Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Remembering History to Solve Problems

One of the most famous of all aphorisms belongs to the philosopher George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s true as far as it goes. However, in many situations the opposite is true too: remembering the past can help us to repeat it in order to solve today’s problems. Israel’s (and America’s) transportation problems are a case in point.

As a small country with a good portion of its population centered in highly dense Gush Dan, Israelis suffer from massive traffic jams every day to and from work. No less problematic is the fact that such work concentration seriously impedes the development of Israel’s periphery: the Negev and Galilee.

America suffers from an additional problem. It is so large that building and especially maintaining its transportation infrastructure is a very costly affair – and such infrastructure is literally falling apart.

Add to this the major phenomenon of climate change as a result (in good part) of fossil fuels spent on transport in both countries (and elsewhere too, of course), and the issue of getting people to and from work becomes a burning issue (pun intended).

What are Israel and the U.S. planning on doing? In the U.S., President Biden is trying to get approval to spend trillions of dollars on infrastructure; in Israel, the Ministry of Transport continues to enlarge the road system at great cost, along with some public transport expansion as well.

Everyone seems to agree that transportation outlays are critical. But to a large extent this is misleading – a function of a mindset stuck in the recent past. I write “recent” past, because it is precisely here that a lack of longer historical memory prevents policymakers from thinking “out-of-the-contemporary-box.”

For almost all human history until the Industrial Revolution, laborers, tradespeople, and merchants of all types worked at home – or very close by. Farmers tilled their own (or others’ land) right outside the home; artisans either worked at home or within short walking distance; merchants very rarely left for far parts; and so on. It was only in the 19th century with the advent of industrialization that work started to be undertaken away from the home, in factories and later office buildings. Almost all Zionists in Palestine and in early Israel also worked close to home until industrialization overwhelmed its former agricultural economy and put Israelis on the path to traffic jams.

Am I suggesting a return to the era of farming and small crafts? Of course not! Actually, the reverse: to employ the latest “post-industrial” technologies to enable workers to return to economic and social patterns of yesteryear. In short, to use contemporary communication technologies (instead of transportation) to enable most workers to stay at home and be as (perhaps more) efficient and productive as they were traveling to work.

This is not anything “original.” Indeed, the past year and a half of Corona work-from-home has shown how this is possible. Many, perhaps most, workers enjoyed the experience so much that that many (perhaps most) are reluctant to return to the “office.” The main stay-at-home problem that arose was having children under foot – but that was a specific Corona issue as they couldn’t go off to school. Once the kids are in school, the home environment offers huge advantages to the workers and employers alike – plus society at large:

1) No wasted time traveling to work – not to mention the bad mood and frazzled nerves arriving at work (and later back home) after an hour or so on the road.

2) Huge organizational savings in office space rental, heating and A/C, plus other utility expenses – even after purchasing home equipment (computer, internet etc.) and covering some house utility costs for each employee.

3) Women (most are still the main child caretakers) wouldn’t have to give up part of their career trajectory to bring up the children. This is advantageous not only to these mothers (and some fathers) but to their employers as well.

4) The nuclear family becomes strengthened, what with both parents at home all the time and children under parental supervision – instead of nannies, au-pairs, babysitters, or even worse: bringing themselves up with parents coming home late from work.

5) Huge savings in infrastructure expenses for the country, with lower transportation investment costs.

To be sure, such a “return home” won’t occur overnight. First, corporate managers have to get used to the idea that they can “manage” the workforce from afar, especially as most deal with information that can be tracked almost instantaneously. Second, everyone has to get used to “flextime” – working when necessary (sometimes in the evening if dealing across time zones), but also with far greater flexibility for the worker who can mostly adjust work to life, instead of life to work.

Third, physical “in-place” workers are still needed, although these too will slowly become obsolete as the “compunication” revolution continues apace. For instance, online shopping continues to grow, and workerless stores are now in their experimental stage but clearly doable. Drones will then distribute the goods, instead of gas-guzzling delivery vans. Fourth, policymakers don’t seem to be taking into account the newest “communication” technologies that will probably revolutionize society (once again): virtual reality, that will provide the exact experience of “being there” (office, client’s home, or wherever) without actually being there.

At this point, you might be wondering whether all this “virtuality” and lack of physical “reality” isn’t bad for us. My answer (for far more detail, see my forthcoming book below in About The Author): virtuality has been an integral part of human existence since time immemorial. The arts, religion, physics, economics, communication, government, etc. etc., have been quite virtual (increasingly so over the ages), and we’ve adjusted just fine to that. Indeed, if anything characterizes Jewish life, it is Luftgeschäft – making a living and a life with non-physical things (i.e., intellectual ideas, concepts, professions, and the like).

In sum, history is not just for “then.” It can be very relevant for “now and the future” too, if we know to look at the right period and learn the appropriate lessons. Indeed, isn’t that what the quintessentially Jewish concept “Zakhor” is all about?

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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