The need to forget

Yehuda Elkana’s reflections could find resonance in India’s troubling present One of my closest friends, the Israeli educationist and philosopher, Yehuda Elkana (in picture), passed away in September 2012, bringing to a close a peripatetic life lived on different continents. Had cancer not taken him away, Elkana would have continued to enliven the intellectual scene in Europe, speaking out against prejudice, racial targeting, religious bigotry and hate in ways only someone who had experienced them in all their extreme forms possibly could. It is too late for an obituary of a man who led such a varied life, some of it in Auschwitz, to which he had been transported with his family from Hungary towards the end of the Second World War. Suffice it to say that, against all odds, in the ten years he served as its president and rector, Elkana transformed the Central European University, Budapest, founded on a large grant from George Soros, making it count amongst Europe’s finest and most fiercely independent centres of learning. Pernicious nationalism Elkana needs to be remembered in our country in the troubling times we are passing through, when a pernicious nationalism rooted in a ‘Hindu-first’ ideology is on the rise, vitiating the atmosphere by injecting hate through a selectively recollected past, demanding that we recollect the perceived wrongs done to us in the name of religion so long ago. It is at a time like this we should be asking ourselves what Elkana asked of his fellow Israelis in a celebrated piece he wrote in the newspaper Ha’aretz , over thirty years ago. In it, he demanded that they desist from allowing the past — the Holocaust in Israel’s case — to condition their present or determine their future. “History and collective memory are an inseparable part of any culture,” accepted Elkana, “but the past is not and must not be allowed to become the dominant element determining the future of society and the destiny of the people.” He cautioned that “a climate in which an entire people determines its attitude to the present and shapes its future by emphasising the lessons of the past, is fraught with peril for the future of that society”.

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