THE RISE AND FALL AND SURVIVAL OF JEWISH CIVILIZATION
Shalom Salomon Wald was born in Italy but moved to Switzerland ahead of World War II. He can recall the aerial battles that took place just across the border from Basel. He worked with the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) for 38 years, primarily in science and technology policy where he eventually became the Head of the OECD/DSTI Biotechnology Unit.
“I was always interested in history. I did study history in Basel but didn’t graduate in it. It’s a part of my life and I was affected by the Shoah,” says Wald. “I remember the B-17s flying over Basel at the border to bomb Germany.”
Recently, Wald completed a five-years-long work in the study of the rise and fall of nations with a special focus on the future of Israel. The book, Rise and Decline of Civilizations: Lessons for the Jewish People, was supported by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI).
“It took me really just four or five years but a lot of the material in this book I learned before. I read Thucydides in Greek in grammar school. This was a book in the making for 60 years. I was working and writing on the drafts for five years. I don’t think any think tank in history has paid someone for five years a salary just for one book. It is a bit unusual because some people write a book once every year.”
Wald is extremely appreciative of the opportunity actually write the book, which he felt was a subject begging for attention. One of the conclusions he drew from his research is that more often than otherwise, society makes itself vulnerable to collapse. Does Jewish history also reflect that idea?
“I drew this conclusion from world history. Looking at Jewish history I found it is largely true, but not entirely. We cannot forget that if Hitler had conquered the whole world then we would not be speaking here together today. We’d be all dead. If the Spanish Empire had conquered everything, there would be no Jews left – maybe some but not many.
A civilization cannot remain stagnant, implies Wald. It has to be able to deal with what comes at it and wherever it might venture.
“It is mostly true that if a civilization is widespread geographically, adaptable and flexible it survives. If it dies, it dies by suicide. This was certainly true of the Roman Empire. This idea permeates historians’ work in things such as ‘The Rise and the Fall of the Roman Empire’ which is still probably the most important book of history ever written, and Thucydides about the Peloponnesian War which is often quoted in reference to the conflict between the US and China.”
In the latter scenario he references is the so-called Thucydides Trap, where an established power is alarmed by the rise of another power, creating an inevitable confrontation. Analysts go back and forth arguing the merits of applying the theory to the two countries in the modern era.
Might Jewish civilization have faced more external threats in its history simple because it has been around so long that such threats might have been inevitable? Wald thinks this is a tough gauge to judge by.
“There are short civilizations that faced dangers and were distinguished. There is still discussion why the Easter Island civilization (in the Pacific) was wiped out. It only existed for 300 or 400 years.”
What seems to be more critical in his mind is Jewish civilization’s geographic spread. Despite the trauma that causes the Diasporas in the first place, those who survived the persecution of Assyria, Babylon and Rome did not recentralize in one specific location. Jews spread throughout the Persian Empire when it conquered the Babylonians. Jews were already spread out in the Mediterranean prior to the series of wars with Rome. Did being spread out really help?
“Definitely, but this is a delicate issue,” says Wald. “It is an obvious truth that if an enemy destroyed one branch of your people, he couldn’t destroy everyone.”
This is not to say he is critical of the concept of Zionism by any means. The State of Israel has asserted itself as the steady center of Jewish life and a major identity marker for those perhaps somewhat less attached to other Jewish aspects of their lives.
“It’s the theory of not putting all your eggs in one basket. You need to qualify this conclusion today because of the importance of the chief basket, Israel. Losing it could have dramatic effects on the rest of the Jewish people. For instance, I know many American Jews would not want to see it this way but I don’t believe American Judaism would survive easily. I see a lot of fragilities in American Judaism.”
A similar scenario unfortunately occurred after the Jewish-Roman wars starting with the Great Revolt that eventually led to the destruction of the Second Temple. Next came the not-so-often-mentioned Kitos War. Finally, the Bar Kokhba revolt challenged Rome a third time, only to result in devastation. But Hadrian’s march of blood and tears went northeast, toward modern Iraq. At the time, the region was ruled by the Parthian Empire centered in Iran.
“If Hadrian had vanquished the Parthian Empire – which he tried and failed – it would have been very difficult for Judaism to survive. The elaboration of the Talmud Bavli [Babylonian Talmud] was an absolute precondition for Jewish survival. There were some clashes with the Parthians but Hadrian understood he couldn’t win.”
Thanks to a centuries-long relationship between Jews and Persians, the Persian Empire – in whatever form it had – was far more often than not a friend to the remnant of the Jewish people. Defeating Hadrian was certainly as critical if not more so than Cyrus the Great’s overthrow of the Babylonians as mentioned in the Bible.
