2004: A Year of Scars and Stars

By Rabbi Arnold Rachlis

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
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‘American Jews,” wrote the late novelist Ilona Karmel, “have scars, but no wounds.” The year just past, 2004, was a year to prove that point. We experienced some pain and anxiety, but as usual, we were surprised at year’s end to find ourselves as safe as ever. Indeed, it might best be called a “year of scars and stars”: filled with some big scares and some tremendous successes.

To be sure, not all Jews were lucky. Around the world, from Beersheva to Buenos Aires, Jews found themselves living with fear and want as daily realities. And yet, as the year ended, hope was gaining ground.

In Israel, terrorism — sometimes actualized but increasingly thwarted — kept Israelis living in a state of siege. And yet the reality was changing. Tourism grew, especially at holiday times. Much credit went to Christian pilgrims and to American Jewish groups mobilizing, particularly through Birthright Israel, the program of free trips for Jews aged 18-26. The year’s highest-profile tourist was Madonna, who arrived during Rosh Hashanah with an entourage of 1,000 fellow Kabbalah devotees, including Marla Maples. Mobbed by delighted Israeli fans, she attended lectures and visited the graves of holy men, wearing a red string bracelet and drinking from pricey bottles of sanctified Kabbalah Centre spring water.

Israelis were overjoyed when Gal Fridman won the men’s windsurfing gold medal at the summer Olympics in Greece. A packed stadium in Athens stood respectfully as “Hatikva” was played and Fridman, whose first name means “wave,” won Israel’s first gold. He dedicated his victory to the Israeli athletes murdered in a terrorist shootout at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The Israel State Cup in soccer was won this year by the local team from the Arab village of Sakhnin, which now will represent Israel in the European competition. The whole country took pride in the Cinderella tale of a victory by a scruffy team from a tiny, impoverished town with no stadium and limited sewage hookups. The best feature award at the Jerusalem International Film Festival was won for the first time by a Palestinian film, “Thirst.” Salim Joubran became the first Arab member of the Israeli Supreme Court. All this in the year that Israel observed the 100th anniversary of the death of Theodor Herzl, the Zionist visionary who prophesied a Jewish state in which Arab and Jew would live side by side in harmony.

True enough, the biggest stories of the year in Israel focused on war, peace and politics. The year began with Prime Minister Sharon still flush from his January 2003 re-election, in which he sailed to victory on a platform vowing no concessions to terror and formed what pundits called the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. By year’s end, Sharon’s coalition had collapsed — because of his unprecedented decision to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers unilaterally from Gaza and from parts of the West Bank, a longtime proposal of the left — and he was on the verge of forming a new, peace-oriented coalition with the left-of-center Labor Party.

Changes no less revolutionary were in the offing on the Palestinian side. The death of Yasser Arafat on November 11 in a French military hospital created an opening for a new Palestinian leadership, a longtime Israeli prerequisite for meaningful peace talks. The leading candidate was Mahmoud Abbas, a veteran Arafat ally regarded in Israel and the West as a moderate. Israeli officials were maintaining a studied neutrality in public, but privately they were hoping that his expected victory in early January elections would open up new opportunities for peace.

Worrisome to many Israelis was the increasingly violent rhetoric coming from right-wing Jews as the planned Gaza withdrawal drew closer. Reminiscent of the months before the assassination of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, there were a string of religiously based statements, some calling for the death of Sharon, others calling for violent resistance to Sharon’s withdrawal plan.

The Gaza plan called for removing the 8,000 settlers in Gaza and several hundred in the northern West Bank, by force if necessary, by the end of 2005. The plan had Israelis divided along unaccustomed lines: Some argued, on both right and left, that the withdrawal was meant to forestall any future Israeli concessions, while others — again, both right and left — claimed it was just the beginning of a process leading to an eventual Palestinian state in close to 90% of the territories. Washington, the European Union, the United Nations and even Arab states such as Egypt were banking on the latter, showering Sharon with unaccustomed praise as a peacemaker.

