How Would Israel Survive a Pandemic That Wipes Out Most of Humanity?

Science fiction has a surprising answer

Ofri Ilany
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An exercise at the Knesset intended to simulate the response to an emergency involving dangerous substances.
An exercise at the Knesset intended to simulate the response to an emergency involving dangerous substances. Credit: Itzhak Harari / Knesset Spokesperson
Ofri Ilany

A lethal epidemic breaks out in China and within a short time spreads and kills all the males on the planet. Men, boys and all other male mammals drop like flies. Because 99 percent of the technicians and construction workers on earth, as well as the absolute majority of politicians and holders of capital are men, global chaos ensues. Security forces everywhere are neutralized, with the exception of one country that continues to field an effective army: Israel.

That is the scenario that plays out in the post-apocalyptic comic-book series “Y: The Last Man,” by the American writer Brian K. Vaughan. In Vaughan’s work, published in the years 2002-2008, the Israel Defense Forces is the only army in which women have experience in combat roles, in particular in pursuit of Palestinian youths in the territories. The Israeli army of women, led by the no-holds-barred chief of staff Col. “Alter” Tse’elon, succeeds in preserving its qualitative edge, and Israel becomes a global military force.

Interestingly, “Y: The Last Man” is not the only science-fiction work that portrays Israel as a place of refuge that can also contain a global catastrophe. Robert Silverberg’s 1994 novel “Hot Sky at Midnight” takes place in a period following extreme climate change: The ice at the earth’s two poles has thawed, the oceans have surged and many countries have been wiped out almost completely. But in Israel and nearby countries a decidedly friendly climate prevails. Israel becomes a technological power and even maintains amicable ties with its Middle East neighbors.

The best-known work in which Israel appears as a refuge during a worldwide catastrophe is the zombie movie “World War Z” (2013), starring Brad Pitt, and based on Max Brooks’ novel of the same name from 2006. The plot hinges on an epidemic that also originates in China, but in this case turns people into predatory zombies. The Chinese authorities try to hide the outbreak from the media, but the disease is spread by refugees fleeing from the affected areas. Within a short time, the zombies seize control of large parts of the world. And, again: What’s the first country that succeeds in slowing down the epidemic? Israel.

According to “World War Z,” in the wake of Israel and the Jews’ historic experience of the Holocaust and the Yom Kippur War, the country takes preventive measures and declares that the only people allowed into its territory are Jews – and also, surprisingly, members of the Palestinian diaspora. The separation wall in the West Bank enables Israeli forces to aggressively block the zombie invasion. Viewers of the film undoubtedly remember the dramatic scene in which Israel Air Force helicopters massacre thousands of them as they storm the wall.

“Perhaps universal history is the history of a few metaphors,” Jorge Luis Borges once reflected. The human imagination, which includes the political imagination, is woven around narrative or figurative structures – recurring literary forms. For hundreds of years, the Bible and the Greek classics were the sources for those figures, which were developed and rewritten in countless versions. Currently, American science-fiction and horror literature – two genres based entirely on recurring motifs and certain narrative conventions – are an important source for the creation of these types of narrative structures.

Two apocalyptic plot structures are discernible in the sci-fi literature in which Israel features. In the dystopian version, Israel is defeated in war and disappears from the map, or deteriorates into political chaos. This scenario appears in many such works that were actually written in Israel (see, for example, “The Road to Ein Harod,” by Amos Kenan, or Yishai Sarid’s “The Third”), as well as, for example, Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.”

The second type of plot structure portrays the Jewish state as a safe fortress that stands tall as the rest of the world collapses into chaos. Where does this image originate? There’s reason to suspect that its source is the Christian Bible. The final book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation (apokalypsis, in Greek), describes the destruction of the world on Judgment Day. A series of scourges and calamities strike humanity – epidemics, diseases and drought. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth are gone; and the sea is no more,” the book’s penultimate chapter begins. Thereafter arises the holy city, the New Jerusalem, which descends from heaven, surrounded by a high wall: “Nor shall anything that is profane enter into it, nor anyone who practices foulness and lying.”

So the Israel-fortress motif is apparently some kind of incarnation of a religious theme. The connection between movies about the zombie apocalypse and Scripture would seem to be tenuous. But there’s a whole genre of work that constitutes a link between the two worlds. It includes, most prominently, the popular “Left Behind” series of 1990s books by the American evangelicals Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which sold millions of copies. Even though these are clearly religious books, they are written in sci-fi style and were later adapted into a cinematic trilogy, not to mention a computer game. These works deal with the period of the “Great Tribulation” which, according to evangelical belief, will occur at the end of days.

Israel plays a very significant role in the series. One of its central characters is Chaim Rosenzweig, an Israeli scientist and politician, who devises an agronomic invention that makes the Negev bloom. In the early books (there are a total of 16), Rosenzweig joins forces with the Antichrist, but later kills him and acknowledges Jesus’ messianic status. Finally he establishes a sanctuary for what is called the “Jewish Remnant” at Petra.

Air-conditioned bunker

All of the above would be little more than a literary survey were it not for the fact that the narrative structures in question wield a powerful effect on reality. Because the Zionist project was hijacked long ago by infantile Americans – Christians and Jews alike – it’s probable that many of the people who are determining Israel’s future see in their mind’s eye scenarios rooted in such conceptual worlds. As early as the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign there were some who thought that Donald Trump took the idea of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border from the separation barrier in “World War Z.” Jared Kushner recently boasted that he had read 25 books about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps he was referring to comic books?

At the same time, the means Israel resorts to in an effort to solve its political problems increasingly recall science fiction. Iron Dome, cybersecurity, moats and subterranean tunnels – every possible technology is being implemented to defend the so-called villa in the jungle. The Israeli domain is completely planned and engineered; it already resembles an air-conditioned bunker.

The same logic can be seen in measures taken at present by the government to meet the challenge of the Wuhan coronavirus epidemic. After the authorities blocked the entry of anyone coming from China, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that he had directed the Biological Institute in Nes Tziona to come up with a vaccine to combat the virus.

Will Israel save the world from catastrophe? It’s hard to say, but one can already imagine the movie poster, featuring the image of Gal Gadot gazing with a highly meaningful expression at the Nes Tziona horizon.

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