“They defended us by the way. The Persians from the time of Cyrus until the end of the Babylonian Empire defended and protected the Jews for over 800 years. There’s an entry in the Talmud Bavli where the question is raised, ‘Where can Jews sell iron to non-Jews?” Jews must do nothing to promote murder, says Wald, who clarifies they were discussing the worrisome notion this material would be used as weapons, especially against fellow Jews. “Rav Ashi says ‘we sell iron to the Persians who defend us.’”
This is also emblematic of another major phenomenon on Jewish history, which has been an unintended result of being a historically smaller people – alignment with superpowers. Today, the major partner for Israel is the United States. Over time in the intervening centuries between King Solomon’s death and the destruction of the First Temple, alliances shifted for the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah.
“Certainly it is. All small countries and small peoples tried to have a big protector,” says Wald. “All savvy Jewish leaders tried to get the help of some large power.”
LANGUAGE: DISTINCTION AND CONDUIT OF JEWISH INFORMATION
Hand in hand with survival is expression: cultural expression. It has strategic implications as much as it does gauging the vibrancy of a society. One of those strategic tools the last century and a half, as employed by the Zionist movement with unprecedented success, is the reinvigoration of Hebrew. By utilizing a common thread across the Jewish world and fighting off suggestions to make German or Yiddish the founding language of a new Jewish state, the state’s future became far more accessible to the wider Jewish civilization spread throughout its multilingual Diaspora. Hence, Israel was able to grow.
“Without Hebrew, it wouldn’t have been possible to accomplish kibbutz galuyyot (ingathering of the exiles),” says Wald.
“Having a holy language was very important. Having a language spoken only by Jews – if Hebrew, nice – but for 500 years there were two Jewish languages – Yiddish and Ladino – were very important for preserving Judaism. Anyone who spoke Yiddish in Eastern Europe or Ladino in the Ottoman Empire was immediately identifiable as a Jew.”
That identification likely aided keeping the community together outside the Holy Land. Beyond that, it allowed a relatively ‘pure’ contribution of Jewish culture by Jews alone. Even in exile, Jews created pockets of their dispersed civilization. Despite Yiddish, Ladino and other Jewish dialects of languages, Hebrew remained became a Jewish language of communication between countries.
“Hebrew’s function was absolutely essential from the 18th century on. Hebrew never died like Old Irish was a dead language. There were always people who understood and communicated in Hebrew. I have a card of my late grandfather who wrote to his son who was soldier in Austro-Hungarian empire wrote to him in Hebrew because didn’t want the military censorship to read it.”
Hebrew should still serve that function, says Wald. That attention has not been paid seriously to it is a perilous failure of the Jewish world. He cites the example of Hellenized Jews throughout the ancient, formerly Greek-speaking parts of the Mediterranean and the Middle East where Jewish communities eventually died out or moved elsewhere as an example of the failure to maintain a culturally distinct form of communication.
“I do have a problem with the weakness of Hebrew outside of Israel. Not that I expect all Jews to know it fluently, but to create an emotional bond to it and have some knowledge of it. Mordechai Kaplan wrote the disappearance of Hellenistic Judaism could not be explained only by persecution, but for such a proud and productive cultural center to leave totally, he attributes it to the absence of the Hebrew language.”
“Historians debated if Philo of Alexandria knew Hebrew, and the consensus today is that he did not. His Judaism and commitment was not challenged and was totally clear. But this is not the situation that could go on generation after generation. Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria finally disappeared after 200 years.”
But the function of Modern Hebrew is changing. Wald reminds readers that there are about 1.7 million non-Jewish Hebrew-speaking citizens of Israel. As time goes by, Hebrew could lose its main distinguishing mark as something ‘Jewish’ and also, again, become recognized as a long-embedded language in the region.
As mentioned above, since Eliezer Ben-Yehudah’s ‘revival’ of the language in the 19th century, Hebrew has become a distinguishing element to Jewish culture around the world. This was not always the case however, as the Torah does not emphasize the language’s importance outside of obviously using it. It became an important distinction much later in the Second Temple Period. As some people often overlook, languages like Moabite and Ammonite, from what remnants and records are in the possession of historians, highly resemble Hebrew in grammar, vocabulary and structure. Wald estimates that they were in all likelihood either dialects of the same language or as close as modern day Spanish and Sicilian Italian.
“It was the content, not the language, of the Jewish scriptures that shaped a distinct Jewish fate and instilled awareness of it,” Wald writes in his book. The Torah was the distinguishing factor for God in the Bible. Language became an addendum to that later alongside Aramaic (that also became identified with Jews as the number of its speakers fell across the ancient world).”