Domestically, tolerance was on the rise. Former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron called for an end to the Orthodox monopoly on marriage in Israel, declaring that it creates a “hatred for the rabbinate.” At the Western Wall, a new site was opened for women’s and mixed non-Orthodox services.

Five out of the six Nobel Prizes in science were awarded to Jews this year, including two Israelis from the Technion. Although Jews have won 22% of Nobels, this was the first win for Israelis.

Israel’s Jewish population, 5.2 million (out of a total 6.8 million Israelis), was approaching that of North America, estimated at 5.6 million.

The first report from a new Jerusalem think tank, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, created by the Jewish Agency for Israel and chaired by American diplomat Dennis Ross, called for the creation of a new global Jewish representative body to coordinate strategies among Diaspora Jewish communities and between them and the Jewish state. The report pointed to areas needing coordination that ranged from conversion practices to Internet use in Jewish education and even responses to Islamic terrorism. The report raised the possibility — previously taboo in Jewish communal discussion — that Israel’s policies affect the global atmosphere of Islamic rage, fueling antisemitism and affecting the security of Jews in Europe and elsewhere. Similar concerns about a link between Israeli policy and Islamic rage had been raised in the 9/11 Commission Report of the U.S. Congress; but while the congressional report promptly got caught up in Washington bipartisan bickering, Ross’s report was passed along from Sharon to the Knesset for quick action.

Worries about Jewish security in Europe grew steadily throughout 2004. “Europe was becoming,” Italian author Oriana Fallaci warned, “more and more a province of Islam,” with a steady stream of working-class migrants, mostly Muslim, coming in to take jobs left unfilled partly — as the respected British newsweekly The Economist warned in a special issue — because of the continent’s low fertility rate. European concerns, dominated by diversity and immigrant rights, began to change dramatically following the March 11 terrorist bombings in a Madrid train station, attributed to an Al Qaeda affiliate, which killed 192. Equally shocking, though for different reasons, was the November 2 murder in liberal Amsterdam of iconoclastic author and filmmaker Theo van Gogh, apparently by an Islamic militant born in Holland to Moroccan immigrants.

Even the United Nations began to notice the rising level of antisemitic rhetoric from Islamic extremists. In June the U.N. convened an unprecedented one-day conference on antisemitism, with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan declaring that the world must make Jews “feel at home.” More substantive was a three-day conference on antisemitism, convened in April in Berlin by the prestigious Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, following up on an interparliamentary initiative that had begun a year earlier.

The French government began taking antisemitism seriously this year, creating a ministerial-level committee to address the problem. School trips to Auschwitz and Jewish history curricula were introduced into schools across France, while Islamic girls’ headscarves were banned in September, raising a human-rights furor. Government ministers exchanged visits, although not without incident. In June, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier visited Israel but found its top officials unwilling to meet him after he insisted on meeting Arafat. In July Israel’s Sharon returned the favor, angering France’s government and Jews alike when he called, in a speech, for French Jews “to move to Israel immediately because in France today, one of the wildest forms of antisemitism is spreading.”

Despite security concerns, Jewish culture was reviving across Europe, even in some unlikely places. Klezmer music became the rage in Germany, with concerts by different local and international groups each night of the summer in Berlin. Yiddish theater performances were organized by Protestant minister Burkart Seidemann. In Copenhagen the New Jewish Museum opened, designed by Daniel Libeskind and financed in part by the estate of the late comedic pianist Victor Borge.

Nowhere was the revival more dramatic than in the former Soviet Union, where festivals of Jewish culture were held in 20 cities and Hillel student centers had been opened on 27 college campuses by year’s end. Sadly, on May Day, antisemitic placards were displayed in front of the Kremlin, showing a Jew riding a donkey labeled “goy.” Although a million Jews left the former Soviet Union for Israel during the past two decades, estimates of those still living there run as high as 2 million.

In Iraq, where the continuing American war against insurgents was fueling horrific results — including the beheading of Philadelphia Jewish entrepreneur Nicholas Berg — some 1,000 Jewish soldiers celebrated the High Holy Days at services in Balad, Fallujah, Kirkuk, Mosul (the ancient Nineveh of Yom Kippur’s Jonah story) and Baghdad (in Saddam Hussein’s own Republican Palace). Kosher food was brought in when possible, although some of the troops reportedly celebrated the new year with roast beef and shrimp casserole.

