NEW YORK — If you’re an optimist and were asked to name three of the most significant Jewish events of the past 12 months, you might cite the release and emotional homecoming of Gilad Shalit after more than five years in captivity; the protest movement that spread across the Arab world, signaling an end or challenge to autocratic rule and a push for democracy; and a Jerusalem-Washington relationship bolstered by new military and strategic advances, and politically by America’s decisive efforts to thwart Palestinian efforts to achieve statehood through the United Nations and to prevent a nuclear Iran through tightened sanctions.
For good measure you might add that American Jewish life is undergoing an exciting renaissance, with a burst of independent minyanim, and an array of social justice and startup groups among young people.
If you’re a pessimist, though, you could point to the same topics as proof that Israel is under increasing threat of physical and political harm from its enemies, and increased diplomatic strain with Washington. And you could make the case that with fewer young people interested in synagogues or Jewish organizational affiliation, American Jewish life is in deep decline.
Granted that we all view events through the prism of our own hopes and fears, is there an objective take on how Israel and the Jewish world fared in 2011?
Maybe not, but in trying to view what has transpired in the last 12 months with as much impartiality as I can muster, I would have to conclude that we have much to worry about.
Of course that’s nothing new. Jews are known for their pessimism. It used to be said that the quintessential Jewish telegram reads: “Start worrying. Details to follow.” (For those of us old enough to remember telegrams.)
The way I see it, while Israel’s economy continues to amaze, the Jewish state is more isolated in the world and facing a more chaotic and dangerous region than a year ago. Plus, Iran is that much closer to building a nuclear bomb, and no nation other than Israel is seriously considering military action to stop Tehran.
Yes, Gilad Shalit’s release was a moral high for a tiny nation that showed the world how much it values a single life. But in practical terms, releasing more than 1,000 terrorists underscored the inability of the Israeli military to rescue their man, the renewed clout of Hamas and the sober understanding that more Israeli lives may well be lost as a result of the swap.
Earlier this year, Israeli analysts who warned of the dire consequences of abandoning Mubarak in Egypt and were less than ecstatic about the Cairo street protesters, were viewed as political Scrooges, out of touch with the call for change charging through the region. But the ensuing months have shown that democracies aren’t formed overnight, and that the case Mubarak made for years in seeking U.S. support — that if he fell, he would be replaced by Islamic fundamentalists — seems to be correct.
When given the freedom to vote, most Egyptians are not choosing young liberals and secularists but leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and even more radical followers of Islam who are anti-Western, anti-women’s rights, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish.
While bolstering its border with Egypt militarily, Israel also faces a murderous Syrian government in disarray, the growing sense that there will be no peace with the Palestinians anytime soon, an increasingly hostile Turkey and an Iran determined to complete its nuclear mission, the rest of the world be damned.
But when Jerusalem turns to the United States for leadership, it finds an Obama administration focused on the 2012 re-election campaign, and with no love lost between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Does their personal relationship really matter in the scheme of foreign policy moves? Yes, in that trust between world leaders can have a huge impact. (Witness George W. Bush and Tony Blair bonding militarily during the lead-up to the Iraq War.) No, in the sense that the Washington-Jerusalem relationship has endured crises since Israel was founded, and the strategic ties remain strong.
That’s why Obama spoke out firmly at the United Nations this fall against the Palestinian Authority’s attempt at a diplomatic end-around toward statehood, and has stepped up diplomatic measures to pressure Iran.
Closer to home, assimilation, disinterest and a low birthrate continue to present major threats to American Jewish life and its communal structure.
The list of events, and how we choose to interpret them, goes on. Was the huge series of protests this summer in Israel calling for social change an ideal example of a nonviolent movement bringing about progress, or a fluke outcry against the continuing economic imbalance threatening the fabric of society?
Do we view the scene of Republican presidential candidates outdoing each other in support of Israel a harbinger of a significant shift in Mideast policy in Washington, or a soon-to-be-forgotten memory a year from now?
Amidst the uncertainty and our own conflicting views, what we do share is a common hope and prayer that 2012 will be a year of renewed faith in America and Israel, and the noble ideals we strive to fulfill in our commitment to each.
Happy New Year.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)