Fears that the new millennium would bring a global computer catastrophe proved to be a false alarm. But the switch-over from the ‘90s to the ‘00s did unleash the J2K virus.
Think of it as history’s practical joke on the Jews. Things were going so well through most of 2000 — building on positive trends in the 1990s — then matters took a sudden and sharp turn for the worse.
The Israelis and Palestinians were hashing out the details of a final peace deal, and an Orthodox Jew seemed poised to be elected vice president of the United States. It was a time of unprecedented wealth and philanthropic activity in the Jewish community. For a few months it seemed that American Jews could have it both ways: full integration without assimilation at home and a Jewish state free of war in the Middle East.
Before 2000 was over, however, the convergence of these utopian developments had unraveled. Joe Lieberman was undone by hanging chads and confused retirees who ended up voting for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore. The peace process collapsed eventually after the Palestinians rejected Israeli proposals for a final deal and launched the second Intifada.
So instead of a golden age in Jewish history, the past 10 years ended up bringing waves of unforeseen anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism worldwide, increased scrutiny of Jewish organizations in the United States, and growing threats to Israel and the West from Islamic terrorist organizations and Iran. Not to mention a shrinking Jewish philanthropic landscape, collateral damage from the near collapse of the global financial system.
If the eruption of the Intifada in September 2000 killed the hopes for peace, then the sure signs that we had entered a new, darker era came almost a year later, starting with the United Nations anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa.
The global forum to “combat racism” became a magnet for anti-Israel activists. JTA reported how the Arab Lawyers Union distributed pamphlets filled with caricatures of hook-nosed Jews depicted as Nazis, spearing Palestinian children, dripping blood from their fangs. Nearby, at an overlapping conference of NGOs, fliers were found with a photo of Hitler, declaring that if the Nazis had won, “There would be no Israel, and no Palestinian bloodshed.”
Jewish activists were stunned by the intensity of the invective they encountered, underscoring the degree to which they were unaware and unprepared for the scope and intensity of the anti-Israel movement emerging worldwide.
Organizers ultimately managed to keep the harshest condemnations of Israel out of the conference’s final document. But Palestinians and their allies used their time at the gathering to coordinate and launch an international campaign aimed at isolating and delegitimizing the Jewish state through divestment, boycotts, and other means.
Days later, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks robbed U.S. Jews (and Americans of all stripes) of any sense of safety that they had from the gathering storm of militant Islamic forces overseas.
Israel, meanwhile, would face a series of violent threats, starting with a relentless Palestinian terrorism campaign that killed more than 1,000 Israelis and crippled the country’s tourism industry. Later, Iranian-aided terrorist organizations — Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon — fought two wars with Israel in less than three years and unleashed a barrage of missile attacks against the country’s civilian population. While Israel’s southern and northern fronts remain relatively quiet for now, the country’s security establishment is racing to head off what it views as the greatest potential threat: a nuclear Iran.
As the decade comes to a close, the push for new anti-Iranian sanctions has become a top priority for many U.S. Jewish organizations. They enter this legislative battle after years of enduring sharp political attacks from those who claim Jewish groups take their orders from Jerusalem or put Israel’s interests ahead of America’s. These attacks have come from respectable corners of society, not just fringe extremists. Especially in left-wing circles, a growing list of academics and journalists have signed on to this argument, most notably professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who leveled the unfair claim that Jewish groups played a key role in promoting the Iraq war and did so for Jerusalem’s benefit. Former President Jimmy Carter repeatedly claimed that pro-Israel advocates were endangering the United States by stifling internal debate over Israeli policies.
If all that weren’t enough, Mel Gibson resurrected a host of classic anti-Jewish images with The Passion of the Christ.
In past decades, such developments could have been dismissed as isolated incidents. But the rise of the Internet has amplified their impact and reach, creating a seamless continuum among critics of Israel and the Jewish community, where fringe thinking invades the mainstream and establishment respectability rubs off on extremists. And tens of millions are reading and watching.
Is there a reason for optimism, any hope for a historical rebound? The messianic sense of exuberance that bubbled up in some corners of Israel and the Jewish community back in the 1990s and 2000 seems impossible, if not farcical and illusory. Yet Israel and the Jews have survived worse.
Perhaps, then, the lesson heading into the next decade should be to remember there is always a way out and a way up, but that dreams are not enough. You need plenty of will and an open-eyed realism to match.