There’s one great joke in the otherwise forgettable movie The Flintstones, which came out in 1994: The Stone Age hero is shown reading a chiseled tablet with the headline, “War breaks out in the Middle East.”
I often feel like Fred Flintstone when I read back issues of NJJN or any Jewish newspaper. Hairstyles change, one set of leaders replaces another, but the headlines appear to be on a loop, just like the backgrounds in, well, a Flintstones cartoon: “Is president serious about new peace push?” “Israel’s dual approach: Gaza incursion, cease-fire talks.” “Orthodox parties protest reforms.”
Versions of these perennial headlines appeared in NJJN exactly 10 years ago this week, when I was hired as editor-in-chief. The anniversary put me in a nostalgic mood. I’ve been looking at our old issues to see what’s changed and what hasn’t since I came aboard in March 2003.
As usual, I am struck by how little has changed. In some ways, that’s a good thing. We tend to define decades by the turmoil and upheaval they have seen — Depression, wars, Holocaust, revolution, social breakdown. So there’s something comforting that another 10 years have gone by and we’re still talking about the right of women to pray at the Western Wall, and how to make Jewish day schools more affordable. “Consider the alternative,” says my dad, whenever I complain about growing old.
Of course, there’s also something depressing about the fact that we are still arguing about women’s rights and the high cost of Jewish living. Haven’t we solved this already?
As for the peace process, the fact that so little has changed seems less surprising in 2013 than it did in 2003. That winter, the Second Intifada continued to claim Israeli lives, and we even included a weekly “In memory” box devoted to recent victims of terror. The one-two punch of the Intifada and Sept. 11 had all but killed any talk of peace, although in 2003 its supporters were still drawing on fresh memories of the optimism of the mid-1990s. The March 13, 2003 edition carried an article headlined, “Israel hails Palestinian choice for premier,” about a Palestinian “pragmatist” named Mahmoud Abbas. Even Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon welcomed Abbas’ appointment as “a positive move in the right direction.”
In 2003, many observers were flabbergasted that the “inevitable” two-state solution had not come to be. Ten years later, I understand why so many believe that the split between Fatah and Hamas and a rightward trend in Israel leave little hope for negotiations. I don’t understand the jubilant tone in which some people greet that grim news.
In my first issue of NJJN, we were reporting on the looming showdown between the United States and Iraq. In my very first editorial, I wrote about those who said the war was a creation of the Jews in George W. Bush’s brain trust. “Where discussion of Bush’s pro-Israel hawks becomes troubling,” I wrote, “is when it distorts cause and effect.” The Jewish neocons supported Saddam’s ouster, I argued, but Bush and his considerable array of non-Jewish advisers came to their own conclusions.
Ten years later, change a few of those names and the setting, and the column would still be relevant. America is still confounded by a belligerent power in the Middle East that threatens its own interests as well as Israel’s. And once again, you hear overheated grumblings about Jewish influence, like the Harvard Crimson columnist who recently opined, “The growing sound of drumbeats on Capitol Hill over Iran is a symptom of the influence of the Israel lobby rather than the demands of the situation at hand.”
Meanwhile, we also reported about the deep ambivalence among rank-and-file Jews about the impending invasion of Iraq. Jewish organizations were cautious but largely supportive of the war, while Jews in the pews and the pulpits were more inclined to ask if Saddam was the right target. (On March 13, 2003, our editorial asked, “Are American troops, and Iraqi civilians, about to lose their lives in a substitute war?”)
That split — between Jewish leaders and the Jewish street — also survived the next 10 years. Last year, Jewish papers like ours, quoting the heads of Jewish organizations and pro-Israel groups, suggested that Jews were deeply divided over their choices in the 2012 election. In the end, however. President Obama still drew a solid majority of Jewish voters.
What has changed in 10 years? The recession took a big toll on the newspaper — and Jewish life in general. It wasn’t just a matter of trimming costs and staff, which we had to do. Throughout the Jewish world, the 2008 crash and its aftermath left many of us wary of dreaming big. Even with the economy on the rebound, people seem reluctant to spend — not just dollars, but intellectual capital as well.
At the same time, the (print) newspaper industry continued its plunge into the unknown. As a niche paper, we’ve held on to our readers. The challenge is finding new and younger ones.
In an article introducing me to NJJN readers, I said, “A Jewish newspaper is a communal conversation, and everyone is invited to take part.” Some things change, but I hope that never does.