How to sum up 2009? For starters, recall that it capped the first decade of the new millennium, a decade that effectively began on September 11, 2001. A decade marked by a string of losses that would put the New York Mets to shame: the loss of America’s global respect and its economic stability, the loss of public civility, of three million jobs, the polar ice cap, the newspaper and automobile industries, a city called New Orleans. A decade like that demands a “wow” finale, and 2009 did not disappoint.
The year dawned amid high hopes. America had elected its first black president, a charismatic intellectual who promised to heal partisan divisions, reboot the economy, bring the troops home and end extra-legal detentions of terror suspects. Many Americans saw 2009 ushering in a post-racial era of civic amity and progressive policies.
But many other Americans didn’t agree. Almost from the moment he was sworn in, President Obama faced unceasing attacks from conservative politicians and talk-show hosts. He was called a socialist, a Nazi, an elitist egghead, a clueless buffoon, a secret Muslim and a godless liberal. Congressional debate over his initiatives, from economic stimulus to health care reform, deteriorated into trench warfare.
And where he wasn’t stymied, he balked. He threw money at bankers while joblessness soared. The wars raged on. The detainees remained detained. Americans looked to the man called Barack, leader of the peace party, and found him playing war-maker.
Oddly enough, Israelis had a similar experience. The leader of their peace party, a man named Barak, was their chief war-maker. They held an election three weeks after Obama’s inauguration, and like Americans they chose drastic change. While America shifted from right to left, Israel switched from center-left to right. America chose a leader who promised peace but delivered more war. Israel chose a leader who promised toughness but delivered concessions.
New Year’s Day had found Israel in day six of a 22-day campaign against Hamas in Gaza. Israelis found a rare unity around the operation, seen as a justified response to years of rocket attacks. Outside Israel, though, the massive destruction and some 1,400 Palestinian deaths sparked a wave of anger unlike anything Israel had seen. Courts in Britain and Spain issued war-crimes indictments against Israel’s leaders. Boycott Israel campaigns gained new momentum and respectability in Europe and even America.
As anti-Israel anger grew, Israel’s Diaspora Jewish supporters became targets. Attacks on pro-Israel advocacy moved in 2009 from the fringe to the mainstream.
Major Jewish organizations responded to the hostility by standing closer to Israel. Inevitably, attacks on pro-Israel advocacy became inseparable from attacks on the Jewish organizational world — that is, on the visible Jewish community. The result was not a decline in criticism of Israel but an increase in criticism of Israel’s Jewish allies. The decades-old taboo on attacking the Jewish community was collapsing.
Surprisingly, the event thought most likely to generate antisemitism in 2009 — the Bernard Madoff scandal — seemed to glide by without an uptick. Madoff was arrested in December 2008 on charges of running the largest Ponzi scheme in history, cheating his investment clients out of some $50 billion. Many of his victims came from a network of Jewish philanthropies and donors where he was a familiar, trusted figure. Sentenced in June to 150 years in federal prison, his crimes were one of the year’s most talked-about news stories. Yet there was little evidence in polling or public discussion that anyone’s opinions about Jews had changed. The only ones worried about Madoff’s Jewishness were Jews.
Nor did much bigoted chatter emerge from the arrests in July of five prominent Sephardic rabbis among the people caught in a New Jersey money-laundering and corruption sweep that also netted mayors, state legislators and a Brooklyn Hasid accused of human kidney trafficking. Nothing seemed to harm Jews in the public’s mind — nothing, that is, except Israel.
This year also saw the collapse of the old taboo — whatever was left of it — on internal Jewish dissent. With the Democrats back in power, Jewish liberals were re-empowered. When the president met with Jewish organizational leaders, groups like Americans for Peace Now were among the invitees. A new Jewish lobby, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” J Street, convened its first gala Washington policy conference in October with National Security Adviser Jim Jones as a keynote speaker and newly minted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren conspicuously absent.
For years the Jewish community had been a vital conduit between Washington and Jerusalem. Now there were two Jewish communities, one emotionally tied to the new administration in Washington, the other with its heart in Netanyahu’s Jerusalem. The border between them was like Israel’s border: ill-defined, porous and shifting but gradually becoming clearer.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).