Preparing for the new Jewish year, in part by reviewing some of the big news stories of the past year, I was reminded that most major issues don’t get resolved in dramatic fashion.
For Israel there has long been the dangerous stalemate with the Palestinians and threats from its neighbors.
For American Jews there are those Mideast worries as well as the growing divides at home, from the gap between Republicans and Democrats on issues domestic and foreign, to the sharpening split within our own community, religiously and politically, to the worrisome gulf between generations, with younger Jews detached from the beliefs and practices of their elders.
Will the Jewish community of the future be smaller? Less committed? Mostly observant? Will Israel survive and thrive?
From year to year, it seems, these ongoing issues evolve, slide along, shed certain aspects and take on others, and sometimes seem to disappear for awhile before re-emerging.
Of course there are dramatic exceptions, momentous events, like the release of Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier abducted inside Israel by Hamas in June 2006 and finally freed last October in a prisoner exchange after countless off-and-on negotiations. Even as the debate raged among his countrymen about the steep price paid for his homecoming — 1,027 Palestinian and Arab prisoners, some of them with Jewish blood on their hands — there was a deep sense of satisfaction not only in the return of an Israel Defense Forces soldier, which every family could relate to, but a stubborn pride in Israel’s national sense of compassion, its value for human life.
Gilad Shalit, still painfully thin, is back with his family, apparently adjusting to Israeli society and doing what he wants to do, covering the local sports scene for an Israeli newspaper.
But the larger issue — how to calculate the equation of an Israeli soldier’s life versus the strong possibility that some of those freed Arab prisoners may return to terror — remains unresolved.
Reading through a year’s worth of news puts things in perspective. Sometimes a word or phrase brings it all back: the steady drumbeat of Occupy Wall Street; Republican Bob Turner winning Anthony Weiner’s congressional seat; Jewish pride over Ryan Braun winning the National League MVP before being caught up in a steroid scandal; an SAT-cheating scandal in Great Neck; religious zealots spitting at an 8-year-old girl in Beit Shemesh, setting off anger and reflection over the treatment of women in Israel; Sheldon Adelson portrayed as the powerful manipulator of presidential politics; Matisyahu shaves.
An issue one year ago that was at the forefront of pro-Israel concerns and that seems to have faded away, at least for now, is the possibility of a United Nations vote for Palestinian statehood.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had predicted that such a vote would produce a “tsunami” of anti-Israel activity, but Washington stood firm at the UN in support of Israel, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas backed down.
Still, Israel felt as vulnerable as ever in its history as the region underwent a political earthquake.
There was little talk of the Palestinian issue, primarily because it was eclipsed by the crises raging over Egypt, Syria and Iran. (And since this was a presidential election year there was no real American push for negotiations.)
What had begun as “the Arab Spring” was increasingly seen as the season of Arab cataclysm, chaos and confusion. In Egypt, the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak after three decades of autocratic rule gave way to a decidedly mixed outcome — free elections, but resulting in the emerging power of the Muslim Brotherhood, with its foundational fundamentalism and opposition to a Jewish state and the Jewish people.
President Mohamed Morsi has asserted his power, challenging and prevailing over the old military establishment (which, ironically, was on very good terms with Jerusalem). So far the cold peace with Israel is holding, but for how long? That’s what Jerusalem asks as it moves to bolster its military presence in the Sinai.
Syria continues to deteriorate in dramatic fashion, exposing to all the world a cynical autocrat in Damascus who makes his father look benevolent by comparison, methodically murdering his own people by the thousands. One painful lesson learned: for all the international condemnations of Bashar Assad and expressions of outrage, he goes on, unchallenged by those with the power to stop him.
Will Syria become a failed state if Assad falls? What will become of its stockpile of deadly nerve gas? Will Iran step in to take control?
Israel is seeking to protect and bolster its borders with Egypt and Syria. But its deepest concern for the foreseeable future is twofold: dealing at once with its greatest ally, Washington, sworn to protect the Jewish state, and its most powerful enemy, Tehran, repeatedly calling for the elimination of “the Zionist entity.”
The tensions between the U.S. and Israel over Iran in terms of timing, policy and commitment appear to be coming to a head, leaving Jerusalem with an impossible choice: to strike out against the Iranian nuclear facilities soon, risking its all-important relationship with Washington and the very real possibility of a violent attack from Hamas, Hezbollah and possibly Iran; or hold back and rely on the U.S. either to forestall a military confrontation with Iran through negotiations or take the lead in a major attack.
The Iran nuclear program has been building for years. For much of that time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a lone, leading voice warning the world of the dangers of Iran with the bomb. Now he’s being heard, though many, including a number of his own military experts, feel he is overstating the threat, needlessly rushing toward conflict.
There is a sense of an impending showdown, with no good outcome. It seems hard to imagine today, but is it possible that a year from now the issue will not be resolved, one way or another? And if that proves to be the case, is that a good thing?
King Solomon, the wisest of men, wrote in Ecclesiastes: “What has been will be again. There is nothing new under the sun.”
But on the eve of the High Holy Days, a time of fresh starts, we can pray that the new year will bring creative, fulfilling answers to seemingly impossible dilemmas, and that we will continue to be The Eternal People, with new challenges as well as new reasons to feel joy and pride in our history and our future.