A year ago, I wrote in this space on the eve of Rosh HaShanah that “5762 was one of the worst years for the Jewish people since the Holocaust era.” What, then, can I say about the year just ending — a year that saw hundreds more Israelis killed by Palestinian violence; that saw anti-Semitism increase, particularly in Europe; that brought a war on Iraq that ousted its despotic leader but left Americans wondering if had become entangled in a new Vietnam; and that ends with the Mideast road map leading, it seems, to another dead end of hopelessness?
On the cusp of another new year, a time of introspection, resolution and pleas for forgiveness — but ultimately of hopefulness —I seek a message of comfort and renewal. But first let it be remembered the year we endured and the losses we suffered over the last 12 months. Among those who died were the author Leon Uris, whose novel “Exodus” inspired a generation of young people, here and especially in the former Soviet Union, with the Zionist dream; Abba Eban, the quintessential diplomat whose silver tongue in defense of Israel will long be remembered and quoted; and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a friend of Israel and the Jewish people in the Senate and in that most unfriendly world body, the United Nations.
At least they had length of years, though, and died natural deaths. Not so fortunate the scores of young Israeli citizens killed in suicide bombings and the soldiers who defended them. And then there was Paul Wellstone, the feisty Minnesota senator killed in a plane crash; J.J. Greenberg, a young New Yorker beloved for his warmth and Jewish communal accomplishments, who died after a bicycle accident in Israel; and Col. Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died a fiery death along with six fellow space travelers aboard the space shuttle Columbia. That horrific event, tragic as it was, underscored the close bonds and values shared by Americans and Israelis, a belief in progress toward a better future for mankind.
But that bedrock conviction has been shaken by recent events. Both Americans and Israelis were disillusioned this year over how wars in which they were engaged — wars that seemed to them necessary, even honorable — were decried around the world as needless and immoral. And it is the outcome of those wars that will set the path for this new century, toward peace or toward increasing terror.
Too many people still refuse to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S.-led conquest of Iraq as parts of the same war on terrorism. These are battles fought not only to defend land and protect citizens but to support the principles of democracy and human rights and to counter the threat of an all-out crusade waged in the name of militant Islam. If World War III began on Sept. 11, 2001, it will only end when we recognize who our enemies are, how much is at stake and the need for decisive victory.
In Israel, as we have come to see, the issue is not settlements or borders but the right of a Jewish state to exist in the Middle East. No Palestinian leader appears prepared to recognize Israel’s most basic entitlement. In Iraq, the fight is not only for the future of that beleaguered country but for the Middle East itself, because the eyes of the world are on the U.S. Will we stay the course, working to create a stable, if not fully democratic, society, or will we “cut and run,” as we did in Beirut in 1983 and Somalia a decade later after encountering violence? An American retreat in Iraq would signal the end of the thrust for democracy in the region and a return to totalitarian terror, making Israel’s struggle all the more difficult.
Much will be determined in the coming year on military battlefields, in diplomatic forums and in the presidential campaign in this country. What is required is not only American resolve to encounter and defeat those who would destroy us and our way of life but to recognize that Israel and the United States are fighting the same enemy with the same intentions. For Washington to pursue Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein while protecting Yasir Arafat is to miss the point, and willfully so. To pledge to eradicate the terror threatening our shores while urging dialogue and compromise with those who blow up babies in Jerusalem reflects a worldview that is at best misguided, at worst immoral — and doomed.
But for all our deep and valid frustrations and worries, Jewish tradition teaches us to view the High Holy Days as a time of optimism — sober and reflective, of course, but instilled with confidence that the world can repair itself and that we can do the same from within. Indeed, the connections between the two are clear, with personal transformation leading to wider change for goodness. The guidelines are spelled out for us, from the sound of the shofar to rouse us, to the communal prayers and liturgies to inspire us and bring us closer together. On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we are each judged, we are told, “but repentance, prayer and tzedaka avert the severe decree.”
In recent years, with Israel’s plight ever on our minds, I have found that in reading the central prayer of the Days of Awe, the Unesaneh Tokef, my thoughts focus not only on “who shall live and who shall die” but “who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented.” Ultimately these may be God’s decisions, but He has given us the power and choice to do good or evil in the world.
In these days and in our eyes, we see so much tragedy, such lack of understanding and so much unfairness that we sometimes wonder what lessons have been learned, by us and by those who would oppress us, over the centuries of Jewish suffering. Despair is not an option, though, and our focus must be the future. We are commanded in the Torah to be a holy people and to choose life, and these are the days of joy and renewal. If we can begin to change ourselves, maybe we can begin to change the world.
With the High Holy Days, we are being given another chance to make things right — with God, with each other and within our hearts. Let us perform those acts of reconciliation with such passion, wisdom and resolve that we and all the Jewish people will merit a year when we shall not be tormented but be at peace, real peace, here and in Israel.