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The Jewish Civilization Exchange, Part 2: On Jewish Leadership & ‘The Good Old Days’

by Shmuel Rosner

May 8, 2014 | 3:32 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 is dedicated to Dr. Wald’s new book, Rise and Decline of Civilizations: Lessons for the Jewish People (Academic Study Press, 2014). Part 1 can be found right here.

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Dear Shalom,

In your first response you wrote that when it comes to the thriving of the Jewish people “if history is a guide, the most critical of the ancient and still topical conditions is the quality of leadership”. While this is by no means a controversial statement, you then add that “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”.

Now, it seems that almost every time the subject of Jewish leadership arises in public discussions, it is accompanied with at least some degree of yearning for ‘the good old days’ when there were real Jewish leaders and when ordinary Jews were generally more invested in their Jewishness (and were more interested in being led). Many people, including yourself, imply that we should learn from the past in that sense. But one could argue that the idea of ‘submitting to leaders’, as you describe it, has become less and less attractive to Jews and non-Jews alike as history progressed, and that this process is an integral and important part of a living in a freer and more democratic world. Many Jews would actually not see this ‘lack of submission’ and the erosion of (Jewish) authority as a problem, but as a great step forward.

In your first response you presented maintaining the Jewish people’s edge in Science and technology as a top Jewish priority, but one could argue that this edge was never really a matter of ‘submitting to Jewish leaders’ (Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman by no means reached their achievements through the assistance of Jewish leaders), and that perhaps the lesson from the past is that Jews really don’t need a strong Jewish leadership to thrive when it comes to science, technology and culture.

My question – do you really think today’s Jews’ unwillingness to submit to Jewish leadership is a problem, or is it just the product of living in a more democratic, less authoritarian world? Why should a Jew who doesn't feel he/she needs Jewish leadership go out and seek it?  

Yours,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

Your questions amalgamate six important issues. Let’s disentangle and re-formulate them:

1. Every discussion about current Jewish leadership is accompanied by some nostalgia for the “good old days” when the Jews, allegedly, had greater leaders than today.

2. In the “good old days”, Jews were more profoundly “Jewish” and more willing to accept being guided by leaders.

3. It derives from points 1 and 2 that Jews should learn from past history and be more willing to follow their leaders.

4. The conclusion under point 3, however, contradicts the dominant trend of modern times. The dominant feature of people living in a “freer and more democratic” world today is to eschew authority and avoid becoming subject to leaders.

5. It follows from 4 that many modern Jews see the “erosion of Jewish authority” not as a handicap but “as a great step forward”.

6. The Jewish People’s excellence in science and technology which is regarded as one of the conditions of Jewish and Israeli strength and survival was never the result of any “submission” to Jewish leaders. This excellence emerged irrespective of political leaders.

About Point 1: It is true that in Israel, a palpable nostalgia can sometimes be found in a part of the Ashkenazi middle and upper classes who lost political power when the Labour Party was defeated in the 1977 elections. Some of them long for the days of Weizmann, Ben Gurion, Golda Meir etc.  It is doubtful that Sephardim and Mizrahim, Haredim,  Russians who came during the last 20 years, or right-wing settlers – together the majority of Israel – long for the same leaders. For whom do they long, if at all? An Israeli opinion poll on this question, linking nostalgia for great leaders of the past to ethnic origin, political and religious affiliation and age group of the interviewees could be revealing. Listening to Israeli teachers who take their children to the old museum in Tel-Aviv where David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel in 1948 is a sobering experience. Many children never even heard the names of Weizmann or Ben-Gurion before. Diaspora Jews are less likely to dream of Israel’s early leaders, although some who have a strong commitment to Israel may still do so.

This being said, nostalgia for the leaders of the “good old days” is not limited to Jews, it is typical of all old civilizations and even of many modern societies. It seems to be a psychological constant or even a need.

About Point 2: How credible is the claim that the Jews of “old days” were more willing to be led by their leaders than they are today? Which “old days”?  The leadership conditions of the (relatively) sovereign Biblical kingdoms during the First Temple period, of Judea during the Second Temple period, and of the State of Israel today are fundamentally different from the Jewish leadership conditions in the Diaspora, in which the Jews and their leaders were not really independent.

The claim that the Jews of the past were more willing to follow their leaders than they are today makes sense mainly in conditions of Jewish self-rule. However, this claim defies everything we know of old Jewish history and tradition. The Bible tells us that rebellion was one of the chief characteristics of the Children of Israel. It started according to the Bible even before the nation was born and got its first leader: when an angry Jew in Egypt insulted Moses with the words “Who made you chief and ruler over us?” and forced him to flee. It is no coincidence that this has become a well-known Biblical quote among Jews. The Biblical narratives of the kings of Israel show almost permanent tension between rulers and prophets, and the Talmud reveals the notorious disaffection of many sages from political authority: “Do not seek familiarity with the government”, we are warned in the Sayings of the Fathers. In no known period of their old independent history did Jews apparently tolerate their own political authorities uncritically, gladly and for long periods. Is Israel today returning to these – not so good -  “good old times”?

Maybe the statement that Jews followed their leaders more eagerly in the past than today was said primarily about the Yishuv during the years before and shortly after the creation of the State of Israel? It is easier to defend this statement for this relatively short period than for Jewish history as a whole. A majority or near-majority of the Yishuv supported the Labor Party, other left-wing parties and their leaders during more than one generation, from the late 1920s to the early 1970s. But as in the past in the Diaspora, the Jews of Israel were not really free until 1948. They had to cope with the policies of the British Mandate authorities. In their struggle for independence it made sense for them to support the leaders of the strongest parties. In spite of this constraint, fights between competing political parties never stopped and were often fierce even before 1948. Also, if Israelis today seem less willing to follow the same, or any political leaders than earlier generations, it is among other things because today’s  generation is much less homogeneous than the earlier ones.

