Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Slouching Toward a New Year (Jewish Week)

We’ve reached the new century’s bar mitzvah year and, just as with any bar mitzvah, we scrutinize this specimen standing before us and we wonder, what will this budding adolescent become?   In mid December, while America lurched from the anguish of Sandy to the horrors of Sandy Hook, “Saturday Night Live” brought us comic relief in the form of Jacob the Bar Mitzvah boy, who, while mimicking just about every bar mitzvah speech we’ve ever heard, inserted the refrain, “But don’t tell my parents I said that.”

As we begin 2013, we are Jacob. Our voice cracking, we sway nervously from side to side, unable to stand up straight. The secure, predictable world our parents inhabited has vanished and we aren’t proud of what it has become.  Our parents would not shep nachas over Aurora or Oak Creek.  Photos from the nightmarish presidential campaign would not grace the family album.  The missile-war in Israel and Gaza yielded no commemorative songs to share on YouTube.  We have no nostalgia for the fiscal cliff, Benghazi, Syria and Egypt, and we’re terrified of the relentless Iranian push for nukes.

Yes, some good things did happen in 2012.  Israeli entrepreneurs developed a cardboard wheelchair along with a waterless toilet that turns solid waste into odorless, sterile fertilizer.  We’ll need all the sterility and hygiene we can muster to fight off the flu epidemic that greeted us as 2013 began and the worst outbreak of Whooping Cough in 60 years. 

We’re proud of gymnast Aly Raisman, who made “Hava Nagila” cool again, and two Israeli Oscar nominees for best documentary, though both highlight the ever-smoldering Palestinian issue.  Plus, we can take pride in Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” the Israeli-inspired series “Homeland,” and Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”  Let’s see, a movie about the Civil War and TV shows about terrorists in the backyard and STDs in Brooklyn.  Yep, it was a great year. 

Barbara Streisand returned to sing in Brooklyn and then made a movie about a Jewish mother where no one dared to utter the word “Jewish.”  In Washington, Eric Cantor held up the right flank and Debbie Wasserman Schultz the left, while beyond the Beltway, Sheldon Adelson and Jon Stewart fueled the political fires, so that Jews could continue to be simultaneously accused of being bleeding hearts and neocons.  Anti-Semitic incidents in the US dropped by 13 percent but, if Jack Lew is approved as Treasury secretary, his squiggly signature on every dollar bill will light up the Web with anti-Semitic conspiracies about Jews controlling the economy.

Jews are perpetually nervous.  Woody Allen summed up the current state with of the Jewish psyche in his otherwise forgettable 2012 film, “To Rome, With Love,” saying, “Don’t psychoanalyze me! Many have tried. All have failed.”  Moment Magazine recently devoted an entire issue to Jewish anxiety.  It’s like the waiter addressing the table filled with Jewish mothers: “Is Anything OK?”

There was no Mayan apocalypse last December, but still we found ourselves slouching toward Bethlehem – a line from William Butler Yeats’ famous poem, “The Second Coming,” which, though written in 1920, opens like an ode to 2012.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

We all are still swirling in Sandy’s widening gyre.  The tide of blood flows from gun violence.  The best lack conviction and the worst fire AK-47s in classrooms and crowded theaters.  Things are falling apart:  Our thoughts are measured in smarmy applause lines and stinging Super Pac attack ads as we scamper from gotcha sound bite to gotcha sound bite.   The cacophony of status updates, texts and tweets has deafened us, like the falcon, rendering us unable to respond to the falconer’s clarion call to action.  And while polar ice caps are swiftly turning to slush, we are more polarized than ever.  

2012 was the year we stopped dreaming.  Up until the final moments of the year, as a fiscal cliff loomed, grand bargains continually were pulled from the table in favor of incremental gains and stopgap measures.  President Obama won the election, but “Hope and Change” never made an appearance in this down and dirty campaign. 

We’ve been battered and bruised on so many fronts, and as 2013 begins, everywhere we look there are no bold initiatives to address these challenges.  Newtown shocked us but did it change us?  Or have we become numb to the violence that infects our society?  Homeowners struggled to keep their mortgages above water only to turn around one October day to find their homes literally under it.  Hurricane Sandy gave us a vision of what lies ahead with oceans rising steadily and climate change apparently irreversible.  Now the boldest proposals involve building stronger seawalls to counter the oceanic onslaught.  Gone are the dreams of reversing the earth’s warming and lowering those rising oceans.  Israel can tout its Iron Dome as a response to Hamas and Iranian rockets, but no grand plan exists to keep the rockets from being fired in the first place.  The only hope is to stiffen our resolve to face the next assault, be it from waves of terrorist rockets or waves of, well, waves.  We’ve given up.

In Israel, dreams of peace seem more distant than ever, so distant in fact, that as elections approached, even the opposition tried to change the subject from diplomacy to the price of cottage cheese.  Large pluralities of Israelis say they still want peace and a two state solution, but no one seems to have an idea of how to get there.

At a time when America and Israel need to be in lockstep over how to deal with Iran, the dream of a peaceful, secure Israel no longer unites American Jews, despite record tourism and the success of programs like Birthright Israel.  Now, with the Israeli government swerving rightward, American Jews are becoming increasingly emboldened in confronting it.  Recently, over 700 rabbis and cantors signed a letter protesting the Israeli government’s plans to develop the controversial E-1 area outside Jerusalem.  The letter also protested recent activity in Jerusalem itself.  Imagine, 700 North American rabbis openly criticizing an Israel prime minister…over Jerusalem.  And this follows massive protests over the arrests of women at the Western Wall.  Prime Minister Netanyahu will likely try to bolster American Jewish support with some lip service over pluralism and women’s rights, but all signs point to a widening chasm and increasing polarization among those who care.  And post election polls indicate that fewer do care, with Israel increasingly becoming a low priority concern for American Jews.

So for the coming year, will this slide toward polarization and apathy continue, and will tensions increase between Israel and American’s emboldened, reelected leaders?   Will we face the Moment of Truth with Iran around midyear, as many experts predict, where diplomatic options will have been exhausted?  Have we passed a tipping point regarding climate change and gun violence?  Will Israel’s borders remain relatively quiet, even as she builds more fences and faces increased diplomatic isolation?   Will Spielberg win the Oscar?

And will we once again be able to start dreaming again, about a world where children everywhere can live without fear - a world that even Jacob the Bar Mitzvah boy could proudly tell his parents about.

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