A few years ago, Israeli academic Amnon Rubinstein wrote ‘The Sea above us,’ a fictional tale in which Tel Aviv, Israel’s first Hebrew metropolis, lies under water.
In an interview with Ari Shavit, the author explained the idea behind his novel, describing his deep ‘existential anxiety that our country is hanging by a thread, that one day it may simply cease to be.
I haven’t read the book, but I admire Rubenstein and share his anxiety about the future. And his scenario raises the question as to whether we can imagine a future period in which – whether due to economic brain drain, civil war or a mushroom cloud above the Kirya – Israeli society and the state as we know it simply collapses.
Such macabre thoughts are often tucked away deep within the folds of our multi-faceted Zionist consciousness.
But they’re particularly relevant on Tisha Be’Av, the day marking a series of tragedies, including the loss of sovereignty from a land to which we have only recently returned.
When I was younger, I learned the ‘reasons’ behind our exile – the cardinal sins of murder, adultery and idolatry; the baseless hatred that brought the Romans to Jerusalem’s gates. Hindsight being twenty-twenty and all that, I often look back at the period, armed with narrative fallacies which ‘explain’ why it all went wrong, and wonder whether the majority of people at the time realized that they were heading towards an abyss, and why they didn’t do more to prevent it.
But what if it’s not that simple, if the seeds of collapse aren’t as apparent before the event as they are after?
What if predicting collapse isn’t as easy as historians retroactively make out?
And what might that mean for us today?
In an article entitled Complexity and Collapse, Empires on the Edge of Chaos, historian Niall Ferguson suggests an innovative way of understanding why once successful empires ultimately collapse. Ferguson argues that empires are complex adaptive systems, made up of a huge number of interacting components which constantly operate on ‘the edge of chaos’, somewhere between order and disorder.
While such systems appear to function quite stably for some time, Ferguson explains that they resemble a termite hill more than an Egyptian pyramid and a single grain of sand can act as an ‘amplifier affect’ that triggers the collapse of the whole pile.
According to Ferguson it is this that explains the surprisingly fast decline of empires throughout the ages – anything from the Roman to the British, the Romanov to the Soviet.
In other words, despite seemingly being stable for centuries, these carefully balanced systems were always on the edge of chaos, and were tipped by a small.trigger, making them ‘go critical’ and setting off a ‘phase transition’ from a benign equilibrium to a crisis.
Countless debates surround almost every aspect of Israel and its character.
But one thing is undeniable. It’s a complex system.
And so far we’ve successfully been able to adapt. We’ve survived wars and spawned start ups. We absorbed immigrants and advanced scientific discoveries. The country continues to seemingly prosper despite the bloated budget, the unworkable political system, the worrying demographic trends (both domestically and vis-à-vis the Palestinians), and the rocket threats from the North, South and East.
But when all is said and done, maybe we’re simply a termite hill, justified in feeling, as David Grossman eloquently puts it, an inner feeling of absolute fragility, like we are at the edge of an abyss or like a mountain climber fighting fatigue, in the words of Nobel Prize winner Yisrael Aumann.
Maybe our society is like a juggler on a tight rope trying to keep several balls in the air simultaneously.
If a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a hurricane in Texas, if the assassination of an Archduke can start a process that toppled three empires spanning hundreds of years, then what might any of our countless potential ‘amplifier affects’ do to us?
How long can we expect to continue walking the tightrope of existence without dropping one, or all of the balls?
And as Tisha Be’Av approaches, it’s worth wondering how strong the thread holding us here actually is.