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The Jewish Civilization Exchange, Part 1: On Jews & Golden Ages

by Shmuel Rosner

April 30, 2014 | 2:31 am

Dr. Shalom Salomon Wald

Dr. Shalom Salomon Wald is a Senior Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem, specializing in the history of Jewish civilization, Israeli S&T policy, and Jewish-Israeli links with China and India. His PhD thesis on the sociologist-historian Alfred Weber received the University of Basle’s prize as the best thesis in the social sciences in 1962. From 1964 to 2001, Dr. Wald served at the OECD Paris, the West’s biggest policy think-tank and advisory body, as an educational, science and technology expert, and as the co-founder and head of the OECD-DSTI Biotechnology Unit, authoring numerous OECD papers and publications. He joined the JPPI in 2002.

The following Exchange will focus on Dr. Wald’s new book, Rise and Decline of Civilizations: Lessons for the Jewish People (Academic Study Press, 2014)

***

Dear Dr. Wald,

Your book is as ambitious as books get: you look at the lessons historians draw on the rise and decline of civilizations, and you try to learn from them about the Jewish civilization and what it needs to do for it to keep "rising" (or at least not to decline). Leaving aside the more fundamental question – why is it necessary for Judaism to rise, and what's in it for all of us? – I'd like to focus on the application of your study for today's Jews.

Judaism, you write, has survived enormous challenges. "It has demonstrated the ability to respond to repeated challenges". We are, you also write, "in the midst" of a fourth transformative period. So what's transformative about the current period, and what are the keys for us to be able to overcome the challenge of this transformative age?

I know it will not be easy to give me a relatively short answer for a question of such magnitude. But if someone can do it - it is probably you.

Thank you,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

We should not leave aside the question of “why is it necessary for Judaism to rise?”, although it should be formulated a bit differently. Why? Because today the Jewish People in Israel and the Diaspora live in an unprecedented “Golden Age”, if one excludes the tenuous Biblical references to the age of King Solomon. Never in history have Jews had at the same time a homeland with so much military, economic and scientific-technological power in the Middle East and beyond, so much political and cultural influence in the world’s first super-power, and so much presence in the conscience of most of the world. But many Jews and Israelis do not see this age as “golden”, and quite a few angrily reject the whole proposition. This is particularly so if they have suffered or failed in their personal lives or if they disapprove of current political or religious trends in Israel and the Jewish world. But their reaction is very typical of “Golden Ages”. “Golden Ages” are ages of exceptional creativity in many fields of endeavour, but also of hate, agitation, turmoil and tension, of external and civil wars. The Greeks who lived during Athens’s classical “Golden Age”, the inhabitants of Florence and other city states of the Italian Renaissance, the citizens of the Dutch Republic at its peak in the 17th century were in their majority, not happy people as far as we can assess today. They knew war and bloodshed more than peace and prosperity. And something else is typical of all “Golden Ages”: they don’t last long. Fifty, eighty or a hundred and fifty years, not more. This is why questions of “Rise and Decline” should stir up the Jewish People. Our question then, should be: “Will the current ‘Golden Age’ of the Jews come to an end too, what will be the consequences and what could be done to prevent this”? 

Replying to this question is difficult, not least due to the ongoing, deep transformations imposed on the Jews in the past two centuries. Jews have lived through such periods at least twice before in their recorded history – after the destruction of the First and the Second Temples. Judaism and the Jewish People were able to respond to these, and other, enormous challenges and survive and even flourish in new forms. The starting dates and the drivers of these earlier transformations were understood by few observers then, and are more generally understood today. Yet the endpoints and outcomes of these earlier deep transformations – well known to us who live in the aftermath - were unpredictable then just as they are unpredictable today for the current, third major transformation. The only thing that can be predicted with certainty is that such transformations take a long time – 300, 400 or more years. The present transformation is “only” 200 years old. It started around 1800 with the Jewish Enlightenment that began to dissolve the over two thousand year old religious and community bonds of the Jews, continued with the period of Emancipation and culminated in the Shoah and the creation of the State of Israel. Few people of modern times, if any, have been exposed to, and have had to grapple with so many radical changes in a row and survived, and no other people has seen its geographic location across the world turned upside down so completely within such a short time.