In Egypt, a popular music video, “Hey Arab Leaders,” was spreading throughout the Arab world, blaming Jews for destroying the World Trade Center and accusing the United States and Israel of dividing up the Arab world. On the official level, though, Egyptian-Israeli relations were undergoing a dramatic thaw and Egypt agreed to be responsible, in part, for ensuring a smooth Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

In South America, 25% of Argentinean Jews were reported to be living below the poverty line and 35,000 were receiving daily food and housing assistance. Last year also marked the 10th anniversary of the still-unsolved terrorist bombing of the AMIA Jewish communal center in Buenos Aires, which killed 91 people — the deadliest anti-Jewish attack since World War II, and the worst terrorist incident in Latin American history. Adding insult to injury, the only suspects arrested in the bombing — five Argentineans accused of helping the attackers — were acquitted for lack of evidence. At the same time, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were declared public holidays this year in the Argentinean province of Santa Fe, along with the Muslim New Year.

In the world’s largest Jewish community, the United States, the biggest story on everyone’s mind, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, was the presidential election. The year began with primaries in which an Orthodox Jew, Senator Joseph Lieberman, ran against the husband of a Jew, former Vermont governor Howard Dean; the son of a Jew, General Wesley Clark, and the man who eventually won the nomination, Senator John Kerry, whose paternal grandparents were Jewish and whose brother, Cameron, converted to Judaism. Kerry didn’t consider himself Jewish, but that didn’t stop Swift Boat “Unfit To Command” co-author Jerome Corsi from “accusing” Kerry of secretly practicing Judaism. Equally distressing was the GOPUSA Web site that called the Democrats’ biggest financial backer, George Soros, “the Hungarian-born descendent of Shylock.”

Once Election Day arrived, President Bush received an estimated 24% of the Jewish vote, exceeding his 19% in 2000. The results left Jewish Republicans divided over whether to crow or complain.

New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, a Democrat, resigned from office in November following a gay sex scandal involving an Israeli security adviser, Golan Cipel, who was his alleged lover. Compounding the furor, Cipel turned out to have ties to a top McGreevey donor, a leading Orthodox Jewish philanthropist Charles Kushner, who was indicted on shocking corruption charges of his own.

Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” was a blockbuster following its February release, thanks in part to widespread Jewish alarm in the months before. Considered mediocre by most critics, the film was the subject of so much controversy and polarization that some Christian commentators suggested the Jews were trying to crucify Jesus again, while countless Jewish leaders warned that the film would touch off a wave of antisemitic attacks, none of which materialized.

In a recent survey, 26% of Americans declared that Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death (up from 19% in 1997). More surprisingly, 34% of those under 30 believed so (compared with 10% in 1997). Fortunately, the overwhelming majority said that today’s Jews shouldn’t be blamed.

In another survey, 58% of Americans said that they know a Jew personally, 43% claim to have close Jewish friends (rising to 80% of those with graduate degrees!), 10% have Jewish relatives, 87% wouldn’t object to a close relative marrying a Jew. Fully 53% believe that Jews have made a positive contribution to America, exceeded only by the English who founded our country.

In July, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church voted to continue supporting missionaries to the Jews and to study selective divestment from companies doing business with Israel. They also rejected the possibility of “Christian Zionism.”

The fastest-growing segment of the Jewish community consisted of intermarried households, representing one third of all Jewish homes, with an additional 170,000 converts to Judaism in America. Author Anita Diamant and Reconstructionist Rabbi Barbara Penzner created the first pluralistic transdenominational Jewish ritual bath of Boston — “Mayyim Hayyim,” or “Living Waters” — not only for conversion, but also to celebrate special life events, such as birthdays, becoming pregnant and retirement.

The Reform movement, which rejected kashrut in 1885 as “obstructing spiritual development,” set up a commission to consider various ways of reviving it in Jewish life. The Conservative movement called for reforms in the status of women rabbis, who now number 30% of all rabbis ordained since 1985. The movement also promoted its tefillin campaign, World Wide Wrap, with the slogan “Get Into Leather.”

