Year Of Hurt Forcing Tough New Choices
Fri, 12/25/2009
Editor and Publisher

At the end of 1992, referring to a 12-month period of embarrassing family woes including three of her four children’s marital break-ups, Queen Elizabeth famously declared the year an “annus horribilus.”

Any Jewish leader reviewing the events of the past 12 months might well refer to 5769 in the more familiar vernacular as an “annus bloodytsuris.”

And there was plenty of tsuris to go around, from a worldwide economic recession punctuated by the Bernard Madoff scandal, with its deep impact on Jewish charities and families; to the disgrace of the AgriProcessors kosher slaughterhouse charges, and more recently the arrest of several rabbis in New Jersey charged with money-laundering and the sale of human organs; to the increase of anti-Semitism in Europe and the growing tensions in the Mideast, with international fury over Israel’s military incursion into Gaza, the West seemingly stymied as Iran prepares a nuclear device, and the most public U.S.-Israel policy spat in years on display for all to witness.

Every year has its troubling events, but what made this one so worrisome were the long-term effects set into motion. Almost a year after the economic meltdown that began on Wall Street and spread around the globe, it has become painfully clear that the recovery will be slow, and that the old order of financial confidence and growth may never return.

That is not all bad, and it is understood, in hindsight, that we as a society had overextended ourselves in far too many ways, and a corrective was in order. But it hurts, nonetheless. This is particularly true in the Jewish community, where well-intentioned philanthropists and foundations had been on a consistently upward arc, spending more and more dollars on an increasing number of new and trendy projects to revitalize American Jewish life.

That all changed dramatically, virtually overnight. Between the losses brought about by the recession in general and the Madoff scandal in particular, Jewish organizations and foundations have been hit hard, and forced to cut back in scope and staff, and to reassess their core values and missions.

Should tending to the needs of the new poor and helping the unemployed find jobs take precedence over finding creative ways to attract young, unaffiliated Jews to their heritage? Which is a priority and which a luxury? These are the issues we are now grappling with, weighing today’s needs against tomorrow’s.

In this season of reflection, entering the High Holy Days, we are troubled and embarrassed by the worldwide notoriety of Bernie Madoff, whose many victims included Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel and the good women of Hadassah. More than anyone, this identifiable New York Jewish businessman has become the very symbol of greed, excess and criminality writ large.

What does his scheming and guilt say about our community, about each of us, if anything? Were his investors to blame as well for believing in a deal too good to be true, letting self-interest trump logic?

Similarly, we reflect on our response to the news of the AgriProcessors kashrut scandal in Iowa, amid charges of illegal workers and unfair labor practices, and upon learning of the rabbis arrested here this summer as part of a widespread investigation into public corruption. Has the true meaning of kashrut been lost in the push for financial gain? Has the drive to sustain charitable institutions and schools become so powerful that our leaders lose sight of basic ethics, as well as the law?

And then there is the Mideast, where Israel’s very legitimacy as a state is questioned more now than it was six decades ago, in its infancy, particularly among European intellectuals. We insist that it can’t happen here, but worry privately that the Jimmy Carter and Walt-Mearsheimer view — that support for Israel hurts U.S. policy abroad — could take hold, especially when J Street, the new lobby with a “pro-peace” stand that appears to reflect the outlook of top Obama advisers like Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, gains traction.

Witness international reaction to Israel’s counter-attack against Hamas last winter. After enduring thousands of rockets from Gaza, despite having completely pulled out of the region four years ago, the Jewish state struck back hard, inflicting heavy casualties on Hamas fighters, who embedded themselves among civilians. The resulting deaths of non-combatants were what the world focused on, not the context for the bloodshed.

Never mind that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Arab states in the region supported Israel’s actions; Israel, whose army’s commitment to ethical behavior exceeds that of any other nation, including the U.S., was accused of “war crimes” while the terrorists of Hamas, who used their own civilians to shield them, reaped the benefits.

Washington’s support for Israel remains solid, but there are growing concerns among pro-Israel supporters that the Obama administration is more interested in reaching out to the Arab world than in signaling to the world its strategic alliance with Israel.

The controversy over settlements seemed manufactured, with the administration picking on a vulnerable Israeli policy to score points among the Arabs. But while President Obama’s ratings among Israelis have sunk to 4 percent, objective observers of the administration (and there are very few) would acknowledge that so far, the deep distrust of the president among Israelis is based more on projected worries than actual policy.
Indeed, there are those who believe that continued Arab lack of response to Washington’s push for signs of compromise will deepen Obama’s empathy for the Jewish state.

Not surprisingly, Israelis have rallied around Prime Minister Netanyahu in the face of U.S. criticism; even most opponents of Jewish settlements recognize that Arab intransigence is the primary stumbling block to progress, not the settlements.

Even more troubling among the Israeli populace is the concern about the country’s once-proud educational system, which has lost its stature in recent years, and the crippling corruption among even the highest echelons of government. Last month, within one week, two former cabinet ministers entered prison, former President Katzav went on trial for rape and former Prime Minister Olmert was indicted on a range of financial and ethical charges.

A country unable to trust its leaders while facing existential dangers is a country in deep trouble.

And of course there is Iran, which appears to be committed to producing a nuclear bomb, with a president calling for the destruction of the evil Zionist state. At year’s end, too few outside of the Jewish community seemed to recognize that not only Israel but the entire Mideast, and the West, would be threatened by a nuclear Iran.

But as we begin a new year, Jewish tradition teaches that in addition to reflection and repentance, there is the prospect of renewal, progress and second chances. “Choose life,” the Torah tells us, and despite the seriousness of the Days of Awe, we have faith in the future and believe that we will be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Let us hope that is the case and that 5770 will mark the beginning of a return to stability and security for us as individuals, as a nation and as a people.

Postscript:

Has the landscape improved since the Rosh HaShanah season, when the above was written? Hardly.

Birthright Israel, the most successful large-scale Jewish identity program ever, is marking its 10th anniversary in hopes of making the 10-day free trip to Israel a rite of passage for the majority of 18- to 26-year-olds in the world.

But the project is racing against the trend of assimilation in the diaspora, and in the Mideast peace seems more elusive than ever. Buoyed by U.S. pressure on Israel to stop settlement activity, the Palestinian Authority is insisting on a complete freeze on settlements before resuming peace talks with Israel. Hamas remains at odds with the PA, and hopes for progress are fading as the Obama administration looks elsewhere for foreign policy success.

Efforts of engagement with Iran, a key component of the Obama approach, have gone nowhere to date, with Tehran defying Washington as it continues its nuclear efforts apace. The outcome of this carrot vs. stick standoff will determine the tenor of American policy, and perhaps far more, in the new decade.

G.R.
 
E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org