Going Back to School and Other Worst-case Scenarios

The journal Odyssey recently discussed the worst processes taking place in the world today – cultural restructuring, mass suicide and ominous migration. But voting in my old high school was a trauma like no other.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

Whenever I vote in a Knesset election, I have to deal with an obsessive youthful trauma, because my polling station is located in the school where I attended junior high; this time my polling booth was even in my old classroom. I was a poor student and I hated every day at school. I think that placing the polling booth in a classroom where the voter studied constitutes psychological pressure, and actually such pressure is forbidden by law.

At the entrance to the polling booth this week, I encountered the justice minister, and when I left the president was arriving both are neighbors of mine on Jabotinsky Street in Jerusalem. But it was the terrifying image of the school principal that seemed to accompany me behind the curtain and continued to accompany me on the way home.

At home I opened Odyssey: a Journal about Science, Philosophy and Culture, published by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and edited by Avner Avrahami, which deals with scientific thinking and developments, and a rational understanding of how the world functions. The latest issue is dedicated to the philosophy of the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, but it opens with responses to the question, “What in your opinion is the most significant process taking place in the world today?”

These are the really important things, I thought to myself, but I had trouble calming down: Most of the writers convey a pessimism that is far more terrifying than the trauma of returning to school.

Yaron Ezrahi, a professor emeritus in the political science department of the Hebrew University, writes: “Perhaps the most important process that is taking place in our time is the collapse of political culture and the institutions that maintained liberal democracy’s vision of enlightenment.” The democratic vision is anchored in the assumption that anyone can distinguish between fact and fiction. This assumption has collapsed under the influence, among other things, writes Ezrahi, of the public’s prolonged exposure to the mass media, with the culture of advertising and entertainment that they have made possible.

Almost everywhere in the world people still sanctify the principles of democracy, but the distance between the principle and the political reality is swiftly growing.

Several of the participants in the Odyssey survey gave answers related to the global economic crisis, the deepening of economic gaps and the impoverishment of the middle classes. “The shattering of the illusion fired up the protest movements, whose failure to break through the neoliberal circle of disinheritance leads to despair, which is exhibited in increasing racist and ultranationalist extremism,” writes Daniel Guttwein, a professor of history at the University of Haifa.

Historian Moshe Zimmermann, of the Hebrew University, is even more pessimistic. “The most significant process in which we are participating is the vigorous and consistent attempt of the human race to commit suicide,” he writes, referring among other things to the threat of humanity’s destruction in a nuclear disaster. Rapid population increase is setting the stage for a violent struggle for existence and is so oppressive that the environment will no longer be able to tolerate the human race, added Zimmerman, who also offered a comforting thought: The process of suicide by the human race should not worry the Israelis too much, since the process of Israeli suicide in other words, the settlement policy is leading to a disaster that will precede the worldwide catastrophe.

“It’s literally collective suicide,” according to Prof. Ada Lambert, an evolutionary psychologist at the Ruppin Academic Center, referring to migration from southern to northern countries. This is a process that took place once before, about 28,000 years ago. At the time it was Homo sapiens who left Africa and besieged the Neanderthals in Europe. The latter were wiped out, Homo sapiens flourished, and now there are about seven billion human beings on Earth. But the human flood is surging once again, this time too mainly from the south. And that’s happening because the northern countries are becoming empty of natives.

Lampert cites the statistics of population growth worldwide: The list is headed by Niger, with 7.62 children per woman. With the exception of Afghanistan, which is in ninth place, all the problematic countries are located in Africa up to 27th place, which is held by Gaza (4.57 children per woman). Israel is in 75th place, with 2.67 children per woman, but otherwise the list is populated by developing countries, up to place No. 119.

The number of migrants in Europe is today approaching 50 million. “They will replace the northerners within decades,” writes Lampert.

Fortunately, the Swedish Academy of Sciences decided to award the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Prof. Aaron Ciechanover, which may explain the relative optimism evident in his answer to Odyssey’s question. Ciechanover, from the medical faculty at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, maintains that humanity is at the beginning of perhaps the most important revolution ever to take place in the field of health care namely, personalized medicine. People suffering from the same illnesses sometimes react differently to treatment with the same medication, because the patients’ gene and protein maps differ from one another. The medication offered to patients through personalized medicine will, however, be determined in the future in accordance with their genetic repertoire and protein map. Or, as Yuval Noah Harari writes: Human beings will be upgraded from animals to gods.

Harari, a lecturer on history at the Hebrew University, is the author of the Hebrew-language best-seller “From Animals into Gods: A Brief History of Humankind.” The most significant process taking place today in the world, he believes, is the attempt being made by humanity to assume characteristics that were traditionally considered divine. These include eternal life, eternal youth, and the ability to create living creatures, to move with the speed of lightning and even to be in several different places at the same time, through a direct connection between the brain and the Internet, among other things. That too is supposed to be an optimistic concept.

Would-be African immigrants near Malta. A human flood.Credit: Reuters



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