Was 5775 Good for the Jews?
This is a good time for the Jews, at least in the two major centers of Jewish life: Israel is resilient and strong, and American Jewry is vibrant and healthy.
Conventional wisdom suggests otherwise, of course. In this penitential season, when Jews not only examine their personal conduct but also do an accounting of communal well-being, it is fashionable to tell tales of woe and the coming apocalypse. From reading the press, one might think that the American Jewish community is on the verge of collapse and that Israeli Jews do nothing but look to the sky for incoming Iranian missiles.
But that is not our reality. Note the following:
1. American Jews continue to demonstrate the contentious, passionate pluralism that gives them strength. Unity is overrated. American Jews are at their best when they are engaged in a good fight about high ideals. The battle over the Iran deal was just such a fight. True, AIPAC got this one wrong, and J Street was more enthusiastic about the deal than it should have been. But both groups, and those that supported them, argued the issues ferociously, raised dollars, twisted arms, and managed to be both inspiring and infuriating. For months, even Jews on the margins of the community were drawn into a critical debate about Israel’s future and American-Israel relations. Wonderful!
2. Jews are more secure and assertive than they have ever been in America. The “dual loyalty” fears of days gone by have evaporated. When the New York Times published a list of Democratic opponents of the Iran deal, noting whether or not they are Jewish and the percentage of Jews in their districts or states, there was no explosion of protest by Jewish groups. Jews did not agonize, as they once would have, about being seen as disloyal or insufficiently patriotic. The American Jewish consensus in 2015 is simply that Jews are proud Americans, and they can speak up for Jewish values and Israel’s interests as part of the American mainstream.
3. Israel’s military might is unchallenged in the Middle East. Her peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan remain in place and stable, Syria’s army has disintegrated, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States see Israel as a potential ally against a common Iranian enemy. Hezbollah, sustaining heavy casualties as a battered combatant of the Syrian civil war, has been careful to avoid friction with Israel, despite her arsenal of rockets. It is true that Israel lives in a treacherous neighborhood, but the fact is that she is more secure today than she has ever been.
4. Israelis are among the happiest people in the world. It seems a little bizarre, but despite the pressures of non-stop terror and war, Israelis live happy, fulfilling lives, are content with their environment, and feel good about their prospects. According to figures of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Israel is the fifth-happiest nation in terms of “life satisfaction,” ahead of the United States, which ranks twelfth of 36 countries. Not only that, but Israel has one of the lowest emigration rates among advanced countries. One might reasonably argue that in her 67 years of existence, providing a satisfying life to her inhabitants is Israel’s most significant accomplishment.
5. Israel is a relatively wealthy country with a strong economy, and as economies in the Middle East have faltered, its economy has remained steady. The discovery of two huge offshore natural gas fields has the potential to make Israel a primary energy supplier to states in the area, including Egypt and Jordan. To be sure, the development of the fields has been held up, due in some measure to government dysfunction. But this is due as well to legitimate concern about how much of the energy riches will go to private developers and how much to government coffers. The latter concern is appropriate in every way for a Jewish state.
6. Religious pluralism, always the foundation of American Judaism, has begun, ever so slowly, to assert itself in Israel. It is best not to overstate this; Israel’s current government moved backward in this area this year. But the Orthodox religious establishment is so utterly corrupt and incompetent that moderate Orthodox rabbis have finally rebelled. The result is the establishment of a new, independent conversion court not answerable to the Chief Rabbinate. This step will lead, sooner rather than later, to the collapse of the whole rotten system of religious monopoly.
7. And finally: The Iranian nuclear deal has given Israel a lifeline. Iran has nuclear breakout capability today, and will have breakout capability in 15 years. The difference is that in 15 years the breakout time will be longer, which potentially provides Israel with the time it needs in the interim to respond to what could be an existential threat. While Israel’s job is to work with the United States in finding ways to combat the Iranian menace, the job of American Jews is to ensure the deal is faithfully implemented. And neither could do their job if the deal had been derailed by the U.S. Congress. Fortunately for all concerned, it wasn’t.
So let’s stop whining. It is true that Israel faces a long list of real problems and serious challenges. But as we ask the Holy One to accept our prayers this Yom Kippur, let’s not forget to add some words of thanks. As we move into 5776, we Jews have much to be thankful for.