It was the best of times, it was the worst of — let’s stop right there. It was another Jewish year, which means moments of triumph clashed with genuine peril.
Perhaps the most disquieting trend of the year was the sense that Israel and its supporters had to fight not for its security, but for its very legitimacy. It wasn’t enough for Israel’s critics to attack its policies, but its very right to exist. A Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement seemed to be willing to settle for nothing less than the dissolution of the Jewish state. Some pop stars joined the misguided boycotters, although it was gratifying to see artists ignore the haters and instead join Israelis in dialogue and song.
American Jews angrily debated the policies of the Obama administration, especially after Vice President Biden’s visit to the region was hijacked by an ill-timed announcement of new Jewish housing starts in East Jerusalem. Even many who saw the housing announcement as provocation, however, thought the White House went too far in its criticism, and urged both sides to cool the rhetoric and keep disagreements behind closed doors. Established Jewish groups worried that the president was asking too much of Israel and too little of the Arab world — a tension that remained unresolved as direct talks were set to begin this week.
The year ended as it began — with tremendous uncertainty about Iran and whether the world community had the means and the gumption to thwart its nuclear ambitions. With talk turning to the feasibility of an Israeli attack on Iranian installations, the United States assured Jerusalem that the Iranians were at least a year from getting its nuclear weapons program on line. With U.S. troops bogged down in Afghanistan and trying to pull out of Iraq, many wondered if America and the world had the stomach for another armed conflict in the Middle East. Israel and its supporters asked aloud the “what if” question: Should diplomatic pressure fail, would Israel really have any choice but to pursue military action?
There were also tensions between Israel and the Diaspora, especially after an Israeli lawmaker introduced a bill that would consolidate the conversion process under Israel’s fervently Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. The bill exposed tensions that had been simmering for years, over Jewish identity, pluralism, and the increasing “haredization” of Israel’s religious sector. American Jews developed a case of whiplash — defending Israel to the rest of the world, and criticizing its leaders in an unfortunate family feud.
Yet it wasn’t all tension and argument. The Jewish community demonstrated to the world its compassion after the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Jewish nonprofits mobilized to provide aid, while Israeli medics showed the world a side of Israel it had long preferred to ignore. Perhaps the year’s most heartwarming story was that of a Haitian mother whose baby was born in an IDF field hospital. She called her child “Israel.”
It was a year in which Elena Kagan became the third Jewish justice on the current Supreme Court, a president’s daughter married a Jewish man in a ceremony that crystallized the debate over interfaith marriage, and in which the Jewish mayor of New York became an unlikely defender of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, in a speech that even detractors acknowledged paid moving tribute to the American idea of freedom.
As we join our families and communities in celebrating the Jewish New Year, let us hope that idea is never far from our minds. The year 5770 tested those freedoms in new and troubling ways. Let’s hope 5771 offers some release and relief, for us, for Israel, and for the world. L’shana tova.