In Jewish day school as a child, I remember learning about the "reasons" behind the destruction of the Jewish temples and the exile from our land, disasters annually marked on the fast of the ninth of Av (Tisha B'Av). According to tradition, cardinal sins of murder, sexual immorality and idolatry led to the Babylonian destruction of the first temple, while baseless hatred (sinat chinam) created the background to the devastation of the second. In recent times, I have found additional meaning in interpreting these events through a geostrategic lens – whether that be the Judean kings backing the wrong regional power (Egypt over Babylon) in the lead up to 586 BCE, or the zealots rebelling in 67 CE against a global empire for whom defeat was not an option.
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Hindsight, the saying goes, is 20-20 and it is interesting to consider to what extent the people at the time realized they were heading toward an abyss, and why they failed to prevent it. But what if the seeds of societal breakdown are not readily apparent before the event? What if predicting collapse and exile are not as easy (or inevitable) as historians retroactively infer?
And what might that mean for us in Israeli society today?
In "Complexity and Collapse, Empires on the Edge of Chaos," historian Niall Ferguson suggests an innovative way of understanding why once successful empires ultimately break down. Ferguson believes that empires are complex adaptive systems, comprised of a large number of interacting components that constantly operate on what he terms, "the edge of chaos," somewhere between order and disorder. While such systems appear to function in apparent equilibrium, Ferguson maintains that they bear greater resemblance to a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid, and that a single grain of sand can have an "amplifier effect," setting off a "phase transition" that in turn triggers the collapse of the whole pile.
According to Ferguson, it is this amplifier effect that helps explains the surprisingly swift decline of empires throughout history – from the Romans to the Romanovs, or from the Bourbon monarchy to the British. In other words, despite seemingly being stable for centuries, these carefully balanced systems were always on the edge of chaos, and were ultimately tipped by a small trigger, making them "go critical" and transforming their benign equilibrium to a crisis and disaster.
Twenty first century Israel may not be an empire. But it is certainly a complex system – whether that be the dynamics of the new Israeli "tribal" order that President Reuven Rivlin recently discussed; the role of Orthodoxy and religion in the public sphere; violence, xenophobia and escalating tensions between Jews and Arabs; the relationship between Israel as a state and the Jewish people; the almost unworkable political system; the rocket threats and security dilemmas in the north, south and east or the demographic trends vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
So far, the country has managed admirably. It has survived wars and generated start-ups. It has absorbed immigrants and advanced scientific discoveries. But when all is said and done, many of us are accompanied by what David Grossman describes as an inner feeling of absolute fragility, like we are at the edge of an abyss, or the feeling of a mountain climber fighting fatigue in the words of Nobel Prize-winner Robert (Yisrael) Aumann.
Perhaps, ultimately, Israel is like Ferguson’s termite hill, a country "hanging by a thread" that one day may simply cease to be as Amnon Rubinstein has suggested.
If a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a hurricane in Texas or the assassination of an archduke can ultimately topple three empires, then what might be the consequences of any of Israel’s countless potential amplifier effects? How long can we expect to continue walking the tightrope of existence without dropping one, or all of the balls?
Most importantly, as Tisha Be’Av approaches, what can we citizens do to restore the equilibrium?
Calev Ben-Dor grew up and was educated in England before making aliyah in 2005. He currently works as an analyst in the Policy Planning Department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and also lectures on topics of Israeli and Jewish interest.