ISRAEL’S UNPRECEDENTED MODERN GOLDEN AGE
Hebrew’s explosion back in Israel allowed immigrants to flock in from around the world. The speed with which 600,000 Jews moved to Israel by May 15, 1948 when the country declared independence is a testament to the unifying element language had. Today, it is a rising language of science and development. Its role as a language of religious scholarship is now being witnessed in the modern dialect. It is the communicative means for Israel’s sudden Golden Age.
“There is in ancient cultures the ‘Golden Age’ myth,” says Wald, who does not mean to suggest Golden Ages do not actually exist, but that we often mistake their existence in retrospect and miss them as they are happening in the present. “I think it was a reality for many civilizations, but Greek mythology speaks of a Golden Age.”
Greece itself, was reputed to have experienced a cultural and philosophical Golden Age prior to its wars with the Persian Empire (that eventually led to Alexander’s conquest of Jerusalem). But the history of that era shows a fractured Greece and multiple brutal wars between Greek city-states.
In contrast, Israel today - despite existential threats and enormous pressure over certain political issues - is the most powerful expression of Jewish independence since Joshua.
“The period of the artists in the 5th century in Athens now seen as the GA of Greece, was a period of misery for Greeks, right before the Peloponnesian War.”
“I say that today we live in a Golden Age that we’ve never had. Never have we had the most powerful economic and military state in the Middle East, as well as being an important presence in the capitals of all the world’s great superpowers. Even when we (the Jews) are not physically present, the Chinese know well about Jews and Judaism.”
“Never in history did we have so many assets at the same time. I speak of the world. No Golden Age can last forever. They then to last 50, 100 or 150 years and then they fall. This doesn’t mean that ours has to go away, but we have to think about how to maintain our Golden Age.”
Maintaining Israel’s Golden Edge
Retaining that gold is a major forward concern for Wald in his book, as the goal is to consider where Israel is lacking in the long term and has plenty for the same period, then improving on all fronts.
“I drew 12 drivers of rise and decline [of Golden Ages],” says Wald. “I believe the single most important driver right now for us is governance and leadership. We are a chaotic, dysfunctional state with bad governance that might be getting worse.”
Wald emphasizes he is not talking about the current Prime Minister as an individual or individual policies. It could be that the system more than the potential that Israeli heads of state might exercise.
“I am a bit pessimistic. The issue isn’t the availability of great leadership. It is difficult to analyze this. We know from Ottoman history, Roman and even American that many civilizations have many outstanding leaders at the beginning with outstanding committed visionaries. Then comes a period where leaders are corrupt or inept. But Israel’s history is too short to say things like that” just yet.
“The second most important factor is education; particularly, our excellence in science and technology. ‘He who controls the progress of science and technology controls the future of the world’,” says Wald, paraphrasing and adapting a quote by Arthur C. Clarke.
“Jews had a competitive advantage, including in economic sphere because their education was better. Definite from the late 2nd Temple period on there was a high level of education. There was a trickling down into many other endeavors of life: travel, business, even in war educated soldiers are better than uneducated.
“Those who fall behind will not flourish even if they have all the oil in the world in their ground. We wouldn’t be sitting here without that exceptional edge that we have. We need to keep it and increase it.”
Scientific prowess is something for which Israel is gaining a disproportionate notoriety. Israel’s issue with governance notwithstanding, it is a democracy with strong debate and tremendous accomplishments in economics.
JEWISH NUMBERS: RECOVERING FROM THE HOLOCAUST
A multifaceted question exists about the numbers of a Jewish civilization. The Jewish people have never been substantially large relative to other peoples in the world. There are questions of religious affiliation and conversion; there are questions of involvement in cultural activities associated with Jews; there are questions about identity and commitment. Numbers have been an unnerving part of continuing work in Jewish circles and there is no easy answer to going about expansion that balances the dueling demands of quality and quantity.
“We have not overcome the Shoah. We are the only victim of WWII that has not been able to make up for the loss,” says Wald. “Optimists say now we will reach again 16 million, which is near to the number of Jews in 1939. We have to make up for this. Demographics are an important driver – not the only one but an important one.”
But he also says the Jewish people are evidence that a small population is still capable of instilling far more hope than even civilizations with gargantuan populations.
“You can have a huge population and still be hopeless. It is clear without the Shoah there would have been a Jewish people beyond 30 million, which would have meant a totally different history. We might not have had Israel, but if Jews would not have been killed in Eastern Europe then maybe Latin America would have become a Jewish continent.”
That number is based on the research of Italian-Israeli demographer Sergio DellaPergola, who estimated there would be between 26 and 32 million Jews in the world today had the Holocaust never occurred, primarily thanks to the inevitable growth of Eastern European Jewry.
