Writing a column focusing on Jewish and Israeli identity means you have the luxury of summing up the year three times. On the eve of Rosh Hashana, just before Independence Day and as the digits change in the Gregorian calendar. Or not. As 2016 comes around, however, there seems to be no escape from taking a hard look at ourselves at the same time the rest of the Western world is doing the same. Because whether we are considering Israel or the Diaspora, it’s hard to claim that we Jews have covered ourselves in glory in 2015. And no, it’s not just because there were no Jewish Nobel Prize laureates this year.
I know what you’re already saying. How in a year when racists and xenophobes have been particularly successful across the world, from the opening stages of the race for the Republican presidential candidacy to the first round of the local elections in France, and of course to the increasingly authoritarian regimes in Russia and Turkey, could I possible argue that Jewish leaders have been any worse? Well I’m not. Sure, as the region around us has become evermore murderous and sectarian boundaries are replacing national borders and being demarcated in fresh blood, the worst depravities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are almost quaint by comparison. But why should that satisfy us? Strangely, it’s always those who believe we are “a light unto the nations” who quickly fall back on the argument that we’re a “nation like all other nations” when reality doesn’t confirm to their rosy descriptions.
2015 will be remembered as the year in which the Jewish state reelected a prime minister who on Election Day warned that “the Arab voters are moving in massive numbers to the ballot box.” This is really the only way we should remember this year. Benjamin Netanyahu made a half-apology, expressing his “regret” for “unintentionally” maligning Israeli Arabs, and he was telling the truth. He didn’t mean to offend anyone, just to win the election. So there was an outcry in Israel and the Diaspora and even the Anti-Defamation League called upon Netanyahu to apologize, but the bottom line is that he was reelected. That doesn’t make us any worse than those who voted (twice) for Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey this year, the Russians who continued to overwhelmingly support Vladimir Putin, and those Americans who according to the polls could conceivably vote for Donald Trump.
Pragmatism, while justified, is sad
Not that everything the prime minister did this year was deplorable. It’s hard to fault Netanyahu’s actions on the Syrian front. He’s been pragmatic and resourceful and was the first leader to realize that the Obama administration was going to do nothing about the ongoing bloodshed, and swiftly coordinate operations with Putin, the moment Russia’s president decided to deploy his forces to Syria. But pragmatism, while justified, is sad. Menachem Begin’s decision in 1982 to invade Lebanon was disastrous for all concerned, but there was something to his claim to be acting to prevent a genocide of the Maronite Christian community, even though it was ultimately deluded and detached from the reality of the machinations between Ariel Sharon and Bashir Jemayel. Begin had a romantic attachment to notions of Jewish duty to the world, which is why he decided in 1977 to take in Vietnamese refugees. It was a tiny symbolic number, 263 refugees altogether, but it reflected a belief of Jewish responsibility.
Compare that with both the way Netanyahu totally pooh-poohed the notion that Israel take in Syrian refugees; add to that the way Jewish leaders in Germany, Austria and the United States voiced their opposition to the reception of the refugees in their own home countries. No, not all Jewish leaders called for shutting the door in their faces; there were many, including mainstream figures such as the Chief Rabbi of Britain, who called for welcoming the refugees. But they weren’t the ones setting the Jewish tone in 2015.
Miserably short memories
It was the year that Jews forgot they were not so long ago the most persecuted and dispersed people on earth, perennial rootless refugees forever seeking a safe haven. So we’ve finally found sanctuary in our homeland or in comfortable Western democracies and our memories prove to be miserably short.
When across our border, within sight of Israeli military watchtowers, a bloodbath continued for a fifth year with the mass murder of over 300,000 Syrians by the Assad regime, aided by Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and ISIS, and half the country’s population has been displaced, we stood aside. Israel probably had no business intervening in Syria and would have been unlikely to succeed in improving matters if it had. But the fact that our role was only slightly less cynical than that played by Iran and Turkey is scant comfort.
We’re told that “when an Israeli murders Palestinian civilians the entire country condemns them. When Palestinians murder Jewish civilians they all celebrate,” as if that’s somehow supposed to make us feel better about ourselves. Well, if that’s the standard you’re interested in measuring yourself by, then OK. But if 2014 was the year in which Jewish vigilantes burned one Palestinian teenager to death, then 2015 was the year in which they went one better and burned parents and their 18-month-old baby. So unanimous national condemnation doesn’t seem to have worked, or maybe it wasn’t that unanimous and we have a problem.
2015 was the year in which Jews demonstrated to themselves that we’re just like the other, no worse perhaps, but probably not much better. Realizing that is crucial, if we still have any aspirations of living up to the expectation we once had of being different.
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