In cultural news, Neil Sedaka recorded an album of Yiddish melodies remembered from his half-Sephardic, half-Ashkenazic boyhood in Brooklyn, raising hopes that a Ladino release is in the works. Arlo Guthrie, whose bar mitzvah ceremony included a musical performance by Pete Seeger, joined the Klezmatics for a series of concerts and a CD, presenting spiritual, Jewish-themed and Hanukkah songs written by his father, Woody.

JVibe debuted as a hip magazine for 13- to 16-year-olds, and “Faux Mitzvahs” (including African American “Black Mitzvahs”) gained in popularity, as non-Jewish 13-year-olds convinced their parents that they, too, needed a ceremony of adulthood.

Jon Stewart, Entertainment Weekly’s entertainer of the year (and Forward 50 Top-Fivenik), became the year’s hottest and most influential television entertainer with his self-described “fake-news” program, “The Daily Show.” On the darker side, Philip Roth shocked Americans with his “what if” novel, in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR in 1940 and makes a pact with the Nazis in “The Plot Against America.”

Some of the most prominent Jewish faces on the small screen disappeared from view when “Sex and the City” and “Friends” ended in 2004 and Lenny Briscoe retired from “Law and Order,” but there still remains Grace Adler of “Will and Grace,” Ali G on the HBO network, the Cohens of “The O.C.,” and Toby and Josh on “The West Wing.” New characters, introduced this past year, included Orthodox convict George Bluth on “Arrested Development” and Alan Shore on “Boston Legal.”

Global Jewish Radio debuted online at AJC.org, as did B’nai B’rith Radio at bnaibrithradio.org — 24 hours a day of Jewish music, and a Saturday night sing-along.

In sports, Shawn Green refused to play on Yom Kippur day (though he played on Kol Nidre eve), and San Francisco Giants’ pitchers Scott Eyre and Wayne Franklin put studs on their Nikes with the word “mazel,” or luck, on them.

“Cantors World” produced concerts at major locales, including Lincoln Center, realizing that a cultural temple rather than a religious one might be the best way to reach urban and urbane Jews. After three decades, the alternative rock band Phish disbanded. Closely identified with Judaism because two of its former members are Jewish, and because the band sometimes plays “Avinu Malkenu” and “Jerusalem of Gold,” Phish had a Grateful Dead-like following, particularly among Jewish groupies known as Gefiltephish.

JFlicks and Jewish Impact Films Fellowship created films to present a meaningful Judaism for a new generation, and bands like Blue Fringe (which played at the Pesachpalooza Festival at Yeshiva University) and the Klezmer Mountain Boys brought young people a fusion of rock, folk and bluegrass with Jewish themes. Etan G specialized in Jewish rap, Matisyahu put Hasidic texts to reggae and ska rhythms, and the Makkabees released an album of “Hebrew Heavy Metal,” playing at concerts in support of Jewish charities such as MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

South Florida’s King David Bikers, a fellowship of “Jews with hogs,” advertised for a rabbi, while Urban Shmatta, sold on jewcy.com, hawked its T-shirts and other hip Jewish paraphernalia online. Target’s “hotbuy” was a Kabbalah red-string bracelet, of the sort worn by such celebrities as Demi Moore, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and, of course, Madonna. HeimishHome.com researched neighborhoods across the country for signs of Jewish life before people moved, receiving 150,000 hits per month.

In 2004, American Jews celebrated their 350th anniversary in North America. Despite a flood of new books and symposia, most Jews took it in stride, hardly noticing. But down deep, they knew that this has been a remarkable journey, since the September day that 23 Jews docked in New Amsterdam, fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition in Brazil. Throughout the years, Jews have helped shape America — politically, culturally and economically — even as they have been reshaped by it. While some fear for the future, most feel blessed — and completely at home — by a freedom unimaginable to their ancestors,.

Rabbi Arnold Rachlis is the spiritual leader of University Synagogue in Irvine, Calif., and a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.






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