By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Writing in the New York Times (June 20) Ross Douthat distinguishes between dynamists and catastrophists. Dynamists, he writes, “see 21st-century modernity as a basically successful civilization advancing toward a future that’s better than the past.” Catastrophists, on the other hand, “see a global civilization that for all its achievements is becoming more atomized and balkanized, more morally bankrupt, more environmentally despoiled.”
Douthat’s subject was the new Papal encyclical Laudato Si, but I read it also as a comment on what I see around me in Israel today.
Most Israeli analysts, pundits and politicians seem to be catastrophists. They’ve many valid reasons to see danger all around us. The debate is often about which danger is the greatest. Thus, for example, though the new possible alliance between Hamas in Gaza and ISIS in Sinai is seen by many as a bad omen that may be pointing to another war in the region, others – among them the prime minister – tell us that Iran is the greater danger and it’ll become even more so after the deal currently negotiated in Vienna is signed.
Good news is rarely about the future but about the past. Thus, for example, commenting on the euro-crisis in Greece much is being written here how thirty years ago, almost to the day, Israel found itself in a similar financial difficulty – and overcome it splendidly to become something of an economic powerhouse today.
Praising the past and fearing the future has biblical roots. That’s how the Hebrew Prophets spoke and that’s how those who’ve followed in their footsteps have often looked at the world. Progressives/dynamists – people who believed that things could be getting better if we adapt to changing circumstances – have often been suspect.
However, though the Prophets may have been catastrophists, they never despaired. Jewish tradition doesn’t know of tragedy the way the ancient Greeks saw life, because redemption through repentance was always possible. The worst predictions need not happen if we only repent. That’s the religious way.
It’s not the political way. Today’s catastrophists also tell us that disaster can be averted, but it’s usually by increasing pressure and exerting more power, i.e., doing more of the same. Here’re but three among many examples.
Yes, the Syrian situation constitutes a danger to Israel; that’s why now is the time to annex the Golan Heights to make sure that they stay in Israel forever. Yes, Palestinians are becoming radicalized; that’s why Israel should build more settlements. Yes, Israeli Arabs, including some of their Knesset members, have problems with Jewish sovereignty; that’s why Israel should pass laws to compel Arabs to accept Israel as Jewish and only Jewish.
Probably that’s why in this climate, a growing number of sensitive Israelis are rediscovering the teachings of Martin Buber, one of the greatest religious thinkers of the 20th century. He warned us against the power of the state over against the security of community; he advocated cooperation with the Arabs; he was opposed to the oppressive power of organized religion epitomized by today’s Orthodox establishment.
Buber’s remedies were probably inadequate then and are certainly irrelevant today. But his way to try to avert catastrophes seems to resonate with some Israelis.