On Sunday, Israeli President Shimon Peres offered his hopeful vision of a future unfettered by the past. He cited the dominance of multi-national corporations, the power of social networks, and youth uprisings across the globe (among other things) as signs of a profound historical shift in the way that humans communicate with and connect to each other. These observations are not new, as anyone who has read any news at all over the past year knows well enough. Bloggers, journalists, politicians, techies, and talking heads have discussed the relationship between social media and the past years’ uprisings with ritual devotion. Peres’ recitation of a few familiar sentiments underscores how little our leaders have to contribute to a discussion of where we are, how we have gotten here, or where we are going. They support his contention that “innovators, not politicians, wield the most influence.” Indeed, it is hard to come away from Peres’ words without a sense of that our leaders are less equipped than ever to guide us through the turbulent times that almost everyone now foresees. Peres, like so many politicians, offers many nice sentiments and symbols, but little in the way of practical solutions. He speaks of the obsolescence of statesmen and generals, the hopelessness of directing the future, and the irrelevance of the past. Peres places particular emphasis on this last point, remarking that “in my nearly nine decades of life, I cannot recall a time in which the past was so irrelevant to policymaking.”
It would be strange to hear such indifference to the past from the leader of any nation, let alone from the president of the nation that has become home to the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. The Jews’ experience of the 20th century, perhaps more than that of any other group of people, has had a profound impact on our present. The legacy of the Holocaust has transformed the world and redefined humanity’s image of itself. The old adage that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” is almost always used with reference to the Holocaust. In fact, the sentiment is so familiar that it has become cliché, even if it still induces fear. The awareness that a modern, ostensibly democratic state could coerce and persuade its public to support one of the most monstrous regimes in history has redefined political and social consciousness in our time. It is why Holocaust denial carries uniquely harsh punishments in many European countries, and why Holocaust education continues to be taught earlier in school. However, the occasionally overzealous emphasis on the Holocaust speaks to a larger truth: that we disregard history at our peril. So what does it mean for the president of the state that has become the home of Jewish survivors to speak with such indifference to the past?
Peres’ demand that we refrain from “looking back” is meant to embolden us to turn our full attention toward generating “the courage needed to face tomorrow and build an unprecedented new world.” After all, he says, “the future is already here; there is no point in looking back.” Perhaps in the context of his calls for peace in the Middle East, we might see Peres’ words in a hopeful light: an attempt to bury the hatchet and abandon old rivalries which have only wrought destruction, division, and hatred in the war-torn region. However, it is difficult to imagine a resolution to the Israeli predicament that fails to heed to the unique historical experience of the various nations in the region. Does anyone expect that a mutually beneficial peace will be drawn out of thin air?
Seemingly optimistic and courageous in tone, Peres’ “never look back” attitude masks a despair of facing the future, of subjecting events to rational control, of taking hold of our own destinies. Few would deny Peres’ assertion that we are in desperate need of new and innovative ideas. However, a commitment to the creation of a new paradigm must be accompanied by a reverence for historical experience. Indeed, at such periods of transformation the past becomes more important than ever. It serves as the benchmark by which we judge the success or failure of our efforts. History reveals recognizable patterns of rise and fall, flux and stasis, tension and release, providing ‘roadmaps’ (if you like) or ‘lessons’ (if you like) of our historical progress. Perhaps most importantly, history reminds us of our own fallibility and hubris—a hubris reflected in those who disregard the people and events that have shaped our world. Such willful ignorance of the past, seemingly optimistic in its renunciation of old ways of thinking, is the faith of those who have given up the effort to make sense of the present. Despite the immense challenges we face, there is reason to hope, but only if we avail ourselves of a knowledge of the past. Without an awareness of how we have arrived at the present impasse, we will continue to claw the air at attractive but empty solutions.