About Point 3:  What Jews should learn from the past is not to “follow their leaders” but to be aware that the lack of effective leadership has often led to anarchy and catastrophe. This was so during the great revolt against Rome (66 to 70 CE) when nobody listened to the warnings of the nominal ruler, King Agrippas II and when Rabbi Yochanan Ben Sakkai who would save Judaism after the fall of the Temple, tried desperately to argue some of the rebels out of their crazy plan to defeat an all-powerful Rome. He too failed. The result of Jews following no accepted leaders was chaos, mayhem, civil war and destruction. A very different example is the failure of Jewish leadership, particularly in the United States at the beginning of and during the Shoah. It is still surprising that the Jews and their representatives, spread all over the world and allegedly widely connected, were less well informed of the beginning of  the Nazis’ extermination campaign than British military intelligence, the Red Cross, the Church, or even the military and political establishments of Sweden and Switzerland. Effective leadership requires timely and comprehensive information and the ability to act on this information. The Jews of 70 CE and of 1941 lacked the leadership and the information.

The main issue today in Israel is not the miraculous emergence of great leaders but the “capacity to govern”, to use Yehezkel Dror’s preferred term. In a democratic society in peaceful times, the capacity to govern depends, among other things, on a popular understanding that “politics is the art of the possible”. This always means a willingness to compromise, a gift that does not come easily to Israelis, partly because some of them remain addicted to utopian ideals. The capacity to govern also means that governments must be able to stay in power long enough to implement long-term decisions, without a permanent threat of being toppled by minority interests. All this is not new. It has been written and said again and again.

About Point 4: The currently dominant trend in democratic societies is to stay clear of authority and avoid being led by political leaders, you say. This is part of the “progress of history” – interestingly, here you use a term from the European Enlightenment that was taken up by Marxism-Leninism.  Continuing to draw from the vocabulary of Marxism-Leninism, does adherence to political leadership belong to the “dustbin of history”? True, many democratic societies are more disaffected from their leaders and governments than two generations ago, and many Western governments depend on minuscule parliamentary majorities if they are not minority governments.  At the same time, politically aggressive non-state actors seem to be getting stronger and can initiate, impose or prevent political decisions: NGO’s, the Green movements, academic associations, the “Twitter” and “Facebook” crowds, etc.  Is this dilution of state power and political leadership a continuous, irreversible trend in Western societies? Or can internal or external crises stop this trend and restore the traditional power and decision making role of political leaders? Time will tell.

If your suggestion is correct, people today should feel freer and happier because they are less subject to leadership decisions.  But they are not happy. In the United States and in France, rarely in history have the approval ratings of the sitting presidents been as low as today and the criticism of government as widespread, and rarely in history have Americans and Frenchmen been so worried and pessimistic about their future and that of their children.  Thus, disengagement or disaffection from political leadership and personal happiness do not seem to go together. What if the opposite is true (an iconoclastic thought) ?

About Point 5: I am surprised to read that many modern Jews regard the “erosion” of Jewish authority as “a great step forward”. I was not aware of this, hearing in Israel more complaints than congratulations about this erosion. Israel does not seem to be very different from other Western nations. In line with the latter, a part of the Jewish and Israeli public despises their government and does not feel bound by laws they don’t like. As the politically disaffected minority populations are growing faster than the average population, the economic, social and political consequences could get worse. Tackling these issues will require more leadership and authority, not less.

About Point 6: True, my text identified two conditions – amongst others – for a thriving future of the Jewish People and Israel: high-quality political and religious leadership, and excellence in science and technology as well as in many other fields of knowledge. But the text never inferred that Jewish excellence in science and technology resulted from “submitting to Jewish leaders” or that Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein owed some of their achievements to the “assistance of Jewish leaders”, far from it. These two conditions, statesmanship and a lead role in science and technology, do not directly depend on each other. Their link is indirect, but important.  Science and technology flourish in countries that provide ample material support and attach great public prestige to scientific discovery and technological innovation. This was the case in pre-war Germany and the United States, and it is partly still the case in the United States. It was not the case e.g. in pre-war Poland or Byelorussia. This is why Feynman and Einstein emerged and achieved fame in pre-war Germany and the United States and not in Poland or Byelorussia (from where Feynman’s father, a poor Jewish tailor, immigrated to America). Leaders who understand the critical role of science and technology will do more to secure funding for these fields and enhance their public standing than leaders who do not. It was Zionism’s and Israel’s great luck that it’s two most important early political leaders were also science enthusiasts: Chaim Weizmann was a brilliant scientist and inventor himself. He laid the basis for Israel’s science education and research. The second was David Ben-Gurion, who, without any education in science and technology, grasped that these fields would be indispensable for Israel’s survival and acted accordingly. Ben Gurion’s forward looking science and technology policy has had long-term effects on Israel’s achievements to this very day. 

Surely great Israeli scientists will in the future not “submit themselves to Jewish leaders” any more than in the past, but they will stay and remain creative in Israel only if Israeli society and the political system honour and support them. The signs are currently not bad. A few days ago the Israeli press published the results of a new opinion poll. Which are the most, and which the least respected professions in the eyes of the public? It turned out that scientists are on top of the list (second after medical doctors), and Knesset members are near the bottom of the list. How about improving the public’s respect for government and authority by electing a famous scientist as the next President of Israel, rather than a Knesset member?

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