The Importance of Context in History

It’s easy to view current events in a vacuum – relating them to history and placing them in context is difficult work that takes more than just watching the news, and for people who are not historians-in-training, or interested in the subject, doing so requires a certain amount of effort and curiosity that is often (in my experience) lacking.  Examining things in context, however, is essential to obtaining a deeper and more meaningful understanding of them, especially in the area of history and politics that the Arab-Israeli conflict is framed within.  Looking solely at current events is incredibly myopic and cannot possibly allow anyone to see the numerous levels of such a complicated and comprehensive subject adequately.

This area of the world is rife with conflict, and it’s been happening for thousands of years.  It is the epicenter of three of the world’s major religions, and Christianity, Judaism and Islam all collide over shared interest in the region – especially in the ‘Holy Land’.  With so much at stake, it is no surprise that tensions in the area are high, but understanding why is the key to framing the discussion of those conflicts properly.  In order to do that, it becomes mandatory to study history and to frame the region I its proper, historical context.

Regardless of whether the biblical/religious-historical context of the Land of Israel has a basis in truth or historical certainty, it is clear that the region was once inhabited by those who called themselves Jews.  They suffered under various conquests by Babylon, by the Romans and were finally scattered throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, known as the diaspora.  Between those conquests and dispersions, Christianity was founded in Jerusalem, adding a second layer.  While Christians and Jews were both persecuted under Roman rule, Christianity ultimately became the state religion of the Roman Empire, and Jews and Pagans became out of favor.  Roughly five hundred years later, Islam originated in Saudi Arabia, and quickly spread throughout the Middle East.    Tensions flared between the 9th and 13th centuries under the Crusades – the European Christians’ attempt to reclaim the Holy Land.[1]Under the Ottoman Empire, Christians and Jews were protected, although taxed as dhimmis – those who paid the jizya tax and submitted to Muslim rule in exchange for protection and a sense of autonomy for following their own religious beliefs and ideologies.[2]  In the 19th century, however, tensions between Christians and Muslims began to deteriorate again as primarily Christian Europeans began influencing through trade affairs in Ottoman controlled territory.[3]

All of these nuances would be missed if the region was only examined from a current, contemporary viewpoint, and placing the struggles currently in effect would be impossible without proper historical context and interpretation.  Although examining the history is more difficult and requires more work, the benefits are astronomical, and provide layers of depth that can’t even be seen from the surface.

[1] Charles D Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Ninth Edition, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017): 8.

[2] Charles Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 12.

[3] Charles Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 13.

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