Wald admits there would have been drawbacks to that scenario, but does not believe people would not accept those faults in exchange for never having had the pain of the Holocaust.
“There would be much less unity in the Jewish people. Without Hitler, the Bundists would have been very strong, fights between Zionists and non-Zionists. Zionists would have been a minority. Still, most of us would probably choose not to have the State of Israel and no Holocaust” if given the opportunity. “It is a tragic choice.”
Other controversies or crises for Jewish civilization, among them the intermarriage problem, should probably be seen in a strategic sense regardless of one’s views, implies Wald. While plenty of Jewish leaders have consistently expressed their dismay over the decades-long trend of increasing intermarriage by Jews, there are positive trends inside that that could be exploited to the advantage of Jewish numbers.
“A greater portion of the intermarried want to remain Jews and raise their kids as Jews,” he says. What this implies most definitely clashes with the prevailing thinking of most Orthodox Jews about not being lenient on conversion or tolerant of intermarriage, but Wald says that the integrity of the Orthodox conversion process is incredibly important itself to demand something of people who would contribute something to Jewish civilization.
“Yesterday I met an Orthodox Rabbi from France, and he told me ‘the number of Frenchmen who want to convert is very great.’ But, you can’t get it in easily. It is Ultra-Orthodox controlled.”
“Rightly there are good reasons not to make conversion so easy. Christianity makes it easy. Islam makes it easy. You say something and ‘poof!’ you’re a Muslim. Does it add to the quality of Islam? I don’t know.”
In this sense, he agrees that there being a process is a very important element in ‘screening’ new members as it were. Yet, he seems to agree with many critics of conversion policy that makes it harder to finish the process successfully, let alone start it.
“But the real Halakhah is very flexible. Out of stubbornness or fear they don’t want this flexibility.”
On the other hand “the seclusion of Judaism was a competitive advantage – it created a border line and an am segula (unique nation). Civilizations who are proud of themselves want to see a borderline.”
That pride is evident in how Jews across the spectrum tend to demand some sort of education for future members regardless of their views on the ease (or requirements) of conversion. Shifting focus to that pride, he says the notion of ‘chosenness’ that is often criticized by anti-Semites or by other religious groups is hardly a unique concept to peoples and civilizations. For Jews, it happens to be very refined.
“Jews are attacked for believing they are superior but MOST civilizations believe this even though they don’t say it this way. The Greeks felt this. Anyone who didn’t speak Greek was called a ‘barbaros,’ which comes from the expression “brah brah.”
Translated into English, it means, “blah blah.” It is also the origin of the word ‘barbarian.’
“The Greek language was the absolute dividing line. For them the language had the same function as Halakhah for us.”
Coming back to the issue of numeric strength, Wald says in his book: “They were chosen ‘not because you are more numerous than all of the peoples . . . for you are the fewest of all the peoples (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 7:7).’ The tradition knew early on that numbers were not everything, and that the power of numbers depended critically on the strength of Jewish identity.”
Sustainable population levels, which intuition might say should be high in the event a human-engineered or natural disaster were to affect the Jewish people, might actually be different depending on the period in history. Wald goes into great detail in a fascinating chapter of his book, Numbers and Critical Mass (IV:6), describing five distinct periods where Jews variably did or not did have a geographic center and did or did not have a grounded Diaspora.
Wald points to four main requirements of Jewish civilization that in Wald’s words themselves require a “critical mass” of a population to sustain: defense and physical survival; numerical majority in a homeland; cultural and religious creativity; and political influence and power. The actual numbers things require have proven small for Jews who have managed it in Israel and in select communities in the Diaspora: medieval Baghdad, Golden Age Spain, and modern America among others.
In the modern era, where Israel is the undisputed center of Jewish civilization with a very large Diaspora, Jewish Civilization has achieved an odd balance between an achieved critical mass in one area but challenges to it in others. In other words, numbers are a problem, but it depends where you look.
“For the first time since the Second Temple period the Jews of Israel must have sufficient critical mass to achieve all four goals together: defense, numerical majority, creativity and political influence.”
Israel has the critical mass for a country, but is challenged in that regard in a number of areas, though not necessarily in the same way the Diaspora is.
Wald says the division in vision for the Jewish future between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora must be overcome not just to achieve a working demographic strategy, but on the way those communities look at the world in general. Rarely in history has Jewish civilization ever been in a position to organize itself against these threats, and at the same time as important for those same Jews the critical point the people have reached.
Wald says in his book that the Jewish people today must see themselves as up to that challenge, as “a global presence and a significant partner in the shaping of a common global future, and also as coordinated, proactive, and fearless challengers of their enemies in the world.”