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Looking Back, and Forward

In a world that seems ever more dark and gloomy with each passing year, the year that just ended, 2006, managed to leap up a notch or two and leave us gloomier and more troubled, by several orders of magnitude, than most of us had thought imaginable.

It was a year that opened, as soberingly as any year could, with a worldwide outburst of Muslim rage over the publication of a handful of cartoons in a Danish newspaper a few months before, depicting the Prophet Muhammad in human and sometimes comic form. Millions of Westerners who had hitherto hoped Muslim-Western tensions might be just a misunderstanding began to sense that something far worse was under way.

It was a year when Iraq slipped from turmoil into bloodstained chaos, forcing the vast majority of Americans — if not their leaders — to acknowledge the catastrophic folly of our nation’s 2003 decision to invade.

It was a year when Iran strutted to the center of the world stage, free at last of its Ba’athist nemesis in Baghdad, and contemptuously dismissed the demands of a united world community that it halt nuclear development. To demonstrate the depth of its disregard for the values of humanity, it staged not one but two international events to mock the Nazi Holocaust — an exhibition of cartoons in August and an academic conference of neo-Nazis, cranks and madmen in December.

It was a year when Israelis rallied themselves to elect, for the first time, a coalition of parties committed to ending the occupation of the West Bank and seeking good neighborly relations with an independent Palestine — and when Palestinians elected a government committed to rejecting coexistence and destroying the State of Israel.

It was a year when Israelis suffered their worst-ever military setback in a four-week war against the Lebanese Hezbollah, shattering their faith in their revered military and forcing them to acknowledge the magnitude of the threat they faced in the Islamist militias that had grown up along their borders.

It was a year when America’s trade deficits and its national debt shattered new records and some international financial institutions began to talk, for the first time and in quiet tones, about moving assets into other, safer economies.

It was a year when the world community finally decided, through the Security Council, to take action in the face of the three-year orgy of bloodletting in the Darfur region of Sudan, but did nothing as the killing raged on. It was a year when 1 million Africans died of malaria, among the most preventable of diseases, and the global death toll from AIDS reached a new peak.

It was a year that saw a shocking explosion of violent attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions across the globe on a scale not seen in decades. They included dozens of firebombings and armed assaults against synagogues, Jewish schools and community centers from Melbourne to Montreal, from Oslo to Seattle. They included, for the first time, a worldwide rash of assaults against Jewish individuals, leaving at least three dozen injured, including a 12-year-old schoolgirl beaten unconscious on a London bus, and two people dead, in Seattle and Paris. (The previous year, by contrast, had seen just a handful of attacks and only six injuries.)

Perhaps worse, it was year that saw some of America’s most prominent public voices, including a Harvard dean and a former president, openly blaming the Jews of Israel and their American Jewish cousins for the violent disorder sweeping the globe.

Above all, it was a year when great sheets of ice began to break away from the melting polar ice caps and an island in the Bay of Bengal became the first inhabited landmass to disappear beneath the rising seas, terrifying symbols of the environmental disintegration that looms, just a few decades away now, as human enterprise continues to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and heat up the planet.

And yet…

And yet, it was also a year that ended with the first, halting acknowledgments by the governments of the United States and China, the world’s worst greenhouse gas offenders, that the threat to humanity from global warming is real.

It was a year in which the guns began to fall silent and machetes dropped to the ground in Congo, the world’s bloodiest killing ground, and when the peoples of Sierra Leone and Liberia began to emerge from the horrors of civil strife and rebuild their lives, all thanks to the presence of United Nations troops. It was a year when Uganda began to awaken from the 20-year nightmare of its hidden war in the north.

It was a year when the tide began to turn, slowly but perceptibly, in the fight against starvation and disease in many parts of Africa, as billions of dollars in humanitarian aid began at last to pour into the suffering continent. Hundreds of thousands of lives were saved this year, reversing the bitter trends of the past three decades. It was due partly to the tireless statesmanship of Tony Blair, partly to the prodigious philanthropy of Bill and Melinda Gates — and partly to the quiet work of President Bush, who decided, without fanfare, to triple American aid to Africa.

It was a year when leaders of the major Sunni Arab nations, principally Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, began openly seeking to play a moderating role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to build some sort of common front with Israel, their de facto in the face of Islamist radicalism.

It was a year when women were chosen as leaders for the first time in Chile, Liberia, Germany and the United States House of Representatives.

It was a year when the American public finally decided to punish its leaders at the ballot box for their arrogance and incompetence, removing Republicans from control in both houses of Congress and restoring the balance needed in our divided system of government. It was a long, bitter campaign, fought state by state and neighborhood by neighborhood, a nail-biter to the end. It turned at the last moment because — if we may be permitted to say so — the previously unbeatable Republican Senator George Allen of Virginia had offered an opportunity to melt down before the television cameras, following the publication of little-known facts about his family background in a feisty Jewish newsweekly in New York.

For all these reasons, 2006 ended with glimmers of light here and there that allow us to hope for something better in 2007. We may hope that Israel, Syria and the Palestinians will find a way to seize the olive branches they are offering to one another and to begin ironing out their problems around the negotiating table. We may hope that the Democrats in Congress will find a way to start moving forward, not just on the small gestures they have promised, like raising the minimum wage and reforming campaign gifts, but on the big, essential issues: halting the growth of the nation’s indebtedness, rebuilding a productive economy with real jobs and reducing the carbon-fuel addiction that is at the heart of the global warming crisis.

Nobody expects to complete these tasks in 2007, but neither are we free to desist. The solutions lie near at hand. They are not in heaven.

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