In a three-part interview with Dr. Shalom Salomon Wald, Arutz Sheva will explore his research of Jewish civilization. His recently published book, ‘Rise and Decline of Civilizations: Lessons for the Jewish People’ covers dozens of major topics in Jewish history and current affairs. Our interview attempts to focus on only a fraction of them.
In the first installment of the interview, we focus on the subject of how the Jewish people survived the plight of major existential threats. The following installments will focus on Israel’s modern ‘Golden Age’, and finally the issue of Jewish demography.
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,” Wald tells Arutz Sheva. “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.”
Superpowers’ relations are not the only things that define Jewish civilization by any means. In Part II, Wald will cover the topic of what he perceives as Israel’s modern-day, under-appreciated Golden Age, including comparing it to its massive output of linguistic achievements and culture.