On the cusp of a new Jewish year, here are a few things I absorbed during the one drawing to a close:
The old saying about the Jewish holidays always coming early or late isn’t quite true.
Yes, Rosh HaShanah starts only two nights after Labor Day this year, catching some of us off guard. But those who mark time by the Jewish calendar as well, understand that this Rosh HaShanah, like every Rosh HaShanah, was preceded by the month of Elul, a time of introspection and reflection leading up to the High Holy Days, and each morning of Elul the shofar is sounded at the end of services, a very real reminder that Rosh HaShanah is almost upon us.
The more we can integrate both calendars — the secular and the Jewish — in our lives the fewer times we’ll be surprised by the approach of Jewish holidays.
The Arab Spring is less about democracy than about seeking immediate, emotional and often violent solutions to systemic problems, namely authoritarian rule.
While much of the Western world was swept up in the initial excitement of the masses rising up to insist on their own basic freedoms and to overthrow autocratic rulers in countries like Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Syria over the last several years, Israel preached caution and warned of dangerous results. Revolutions often are more successful in toppling an unpopular leader than in achieving true democracy. (See Iran, circa 1979.)
Egypt and Syria are major areas of crisis today for different reasons. Egyptians have brought down two leaders in two years but have been unable to coalesce around issues of common cause. Now its military leaders are waging war against Islamists rather than seeking ways to bridge ideological gaps through a political process.
Syria’s initial peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad were met with violence, spurring a revolt that has deteriorated and escalated into a full-scale civil war, with Islamic militants joining the fray.
One lesson, articulated by Natan Sharansky years ago, after Hamas was elected in Gaza, is that elections should be the culmination of the democratic process, not the beginning.
“Never Again” is a powerful but empty phrase.
For those who thought the world could never tolerate another genocide after the Holocaust, history has proven otherwise, all too often, over the ensuing decades, from Cambodia to Sudan. And now to Syria, where more than 100,000 civilians have been killed in the last two years while world governments dither or look away.
In the age of instant news, video and YouTube, the reality and scale of the slaughter can’t be ignored. But even civil societies with the power to intervene, like our own, have done nothing effective until now to stop the killing.
All the choices are bad — taking military action at the risk of another long-term U.S. engagement in a no-win situation, or remaining on the sidelines, weakening America’s international image and humanitarian commitment.
President Barack Obama’s declaration of a “red line” about Syria’s use of chemical gas to kill its own women and children was violated last week, on the first anniversary of his issuing it, as Assad probes America’s resolve. It’s an eerie echo of Hitler’s testing the world’s willingness to intervene when he saw that no country would take in the 937 Jewish refugees on the German ship, the “St. Louis,” in the spring of 1939. He launched World War II a few months later.
Politics still trumps all in Israel.
One can debate whether or not Israel should be engaged in peace talks with the Palestinians today, but it was unconscionable for the Netanyahu government to release more than two dozen Palestinian terrorists with blood on their hands as a precondition for the negotiations. It happened in large part, though, because a key member of the cabinet, Naftali Bennett, the minister of religion and leader of The Jewish Home party, refused the alternative proposal to freeze settlement construction during the nine months set for the talks.
The freeze seemed to me a far better option — and signal to Israeli society and the world — than allowing murderers to go free, perhaps to strike again.
Netanyahu has his eye on the prize: thwarting Iran’s nuclear program.
The most reasonable explanation for why Israel has agreed to the latest round of U.S.-led peace talks with the Palestinian Authority is that the prime minister is focused primarily on Iran, and the existential threat posed by its nuclear program. And he has an understanding that America will either participate or more likely allow Israel to act militarily to prevent that program from being completed.
As for the peace talks, the most — and perhaps only — practical, positive outcome will be a long-term interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that will deal with borders, putting the issues of Jerusalem and the right of return on hold, perhaps permanently, if not explicitly. It’s possible that Netanyahu and Abbas could live with that outcome and Secretary of State John Kerry could not only save face with such an outcome, but also make a real contribution to Israeli-Palestinian stability.
The divide between American and Israeli Jews is growing wider.
The latest round of conflict over Women of the Wall, and the wide support among liberal American Jews for equal religious treatment in Israel, underscores the gap.
Despite a recent Israeli court ruling allowing women to pray as they wish at the Western Wall, also known as the Kotel, Women of the Wall have been prevented from doing so, and most Israelis simply aren’t interested in the cause. Maybe that’s because they’ve been so turned off to the strict rulings of their Chief Rabbinate over the years that they are simply alienated from religion. (A tragedy in its own right.)
Many non-Orthodox American Jews perceive themselves as second-class citizens in the eyes of Israel. They seek support from Jerusalem’s political leaders, who may sympathize with them but know that there are many good political reasons not to alienate the haredi parties while there is virtually no political capital in taking up the cause of diaspora Jews on this issue.
But asking us for ongoing political and financial support while ignoring our interests does not make for a promising relationship, especially for younger Jews who have fewer emotional ties to the Jewish state than their parents and grandparents do.
The ray of hope, though, is Birthright Israel, which continues to send, engage and evoke enthusiastic responses from tens of thousands of young American Jews each year who may translate those good feelings into support for Israel.
Israeli and diaspora Jews are still one people.
On the first day of a month-long visit to Israel this past spring, my wife, Judy, and I stopped at a popular frozen-yogurt stand on Emek Refaim, in the heart of the German Colony of Jerusalem, where it’s just as likely you’ll hear English spoken as Hebrew.
While Judy was asking the proprietor about various flavors and options, the Israeli woman standing next to us was paying for her yogurt shake. She overheard Judy ask about a certain combination of fruits, then turned to her and said, “That’s what I just ordered. Here,” offering her straw, “taste mine.”
Judy demurred, and noted that the woman hadn’t even tasted it yet.
That’s OK, the woman insisted, just try it. Implied but not spoken was: after all, we’re all family.
Where else, we marveled, could this happen?