Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

The Problem of “Nowism” (2): Addressing the Past

Last week, I argued that the emphasis on “Now” undermines our ability to think about, and plan for, the future. However, the other direction is true as well: not considering the past is a recipe for over-pessimism, exaggerated gloom, and even collective paralysis regarding our present – from a national perspective (Israel) and the international one as well (the world at large).

To be sure, Israel is presently going through very trying times with its long war in Gaza and serious threats coming from other directions. Voices are even being heard in Israel regarding the “existential threat” to the state’s continuation. As an antidote to such gloom and doom, some historical “reminders” are in order.

In 1948 the fledgling state had to deal with the invasion of five neighboring countries, with vastly larger number of combatants and resources. That was a true existential threat before Israel could even find its first national footing. And yet it won the war. Then 19 years later, Israelis had to face what was considered at the time to be another existential threat coming from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Veterans from May 1967 can provide evidence of the deep dread that the country felt in what was called “the waiting period” (Ha’hamtanah) – waiting for the shoe to drop. And that was followed a few years later by an even more palpable threat with the Israeli Army under tremendous pressure to push back the devastating surprise attack on Yom Kippur 1973, that left thousands of IDF soldiers dead.

One could go on (and unfortunately on: Lebanon War, two Intifadas with the second worse than the first, etc.). And that’s not counting really terrible domestic disasters: hyper-inflation and the bank collapse in the early 1980s; PM Rabin’s assassination in light of virulent, internal politics in the mid-90s.

Social science research has shown that countries undergoing periodic “stress tests” tend to emerge stronger and less vulnerable to ensuing, major challenges. This is not different from individual people as well. Overcoming difficulties tends to “steel” the person – and country – to future trials and tribulations. Of course, one doesn’t really need contemporary research to understand that. It’s enough to see the Jewish People’s unquestionable success, individually and as a group – despite the unprecedented, ongoing vicissitudes that they had to undergo for thousands of years.

The ”problem,” therefore, is not contemporary challenges but rather the lack of historical perspective. The study of history – in most of the West, not just in Israel – has been neglected for too long, with the “justification” that it doesn’t provide any basis for future professional work. However, education is not merely a matter of getting ready for one’s future vocation; it’s no less important to provide the person with the means to deal psychologically with challenges, individually as well as part of a nation.
And indeed, if one looks at historical trends – on the micro and macro levels – the present is a lot better than the past. Among others, Steven Pinker has written an impressive tome laden with irrefutable facts (, showing how the long-term trend of humanity is upwards, whether in infant mortality, lifespan, social violence, and even (hold on!) war deaths per capita!!

As for Israel, a short social or economic history of the “Start-Up Nation” would put to rest anyone lamenting the present or future of the state’s sturdiness (the Hebrew is “khosen” – a stronger term). But how many younger Israelis even know that the country once had 400% inflation? Or that the term “hamtanah” put the fear of God (and Nasser) in every Israeli?

None of this is to say that the present situation isn’t worrisome; it’s even more than a cause for simple “worry.” Nevertheless, the country’s strengths are many – not just economically but national-psychologically too, given that most Israelis understand fully well why they are living in the Jewish State and what has to be done to preserve it, despite the tough challenges it faces.

For anyone who disagrees or doubts that these can be overcome, pick up a history book (or Wikipedia entry) on the country’s last 75 years. To paraphrase a variant of philosopher George Santayana’s famous epigram: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to live in fear of the present.”

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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