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Dawn of a Late Millennium

The calendar says that soon a year draws to a close, the ball will drop, the tinsel too, and we will enter the fourth year of this still new millennium.

Big deal. The last and so far only interesting thing about this new millennium was all that noise about what would happen, but did not, to our computers and all that derives from them a year before the actual millennium. That aside, and that wasn’t much at all, the new millennium has been a frightful bore. Everything we’ve seen we’d seen before, and more than once. All the bad stuff, and all the good as well.

It’s not just that Yasser Arafat’s still around, and Ariel Sharon as well, and even Ian Paisely — all, as the kids would say, so five minutes ago. Nor that Bush junior sits where Bush senior’s chair is still warm, and Assad junior and Assad senior likewise, or that the rich get richer and the wrong people — as if there were ever right people — keep getting killed in wars large and small or that Africa is still dying. It’s not even the sense of impending apocalypse; that, too, is reheated, even though one never knows which warning will prove to have been true.

Oh, the disappointment. The largely unspoken hope was that somehow the end would be an ending, that there would be a new and fresh beginning. A chance to beat (at least some) swords into plowshares, to see things and each other in new ways, to speak quietly and with dignity, yet capable of rage where rage is warranted. No more sham, no more hype, no more or very little spin.

The years 1946, or 1971, or 1998, were merely numbers; but the year 2000 was The Year Two Thousand, the one year preceded by a definite article and full title, as if to announce a genuinely new birth, not just confetti nor even ruffles and flourishes but Hallelujah!, not a diaper-swaddled baby but Gabriel, yes the Angel Gabriel and a great gettin’ up mornin for us, for all.

All right, I exaggerate. No one really believed all that. But neither did anyone truly believe that this mighty nation would spend itself into a bottomless deficit, a crippling deficit, in order to make the Middle East safe for democracy and to enable people who can afford the cost of Hummers to claim a tax deduction for their appetite, nor surely did anyone believe that the very same people who in 1993 were telling us that the path to peace between Israel and the Palestinians was irreversible would now be writing learned essays taking this one or that one or everyone to task but never apologizing for the shallowness of their earlier analyses.

Now, of course, we have the harsh metaphor for the reversibility of the irreversible: Even the Twin Towers proved reversible. But did we not have abundant, overflowing evidence of how delicate and how fragile are our designs long before September 11, 2001? So, while no door opened wide to a world refreshed, renewed, we thought maybe — just maybe — a window would open wide and a fresh breeze would restore us, uplift us.

There are, of course, signs of encouragement. We have Google and everything it represents, eventually the entire democratization of human knowledge, even if the gap between knowledge and understanding remains very much in place. We have the map of the genome, and the prospect of a dramatic reduction in disease, even if here in America we persist in treating health care as a profit center. We have, and the prospect of a dramatic expansion of the grassroots politics it represents, even as cynicism and the indecency of indifference remain intact. We have the Geneva Initiative, and the tremulous hope it ignites, even as the path of the “security” fence adds new insult and new injury to a peace process already starved for oxygen.

I listened carefully last week as Palestinians and Israelis fresh from Geneva explained and defended their draft accord, rational and balanced voices speaking into what may well prove a dry desert wind. Can this truly be a new departure, and not just another tantalizing footnote? Israel’s hawks, convinced that there is no partner for peace, now talk of unilateral withdrawal; Ehud Olmert himself, Israel’s deputy prime minister, apparently believes there’s political hay to be made with such a plan.

But there are, in hard fact, partners to talk to. Arafat — yes, irrelevant Arafat — still calls the plays, perhaps imagines that if his duplicity and violence have brought 32% of Israelis to endorse Geneva, the best deal by a mile he’s thus far been offered. (He ought to hold on to violence a while longer, perhaps a better deal will be his.)

Sharon bumbles on, no belt of policy holding up his trousers, his essential nakedness increasingly revealed. The Palestinian groups cannot reach a constructive consensus regarding a cease-fire, and the Israeli right has renewed grounds for complaint. But there in one room were the Geneva partners, not entirely irrelevant people who mean to press their agreement, an agreement that offers so very much to both peoples, that fixes Oslo and promises the sought-for new day.

So what if the real new millennium begins in 2004 or 2005 or 2006, instead of just on schedule? Wouldn’t that be a time, a new morning at last?

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).


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