Thinking about the year that was, and the challenges ahead

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The approach of the New Year offers an opportunity to stop and reflect on the events of the past year, and to contemplate what may lie ahead in the year to come for the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the world.

It is a difficult moment for the Jewish people, a time when we are faced with certain threats and an even more uncertain future.

Bullet holes mar the entrance to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington after a June 10 shooting. photo/jta/eric fingerhut

After a hard-fought battle to end the rocket attacks from Gaza, Israel has withdrawn its troops and a tentative calm has taken hold along the southern border. The rocket attacks have diminished, if not stopped entirely for now, and Hamas has stuck to its self-declared cease-fire.

We take solace that, despite myriad threats looming on the horizon, Israel today remains safe, strong and secure within its own borders. The suicide bombings that were a near daily occurrence during the Palestinian intifada five years ago have largely subsided. The West Bank security fence has proven a successful, if less than desirable, deterrent to terrorism. Israel’s economy and tourism have rebounded, and the newly minted administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ushered in a leadership committed to a restart of peace negotiations with the Palestinians, should they prove a willing and able partner.

And yet, despite the calm, there are many daunting challenges ahead for Israel and for the Jewish people.

Most pressing is the Iranian regime’s long march toward nuclear weapons. This march is now entering its final phase, and Iran seems poised for a direct confrontation with the United Nations and the West. We may soon face the possibility of a fundamentalist Islamic regime creating a nuclear arsenal that could pose an immediate threat to the Jewish state and much of Europe.

Far-right parties in Europe and demonstrations like this one in Berlin in January raised concern among Jews. photo/jta/toby axelrod

The fraudulent Iranian elections unmasked new dangers. Here, despotism won out over any semblance of democracy as the Islamic Republic’s maniacal, Israel-bashing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retained his grip on the levers of power, while those in the opposition paid a heavy price as the regime moved to violently stifle public protests.

Aside from its pursuit of nuclear weapons, Iran continues to sponsor terrorism against Israel through its proxies — Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

After its December-January military incursion to regain a measure of peace and security for Sderot and other towns in range of Hamas rockets, Israel has continued to face the reality of a Gaza governed by a terrorist entity. Hamas has no interest in peace negotiations or even to recognize Israel’s right to exist. It has called a “cease fire” while duplicitously rearming itself for the next battle — the weapons flowing through the smuggling tunnels along the border with Egypt with the open assistance of Syria and Iran.

While Israel seeks to restart negotiations with the more moderate Palestinian leaders, the Hamas rule in Gaza continues to present a quandary that will make for many tough decisions down the road. Should Israel continue to punish Hamas with more sanctions? To what lengths should Israel go to secure the release of its kidnapped soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit? And how should Israel respond the next time rockets start falling on Sderot and Ashkelon?

In the north, Hezbollah continues to openly defy U.N. Security Council resolutions by rearming its soldiers, stockpiling weapons, and bolstering its presence along the Lebanon-Israel border, also ostensibly in preparation for the next confrontation with Israel.

Meanwhile, Jewish communities around the world, particularly in Europe and Latin America, spent much of the year grappling with another virulent threat to the Jewish people — that of resurgent anti-Semitism.

Often, the old canards about Jews resurfaced in the unlikeliest places and the most absurd forms. In Sweden, for instance, a leading newspaper published unverified (and untrue) claims that Israel’s soldiers were involved in harvesting the organs of Palestinians for profit. Who would have thought that in this day and age the blood-libel could reappear in Europe? And not on the far fringes of society, but on the front pages of a mainstream newspaper?

The anti-Semitism that overflowed into the streets of Europe and around the world in the aftermath of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead was another enduring testament to the staying power of anti-Semitism couched as criticism of Israel.

Despite Israel’s efforts to minimize civilian causalities and explain its actions as a reasonable response by a nation under constant assault, the angry crowds were hearing none of it. They took to the streets with the message that Israel was guilty of “war crimes,” with comparisons of Israelis and Judaism to Nazis and

Nazism. Often, the demonstrations spilled over into violence, leading to attempted firebombings of synagogues in France, and threats to the Jewish community of Venezuela.

The collapse of the global financial markets created a perfect storm for the anti-Semites who sought to pin blame for the crisis on the so-called “Jewish” bankers. The Internet became awash with anti-Semitic canards about Jews and money.

In a protest against Israel’s military action in the Gaza Strip, Islamic activists burn an Israeli flag during in front of Indonesia’s only synagogue in January.   photo/ap/file

In the United States, the confluence of many events, including the economic crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel’s Gaza offensive and the election of President Barack Obama emboldened anti-Semites and domestic extremists, with some taking action. In Washington, D.C., an anti-Semitic white supremacist went on a deadly shooting rampage at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, killing a security guard. His stated purpose in carrying out the shooting was to “kill as many Jews as possible.”

Other plots were foiled — thanks to the diligence and perseverance of law enforcement. In New York City, authorities stopped an alleged scheme, hatched by Islamic extremists, to bomb two synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.

Yet all was not bleak this year for Israel and Jews. We celebrated some remarkable moments and milestones as a people and stood as witnesses to historic events that bode well for the future of Israel, and America, and free societies the world over. We celebrated Obama’s historic election as the nation’s first African-American president. We lauded and welcomed Pope Benedict XVI’s historic first visit as pontiff to Israel. We saw signs of a thawing in Israel’s relationship with moderate Arab states. We entertained hopes of a revival of a long-dormant peace process with the prospect of new leadership from newly ascendant administrations in Washington and Jerusalem.

We pray for 5770 to be a year in which the Jewish people continue to thrive and the State of Israel finds lasting peace and security. We hope that the diversity of American society continues to flourish and the forces of anti-Semitism, religious intolerance and extremism are defeated.

L’Shanah Tovah!