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A gloomy decade later, Jews still fighting J2K virus

Some of the scenes and faces from the past decade, when the world Jewish community faced many threats and challenges contributing to a growing sense of unease and anxiety. (JTA staff; 9/11 photo: Andrew Coulter Enright, Creative Commons)

Some of the scenes and faces from the past decade, when the world Jewish community faced many threats and challenges contributing to a growing sense of unease and anxiety. (JTA staff; 9/11 photo: Andrew Coulter Enright, Creative Commons)

NEW YORK (JTA) — The arrival of the new millennium proved to be a false alarm for computer users. But, it turned out, the switch-over from the ’90s to the ’00s did unleash the J2K virus.

Think of it as history’s practical joke on the Jews, one that’s still going strong as the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close. Things were going so well through most of 2000 — building on positive trends in the 1990s — then matters took a sudden and sharp turn for the worse.

The Israelis and Palestinians finally were hashing out the details of a final peace deal, an Orthodox Jew seemed poised to be elected vice president of the United States, and it was a time of unprecedented wealth and philanthropic activity in the Jewish community. For a few months it seemed that American Jews could have it both ways: full integration without assimilation at home and a Jewish state free of war in the Middle East. The safety and acceptance that had been denied Jews for centuries and then in Israel for decades appeared to be within reach.

Before 2000 was over, however, the convergence of these utopian developments had unraveled. Joe Lieberman was undone by hanging chads and confused Palm Beach, Fla., voters who ended up voting for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore. The peace process, meanwhile, collapsed eventually after the Palestinians rejected Israeli proposals for a final deal and launched the second intifada.

So instead of a golden age in Jewish history, the past 10 years ended up bringing waves of unforeseen anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism worldwide, increased scrutiny of Jewish organizations in the United States, and growing threats to Israel and the West from Islamic terrorist organizations and Iran. Not to mention the near collapse of the global financial system, a slumping world economy and a shrinking Jewish philanthropic landscape.

If the eruption of the intifada in September 2000 killed the hopes for peace, then the sure signs that we had entered a new, darker era came almost a year later, starting with the United Nations anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa.

Organized and billed as a global forum to combat racism, the meeting also became a magnet for anti-Israel activists. According to an on-the-ground report from JTA, the Arab Lawyers Union distributed pamphlets filled with caricatures of hook-nosed Jews depicted as Nazis, spearing Palestinian children, dripping blood from their fangs, with missiles bulging from their eyes or with pots of money nearby. Nearby, at an overlapping conference of NGOs, fliers were found with a photo of Hitler declaring that if Hitler had won, "There would be no Israel, and no Palestinian bloodshed." During a Palestinian-led march, one placard read "Hitler Should Have Finished the Job." Not far from there, someone was selling copies of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Jewish activists were stunned by the intensity of the invective they encountered, underscoring the degree to which they were unaware and unprepared for the scope and intensity of the anti-Israel movement emerging worldwide.

Organizers ultimately managed to keep the harshest condemnations of Israel out of the conference’s final document. But Palestinians and their allies used their time at the gathering to coordinate and launch an international  campaign aimed at isolating and delegitimizing the Jewish state through divestment, boycotts and other means.

Days later, the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks robbed U.S. Jews (and Americans of all stripes) of any sense of safety that they had from the gathering storm of militant Islamic forces overseas.

Israel, meanwhile, would face a series of violent threats, starting with a relentless Palestinian terrorism campaign that killed more than 1,000 Israelis and crippled the country’s tourism industry. Later, Iranian-aided terrorist organizations — Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon — fought two wars with Israel in less than three years and unleashed a barrage of missile attacks against the country’s civilian population. While Israel’s southern and northern fronts remain relatively quiet for now, the country’s security establishment is racing to head off what it views as the greatest potential threat: a nuclear Iran.

As the decade comes to a close, the push for new anti-Iranian sanctions has become a top priority for many U.S. Jewish organizations. They enter this legislative battle after years of enduring sharp political attacks from those attempting to neutralize the influence of the pro-Israel lobby.

Claims that Jewish groups take their orders from Jerusalem or put Israel’s interests ahead of America’s have come from respectable corners of society, not just fringe extremists. Especially in left-wing circles, a growing list of academics and journalists have signed on to this argument, most notably professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, whose writings fueled the unfair claims that Jewish groups played a key role in promoting the Iraq war and did so for Jerusalem’s benefit. Former President Jimmy Carter gave voice repeatedly to claims that pro-Israel advocates were endangering the United States by stifling internal debate over Israeli policies.

If all that weren’t enough to leave many Jews feeling anxious, Mel Gibson resurrected a host of classic anti-Jewish images with the making and marketing of "The Passion of the Christ." And the decade closes with Israel fighting a new blood libel — the claim that it killed Palestinians to harvest their organs.

In past decades, such developments could have been dismissed as isolated incidents. But the rise of the Internet has amplified their impact and reach, creating a seamless continuum among critics of Israel and the Jewish community, where fringe thinking invades the mainstream and establishment respectability rubs off on extremists. And tens of millions are reading and watching.

Is there a reason for optimism buried beneath all of this decade’s bad news for the Jews, any hope for a historical rebound of sorts? The messianic sense of exuberance that bubbled up in some corners of Israel and the Jewish community back in the 1990s and 2000 seems impossible, if not farcical and illusory. Yet Israel and the Jews have survived worse.

Perhaps then, the lesson heading into the next decade should be to remember there is always a way out and a way up, but that dreams are not enough. You need plenty of will and an open-eyed realism to match.

Ami Eden is the editor in chief of JTA.

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