New Year’s Reflections

New Year’s Reflections

The 10th of Tevet: Taking the Long View

Going over old clippings of news items from the beginning of the decade, I found a pessimistic evaluation by someone who was a government minister at the time. It claimed that Arafat had a “strategic advantage” in that he did not need to "win" the terror war launched against Israeli civilians in 2000, but just not to "lose" it. Even after tactical defeat, if Arafat was still standing at the end of the confrontation—even in tatters—the victory was his.

Now, at the end of the decade, it strikes me that the former Israeli leader had it exactly backward: Israel, not its adversaries, has the strategic advantage of victory through simple survival.
As I write, Jews around the world prepare to mark the fast day of the 10th of Tevet. One of the “minor fasts,” it marks the date on the Hebrew calendar when Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s army began the siege of Jerusalem in 588 B.C.E. that led to the destruction of the First Temple and the First Exile.

In the context of historical memory going back that far, 2009 seems to demonstrate just how poorly our current enemies among the Palestinians, the Iranians, the world Jihadi movements, their sympathizers and fellow travelers fare. Their utter rejection of the Jewish State sets a low bar for us. If we can do nothing more to counter those dedicated to our eradication than survive, they will be defeated.

In that vein, we reach the end of this challenging, difficult year stronger than we were at the beginning. The dirty secret of last January's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza was that despite the tragic costs, it was a strategic victory. Our most embittered enemies, Iranian puppets Hizbullah and Hamas, have learned—at least for as long as they do not get alternative instructions from Tehran—that an attack on Israel carries a grave price: both groups, which brought nothing but misery and homegrown oppression to their own peoples, suffered hundreds of dead fighters.

Meanwhile, our relationship with the U.S. appears less fraught now that the Obama administration has witnessed first-hand what we are up against. We also seem to have weathered the latest attempts at “lawfare”—the manipulative use of human rights law to inflict political damage on Israel. Even our economy, with American oleh Stanley Fischer at the helm, is doing better than most.

All in all, 2009 was a frustrating time for the self-proclaimed sworn enemies of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

Poverty Trends Are Worrisome

The Taub Institute is a well-respected organization led by Dr. Dan Ben-David, a soft-spoken University of Chicago-trained economist. According to its recent eye-opening report on Israel’s economic policies and their effect on society, poverty is on the rise. Furthermore, Israelis pay more and more for welfare support without addressing the growing percentage of the population—currently about one-third, mostly among the Arabs and Ultra-Orthodox—that does not have the skills to compete in the modern marketplace and free itself from poverty, and does not encourage their children to acquire such skills. The long-term trend is unsustainable, both on economic and humanitarian grounds.

Religious Pluralism in Israel

More Israelis than ever before are sympathetic toward non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. Constitutionally, however, the issue is fading from political and legal discourse. Even as the established “Jewish church hierarchy” of Israel has lost public credibility over the years (one need only compare the public standing of the current chief rabbis with their predecessors in 1948), its perception of its own role has vastly expanded. This included most recently a demand to have the last word on Orthodox conversions conducted outside the borders of Israel. American Orthodox rabbis unfortunately caved in, and now American rabbis can no longer convert without authorization from functionaries of the Israeli rabbinate. American Jewry as a whole has a stake in the future of religious pluralism, and would be justified in playing a more active part on “church and state” issues in Israel, where Judaism is interwoven with government and so cannot thrive amid the free marketplace of ideas.

The Jewish People in Israel

Meanwhile, Israelis seem insufficiently aware of the vast, thriving Diaspora abroad. Israel's education system teaches virtually nothing about the millions of Jews who live around the world, even as the schools teach—rightly—about all those Diasporas whose end was tragedy and death. Israeli universities offer too few studies of the Jewish people, and even what used to be taught about Jewish peoplehood has been disappearing. As this field of study is foundering in Israel, American Jewry has an obligation and an opportunity to step up. We cannot wonder at—nor permanently abide—the lack of knowledge about the Diaspora among Israelis.

Our work is cut out for us in the year ahead. We have much for which to be thankful and much that needs fixing. Happy New Year!