For many of us, 2015 cannot end soon enough.
It has been a year punctuated by Islamic terror attacks, first in January, in Paris, at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket. It culminated with the Friday night slaughter across Paris in November and, as if to underscore the spread of murderous ideology to our shores, the shooting deaths of 14 innocents at a Dec. 2 office party in San Bernardino, Calif., by a young couple committed to the cause of the Islamic State.
Since October, Israelis have found themselves, once more, the target of Arab hatred in the form of seemingly random and spontaneous “lone wolf” attacks by young Palestinians with no known cause other than to kill Jews — by knife, ramming cars, or any other means at their disposal. When security forces responded in some instances by killing the assailants, Israel was accused of not fighting fair, as if the victims had been the cause of their attackers’ assaults. In a sense, though, that’s how much of the world views this bloodshed. Israeli Jews, including women and children and especially those living in West Bank communities, are seen as guilty of the crime of being Jews living where they shouldn’t be, in a Jewish state.
And while Israeli leaders emphasize that the violence they face is part of the Islamic terrorism the West abhors, Jerusalem receives relatively little empathy. Critics attribute Israeli occupation as the root cause of its problems, ignoring the fact that the PLO began its attacks on Israel three years before the Six-Day War, which led to the West Bank and Gaza coming under Israeli control. Unanswered is the question of which land the Palestine Liberation Organization, now headed by Mahmoud Abbas, was seeking to “liberate” — and whether it is the very presence of a Jewish state in the region that is the real cause of unending Palestinian rage?
Much of 2015 was marked by the deadly serious, rancorous drama over the Iran nuclear deal. That drama dragged on for months and exposed the existential danger Israel faces and the deep divisions that separate Democrats and Republicans in Washington as well as those of us on the left and right within our own Jewish community. It was an ugly, brutal battle, each side convinced that the other’s victory would spell doom for Jerusalem. And it was ratcheted up by the very public clash between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama over the deal, highlighted by the prime minister’s decision to take his case to Congress in defiance of the president, and Obama’s angry retorts.
Feelings of anger, fear and frustration among many Americans who believe their world has become more dangerous have found an outlet in the bizarre presidential campaign of Donald Trump, the blustering billionaire businessman whose every violation of political correctness and common decency seems to increase his popularity among a significant segment of the population. Trump’s fellow Republican contenders have been slow to take him on, and the pre-primary campaign to date has been marked by strident, unrealistic and dangerous pronouncements that sound tough but are simplistic and lack substance. Stop immigration, ban Muslims, carpet bomb ISIS.
On the Democratic side, the main concern for much of the year was not about Hillary Clinton prevailing over socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, but about whether her personal e-mail fiasco will lead to an indictment. Also, we wonder which Hillary would be up for election — the assured expert on foreign and domestic affairs or the less-than-forthright, canny candidate who believes the presidency is owed her.
At year’s end, with so many worrisome issues unresolved, I found respite — and a ray of hope — at this past week’s biennial Jewish Week Gala, surrounded by about 300 supporters of our media group’s achievements and goals. I saw a common thread among the honorees, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein (Community Leader) and Leon Wieseltier (Thought Leader), and guest speaker Ruth Calderon, the Israeli educator and former member of Knesset: Each has excelled by translating the power of words into actions that reflect deep Jewish values, an antidote to the one-dimensional pronouncements that proliferate these days.
Raised secular, Ruth Calderon fell in love with Talmud and earned a doctorate in the subject. She has made a career of teaching Jewish texts to young, non-observant Israelis. Calderon became famous when her maiden address to the Knesset in 2013 went viral. Holding a Talmud in her hands, she made a plea for mutual respect and understanding, and spoke warmly of how our sacred texts were the treasure of all Jews, not just Orthodox scholars, and should be studied and appreciated widely.
Now a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, she continues to bridge the gap between Orthodox and secular, between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and between the perceived roles of men and women.
Her message to the Gala audience was to recognize and appreciate that the traditional relationship of the American Jewish donor and the Israeli beneficiary has become more complex, more nuanced, with each taking on attributes of the other.
Rabbi Lookstein, who will become rabbi emeritus next month after leading Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side for more than 57 years, and the Ramaz School for almost five decades, is respected well beyond his Modern Orthodox community. His career has been marked by service and leadership as he has sought ways, in his sermons and in his actions, to unite Jews rather than exploit their ideological and denominational differences. Along the way he has championed civil rights and the Soviet Jewry movement and called for more tolerance within Orthodoxy. He expressed gratitude to his followers and pledged to continue to serve the greater community.
Leon Wieseltier, a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a senior fellow in culture and policy at the Brookings Institution, has displayed courage in speaking out as a public intellectual on a wide range of moral issues. His has often been a lonely voice in defending Israel in international forums, though he has not shied away from calling out its political shortcomings.
In his remarks at the Gala, Wieseltier emphasized our responsibility, in the tradition of Moses and Maimonides, to be thoughtful in whatever we do. “The insistence of the Jewish tradition that actions have meanings, that commandments have reasons, that going through the motions without any ideas about the motions is an inferior form of fidelity — all this imposes a measure of intellectual responsibility on all of us.”
In the spirit of truth and intellectual freedom, he said he would welcome advocates of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) “into our Hillels so as to debate them, to refute them, to humiliate them intellectually.” But Wieseltier asserted that “our contempt must be supported by our reason and our knowledge. Otherwise we seem not confident of our views but afraid of theirs.”
He urged that we educate ourselves and our children properly, wondering aloud “how many American Jews … can give an account of the nature of Jewish peoplehood, and the meaning of Zionism, and the historical circumstances of Israel’s creation, and the moral and philosophical grounds of the existence of a Jewish state in the land of Israel?”
Together, through words and deeds, the three featured speakers offered a means of navigating the problems that surround and sometimes overwhelm us in what Wieseltier called “this beautiful and horrifying world in which we live.” Each pointed toward a reliance on the rooted wisdom of our tradition, and faith in our ability to live with hope for the future.
I found that a comfort as we approach the new year — one we pray will be a better one for our people, and all humanity.
For interviews with Rabbi Lookstein and Leon Wieseltier, and gala photos, see The Jewish Week website at thejewishweek.com.