NEW YORK — Remember Y2K? Ten years ago this week, on the eve of a new year, a new decade and a new millennium, there were daily headlines everywhere predicting various forces of doom on the horizon, from computer malfunctions when 1999 slipped into 2000, to international terrorism, to a full range of apocalyptic events of biblical proportions.
Needless to say, Jan. 1, 2000, came and went without incident, and today “Y2K” is fodder for trivia contests, a reminder of how quickly the much-anticipated — or dreaded — future can become the forgotten past. But 10 years ago “9/11” was just another date on the calendar, not a chilling reminder of one of the darkest days in American history and, some say, the defining moment of the last 10 years.
It’s tempting to look back on the events of a fading decade and try to sum it up in a phrase or slogan — The Sedate ’50s, The Turbulent ’60s, etc. — but history is more messy than neat, more complex than compartmentalized.
Still, a review of the stories over the past 10 years suggests some thoughts about major, and sometimes recurring, themes, and can point to events or trends to track going forward.
Israel: Further from peace
Headlines in The Jewish Week’s last issue of 1999 dealt with the surprising news that Israel appeared ready to make a swift deal with Syria, ceding the Golan Heights for a peace treaty. That was not to be, but recent headlines along the same lines remind us that when Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians stall, Jerusalem looks north to Syria for a pact that could convince the world (primarily Washington) that it is still interested in Mideast peace. So far, though, no progress; Syria is still insisting on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan before talks even begin.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset at the time that the process of dealing with Syria would be “painful,” but stressed that “our supreme responsibility is to act today so that we will not dig new rows of graves tomorrow in a conflict that could have been ended.”
But many new graves were dug in the last decade, and as we are about to enter 2010, Mideast peace seems more distant than it did 10 years ago. It was Barak who pulled out of Lebanon unilaterally in 2000, but the move backfired; it was seen in the Arab world as a retreat, and Hezbollah became a more potent force, launching a war on Israel in 2006, including widespread rocket attacks against civilian cities and towns in the north.
After the failed Camp David talks between Barak and Yasser Arafat in 2000, the PLO leader launched a second intifada, which included several years of horrific suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.
During that awful time, more Israelis came to believe that the Palestinians were not interested in any compromise resulting in a Jewish state in the region, a feeling that led to the election of Ariel Sharon in 2001, and increased after Sharon’s unilateral pullout of troops and civilians from Gaza in 2005. Rather than work toward creating their own society, militant Gazans launched almost daily rocket attacks against Israeli communities in the south.
The biggest blow to peace efforts in the last half-decade was the Hamas split from, and then triumph over, the Palestinian Authority.
For all the diplomatic emphasis on talks between Israel and the PA, no one has a realistic peace plan that imagines recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as long as Hamas is in power in Gaza, with an eye toward taking over the West Bank.
Israel struck back at Hamas a year ago, punishing the militants but angering the international community for “disproportional” violence.
This decade marked the changing nature of Mideast warfare: Iran-sponsored groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, using terror methods against Israeli civilians, are a greater threat than the Arab states, and the battlefield can be a city bus, a pizza shop or your home.
Israel, even as it astounds with its economic success, is more isolated diplomatically than it was 10 years ago, its very legitimacy questioned more and more openly in England and other European countries, with worries that such talk has already become acceptable in academic circles in the United States.
Will it spread, or will the democratic impulse of America reject the demonization of the Jewish state?
An endless ‘war on terror’
Historians will note that the tragic and shocking events of 9/11/01 changed America and the world. President Bush’s response to the attack, launching a “war on terror,” found widespread initial support that deteriorated as the war in Afghanistan — to locate and eliminate Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida — morphed into a war on Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Saddam was captured, tried and hung; bin Laden remains at large; both wars drag on, with an increasing sense that victory will be neither decisive nor soon coming, if ever.
The concern that growing numbers of Muslims hate the West — especially America, the Big Satan, and Israel, the Little Satan — and seek various forms of jihad in the name of Allah, is widely shared, though little discussed publicly out of a sense of political correctness. It is true that relatively few Muslims seek militant action, but it is also true that the great majority of acts of terror against the West in the last decade have been carried out by militant Muslims.
After 9/11, some Americans viewed Israel with greater empathy, as a Mideast democracy up against like-minded terrorists who seek to destroy Western culture. But others see the violence on Israelis as part of a regional dispute over land rather than a clash of religious and moral cultures.
In the era of Obama, a president who values engagement over sabre rattling, the test of his approach is being played out in diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from producing nuclear arms. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the results; our future, and Israel’s, may well depend on it.
America Jewry: Successes and setbacks??
Exactly 10 years ago this week Birthright Israel launched the first of its free 10-day trips for young people, ages 18 to 26. The goal was to bring 6,000 young Jews to Israel that first year. By decade’s end, despite several years of intifada in Israel, more than 225,000 have made the trip from some 50 countries, and the organization’s leaders are hoping that within a few years more than half of all Jews in that age range will have participated in the program.
Some see this as a race between Birthright and assimilation. It is clear that the project is the community’s most dramatically successful Jewish identity program in memory. But can Birthright reverse the trend of a young generation of American Jews increasingly distanced from their history, heritage and religion. To date, follow-up efforts to involve Birthright alumni in Jewish life back home have been less than successful, but studies indicate that the Birthright experience often has a profound and lasting effect on participants.
The embattled federation movement is calling for more efforts to bring young people to Israel. Some hope the Jewish Federations of North America, the recently renamed umbrella group, will dramatically increase its budget for Birthright from the current 1 percent, in an effort to help ensure a Jewish future and gain relevancy and respect for the movement. But dollars are harder to come by because the other dramatic story of the decade in American Jewish life has been the economic meltdown and the Bernard Madoff scandal’s negative impact on organizations and philanthropies in the last year. The financial shockwaves have been far-reaching and it will be a long time before the community recovers fully, if ever. We can expect to see more prudence and less risk, more collaboration and transparency, less excess and ostentation. But the question remains as to what creativity, leadership and programming will be lost in the drive to sustain communal institutions.
(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.)