but there are aspects of conflict in the Middle East which do genuinely derive structure or energy from both the Ottoman period (early and late) and from times before that.
It’s also that I think we end up in getting angry at politicians who are trying to kick over the traces of their own government’s recent historical culpability but in so doing forget that there are many other actors who also believe and are motivated by the supposed antiquity of their actions. On some level, if they do think so, we ought to at least listen carefully and not quickly school-marm them about why the experts hold that they’re wrong. Authenticity is a strange twilight realm. If people believe that they are upholding something ancient, that has a way of becoming true enough in some sense even if they’re wrong about the history between them and that past moment and wrong about what the ancient history really was. It might be easier simply to focus on the culpability of some states and actors for the current situation and leave aside compulsively correcting their history in some cases.
But finally, as long as we’re talking culpability, the one problem with always, invariably locating conflict and hatred as having their most relevant origins in Western colonialism and in the decisions made during post-WWII decolonization is that we risk having our own version of a distraction from uncomfortable truth. As I noted, maybe sometimes there really is something older at play. There’s a really great book that the historian Paul Nugent wrote about the Ghana-Togo borderlands in West Africa that makes the argument that counter to the common trope that the Berlin Conference simply arbitrarily created random and incoherent borders–that the border there was both reflective of older 19th Century histories and that the communities in the borderlands did much to fashion those boundaries. More uncomfortably, maybe sometimes there’s something far more recent and contingent at play–maybe sometimes in current global conflicts even our preferred causal stage is an “ancient conflict” of little real empirical relevance to combatants, who are instead being put into motion by the political and cultural histories of the last twenty years or even the last ten.