Will we change?

Published in The Jerusalem Post, April 10, 2020; and in Israel Hayom, April 12, 2020.

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What moral lessons might people the world over draw from the coronavirus crisis? Will anybody truly be transformed by the upheavals that are underway? Might we become “better” people? Or, when the dust settles, will people revert to established patterns and (misplaced) priorities?

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They say that traumatic events teach life-long lessons and lead to deep behavioral and attitudinal changes.

I wonder: Is this true? What lessons might people the world over draw from the coronavirus crisis? Will anybody truly be transformed by the upheavals that are underway? Might we become “better” people? Or, when the dust settles, will people revert to established patterns and (misplaced) priorities?

On the individual, national and international levels, will the corona pandemic teach us to care more for the common good? To volunteer more for community projects and to help the disadvantaged? Will the heroism of doctors, nurses and health care professionals everywhere drive us to place them permanently high up on a pedestal?

Or, we will we go back to venerating mainly movie stars and sports heroes and to paying them 1,000 times the average salary of an emergency room specialist or social worker?

When normal life resumes after all the current suffering and deprivation, will people become less selfish individuals and less obsessed with luxuries, faddish styles and other ephemeral stupidities?

Or, will the average post-corona person become less philanthropic and more focused on his or her private health care and personal financial nest egg; on their own savings for a “rainy day,” for the next blast of pandemic?

Might people even take an epicurean approach to life, as in “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”? Will it be time to (once again) pack in all the pleasures and indulgences of modern society, from global travel to fine food and alcohol, and from jewelry to gigantic mansions – before the next killer virus overwhelms?

Will people be humbled by the coronavirus experience, based on comprehension that even modern, technological, scientific and enlightened mankind does not fully control his world and fate? And will this lead to surge of interest in spiritual realms, and, gulp, even in religious practice and belief? Will people realize more than ever that only G-d is truly in control?

Or, will people (and here I am thinking of Jews in particular), be turned off by the dangerous obstinacy displayed by some ultra-religious people who failed to sufficiently to shoulder the burden of social isolation in order to fight the virulent virus?

And when the global medical and scientific community eventually comes up with a treatment regimen that heals corona victims or a vaccine that protects most people, will 21st century mankind be reinforced in feeling little need for prayer and for the interventions of rabbis, priests or imams?

After coming through the corona crisis, will we be more united as humanity, having discovered our collective global vulnerability? Will this mean more international cooperation in health and environmental matters, and perhaps fewer wars too?

Or, will the nations of the world become more divided and insular, raising the border walls higher than ever? After all, in this crisis, the UN and EU proved to be essentially useless, and every country was left to fend for itself. Will the global arms race begin itself anew, just as there has been global and cutthroat competition for face masks and ventilators during the coronavirus, without any trace of common destiny?

Alas, even as they have been hit heavily by the coronavirus, the Islamic Republic of Iran has shown no softening toward the West or Israel. Just the opposite is true: Iran has blamed the Jews, Zionists and America for the pandemic; sworn not to take any cure produced in Israel; and ramped-up its outlawed enrichment of uranium for nuclear weaponry.

And the Palestinian Authority has pulled its usual nasty tricks too: Taking medical aid and humanitarian assistance from Israel, while accusing Israeli soldiers of purposefully spreading the virus in the PA. This latter accusation is straight from the ugly mouth of Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh. The calumny was echoed, of course, by the tyrant of Ankara, President Erdogan.

SO, IS THIS REGION and the world going to be more united as humanity and more aware of its collective vulnerability? I’m not so sure.

Nor am I convinced that as individuals, on the personal human level, many of us will truly change our thinking or behavior in the post-corona era. Sure, many people will try to be more reflective and considerate, and less materialistic and selfish. We’ll all try.

But old habits die hard, bad experiences fade, cultural biases are deep-seated, shameless lifestyles are beloved, and the preference for decadence and greed is as old as the Bible.

Speaking of the Bible, it clearly understood the difficulty of personality and character change, both at individual and national levels. As the Jewish People departed ancient Egypt where it was enslaved for more than 200 years, the Bible prohibits oppressing the stranger, “for you know the tortured soul of the stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

The late, great Jerusalem teacher of Bible, Prof. Nehama Leibowitz, explained that the psychology behind the verse is not what is normally assumed: that the experience of slavery should make Jews more sensitive to the plight of the weak; more understanding of the soul of the downtrodden.

Just the opposite is true, Nehama taught: The Bible feared that having experienced slavery, Jews might be prone to treat strangers with greater cruelty. “We suffered, so let them suffer too,” as it were. And therefore, the Bible needs to warn repeatedly against such hard-heartedness.

This is a useful caution for the corona age too: Let us not grow coarsened and cold by the current travail. Everybody will have to work hard to overcome callousness in global affairs and insensitivity in interpersonal matters, despite the seemingly shared experience of battling an epidemic that is killing all peoples without discrimination.

This somewhat pessimistic assessment must be balanced against our blessings. Israel has handled the virus challenge better than most other countries, and as a result it is safer in Israel than almost anywhere else in the Jewish world. Sympathetic volunteerism in Israel is at an all-time high. With G-d’s will and scientists’ skill, Israel may yet lead the world in discovering a cure for coronavirus.

“Cry out and shout, dwellers of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel in your midst” (Isaiah 12:6).

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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