And there is no end to transformations in sight. One transformation will result from the current search for Jewish identity. For a majority of Jews, being a Jew is no longer an issue of religion only. This was very different in past transformations. Judaism changed after the First and the Second Temple period, but until the 18th century there was never any other way of defining a Jew than by religion. A second ongoing transformation has to do with the future of Israel. Israel is a revolution, a break of history, in depth as radical as the French or the Russian Revolution, though not as global in its outreach of course. Every revolution triggers hostile reactions from inside and outside. All “reactionaries” keep struggling to undo their countries’, or other countries’ revolutions. The term “reactionary” was coined in the 19th century to describe the enemies of the French Revolution. In France, one can say that the struggle against the Revolution and its results, including the emancipation of the Jews, lasted until the end of World War II, that is more than 150 years. In the case of the Jews, internal and external “reactionaries” have been struggling against the Zionist Revolution for one hundred years, and there is no end in sight. How these struggles against Israel inside and outside will develop and how and when they will end – if ever – will have a decisive impact on the current transformation of the Jewish people, on the question of “rise and decline” and on policies to prevent decline.               

Judaism and the Jews still appear to have the will, strength and adaptability to survive the current, third transformation period and emerge in new forms. But nothing is guaranteed. The long-term survival and thriving of Judaism and of the Jewish People and State will depend on a number of conditions. Some are permanent and have not changed since ancient times. Others result from the transformation of the wider world in which we are living. If history is a guide, the most critical of the ancient and still topical conditions is the quality of leadership. Most catastrophes in Jewish history were influenced, if not directly triggered by, political and religious leaders who were unrealistic, incompetent or corrupt. Most periods of renewal after these catastrophes – be it the destruction of the two Temples or the Shoah – were guided by strong, forward looking, committed leaders who were well attuned to the situation of their people and the wider world. Today it has become a cliché to complain that Jewish and Israeli leadership both political and religious, is weak or in crisis, unable to guide the Jewish People and State through the current transformation period. It will take much more time and distance to judge the current leadership objectively. But the feeling that something is wrong today, particularly in comparison with earlier periods of Zionist, Israeli, and Rabbinic leadership, is not a phantasm. This people has had great leaders more than once. If such a people produces, for a prolonged period, mostly leaders to whom the three adjectives mentioned above apply, then something deeper is wrong. Maybe the problem is not a lack of leadership, but the absence of a Jewish state tradition and the chaotic character of too many Jews who are unwilling to submit to any leader. Whatever happens, without good leadership it will be difficult for the Jewish People and Israel to emerge unscathed from the current transformation period.

A second condition for a successful response to the challenges of this transformative age is both ancient and new: education, particularly in science and technology (S&T). For more than two thousand years, Jews were on average probably the best educated people in the world. This included not only religious education, but education in trading and other professions, language skills, and more. Today, the gaps with the rest of world are closing. Jews particularly in Israel have to make a greater effort to remain at the top of the world’s ongoing knowledge revolution in all sectors. During more than a hundred years, Jews have been pioneers in all sciences and many fields of technology. The Jewish People and particularly Israel have benefited greatly from excellence in S&T. In the future, S&T will to a large degree determine success and failure in economic competition and war. Thus, S&T will have a decisive impact on the shape of the world and the place of every people in the major power realignments that lie ahead in the 21st century. Jews and Israel will have much better means to respond to the challenges of transformation if they will be leaders in the world’s knowledge revolution and in S&T. But will they? The signs are mixed. Many are encouraging, particularly in Israel, but some others are not.

There are other conditions for a successful response to the transformation age, but these two stand out: excellent political and religious leaders, and a leading role in knowledge, science and technology.

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