Opinion |

For Israelis, Every Calamity Is an Opportunity

But does it mean that a brilliant future is in store for Israel?

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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A sign instructing drivers to stop if an air raid siren sounds, in central Israel, during the 2014 Gaza war.
A sign instructing drivers to stop if an air raid siren sounds, in central Israel, during the 2014 Gaza war. Credit: David Bachar
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Ruderal plants flourish in what are called “disturbed environments”: abandoned fields, neglected gardens, mounds of garbage, roadsides. These common flora, such as wood sorrel, nettles and mustard, thrive on nitrogen, and thus in human-contaminated soil. There’s no point looking for them in nature reserves or in primal, untouched places; you’ll find them by the sides of paved roads and in groves that have recently sustained fires.

Naturally, then, the more Israel becomes covered with highways and construction sites, the more common ruderal plants become. Animals that feed on remnants of human garbage are also doing well these days in Israel – among them, golden jackals, gray crows and cattle egrets. There’s no need to worry about the future of these irruptive species, as they’re known, for their numbers will only increase, together with the influence humanity wields on the environment.

Thus, as toads and jerboas disappear, along with open green areas and puddles of leftover winter rains, the populations of common foxes and crows multiply. Indeed, you’re far more likely to encounter them today than you were a decade or two ago.

But not only is Israel a comfortable habitat for ruderal species: It is itself is a ruderal plant or irruptive species. It’s a country that flourishes in disturbed environments.

The Middle East has undergone unprecedented upheaval in recent years, from revolutions to civil wars to economic crises. A reasonable assumption would be that Israel would suffer from such powerful regional shocks. After all, it’s a small country that is economically and politically dependent on other countries, and its citizens have for the most part become accustomed to a high standard of living. Yet, amazingly, Israel’s economy is flourishing amid the regional crises, and in surveys, Israelis report that they feel optimistic and are in a jubilant state of mind.

How can we account for this seeming anomaly? One explanation might be that the country’s economy and society have developed a spooky ability to thrive in situations of disaster.

Wars in the Gaza Strip? Israel exploits such opportunities to develop weapons and export them worldwide. Waves of migrants from Africa? At least the restaurants in Tel Aviv have cheap labor. Desertification? Israel has developed methods to utilize saline water. More cases of cancer, Alzheimer’s and AIDS internationally? Israel is becoming a medical-cannabis superpower. As the country’s Vegetable Growers Association has stated: “Israel can take its place as a world leader in the field, create an agricultural hothouse start-up and make Israeli cannabis a global brand. No less important, this industry will enable development of agriculture, particularly in the outlying areas, and make it possible for moshavim and kibbutzim to return to farming.”

“Every crisis is an opportunity for growth,” says a cliché spouted by both exponents of New Age dogmas and stock market consultants. Israel has inscribed that adage on its banner, and now needs to add it to the state’s emblem, below the seven-branched menorah. In fact, the local version of that adage is even more extreme: For Israel, every disaster is an opportunity. Not only the disaster of the Palestinian people or the disasters of its neighbors (“As far as we’re concerned, let them go on killing each other,” goes an oft-heard expression) – but its own disasters, too.

Israelis take pride in their toughness, in their ability to thrive in conditions of trauma. Indeed, the justification for Israel’s disaster-generated existence is contained in the country’s Declaration of Independence: Almost self-evidently, Israel is a product of the annihilation of European Jewry. But that logic is also embedded in the country’s genetic code. It became a blessing that is also a curse, like the curse of eternal life for a zombie. If you will, it’s the explanation for the fusion of vitality and morbidity that’s so typical of Israel. When the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini visited Israel, he came away writing the following about the kibbutzim: “[A]lthough they are profoundly sad and recall the concentration camps and the Jews’ tendency toward masochism and self-exclusion are at the same time something extremely noble, one of the most democratic and socially advanced experiments I’ve seen” (translation by Oswald Stack).

Matsutake mushrooms

Ecologists say that Earth has entered the anthropocene epoch, when the entire biosphere has become an environment disturbed by the human species. In this situation, the abnormal becomes the normal and Earth becomes one big disaster area.

In her recent, highly praised book about the relationship between mankind and the environment, “The Mushroom at the End of the World,” anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing discusses the matsutake mushroom, a delicacy in Japan that can sell for as much as $400 a kilogram. Fortunately, the mushroom thrives in places that have been damaged by human hands, such as deforested areas.

For Tsing, the matsutake is a metaphor for the fragility of existence in the present era: a modest, tasty mushroom that crops up after industry and war have sown destruction and moved on. It benefits from a tangled, unexpected system of supply chains, amid adaptation to diverse ecological, social and political environments. For the author, this is proof of “the possibility of life in capitalist ruins,” to quote the book’s subtitle.

Ecological calamities are likely to proliferate in the coming decades, and in their wake political calamities as well. It follows therefore that a brilliant future is in store for Israel. For it, too, is a mushroom that thrives during times of disaster.

Still, that’s a risky survival strategy. Because frequently in disaster areas, the conditions become sufficiently adverse that even jackals and nettles die out, leaving only cockroaches and lichen.

On the other hand, ecologists note that ruderals flourish only in the first years after an environmental setback, when still enjoy an advantage over other plants. When conditions stabilize and the soil is cleansed, however, they lose that advantage and can be pushed out by other plants.

Well, we’ve proved that we know how to survive disasters. But what will happen when the calamity passes and routine returns, when people go back to living? Then we’ll really be in trouble.



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