New Year Worries and Blessings, 5774

The Syrian morass demonstrates how profoundly the Middle East has changed, virtually overnight. For 65 years, Israel’s highest strategic priority has been defending itself from attack by hostile Arab states, while hoping someday to achieve peace. The stable arrangements it achieved with Egypt and Syria, and its implicit alliance with Jordan held up for four decades. Today, the most serious threats along Israel’s borders are not from hostile states, consumed as they are by internal turmoil, but from non-state actors, terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. These are harder to counter because they have little infrastructure to defend and none of the national responsibilities that even authoritarian governments must take seriously. Their extremist ideology makes pragmatic considerations less relevant, and ultimately, they have far less than states to lose. As a consequence, Israel is wise to rethink its military doctrine, structure, and tactics, to address its radically transformed circumstances.

The situation in that fluid, flammable region, where conflicts among tribes, clans, factions and families, predominate, means that America’s capacity to influence developments is severely limited. Even as we prepare to demonstrate that using chemical weapons will not be tolerated – an action I strongly favor, despite the risks, both on its own merits and because inaction would have a disastrous impact on American credibility with Iran and others – we are implicitly telling Assad and others, “You may slaughter your own people, so long as you do it with conventional weapons.”

Sadly, this paradox of moral contradiction is unavoidable. As Israel’s National Security Advisor, Major General Amidror recently pointed out, we must not indulge the illusion that we can change the stream of history sweeping over a region that lacks a center of gravity. What is needed on the part of Israel, the US and others, he argued, is humility, recognizing the limits of their power, trying to avoid mistakes and prevent identified threats from being realized, and influencing events when we can.

With so much to worry about and so little ability to make things better as 5774 begins, is there anything to celebrate? Absolutely! Consider this. On Rosh Hashanah 5708, September 15, 1947, the State of Israel did not exist. When it came into being on May 14, 1948, its survival was by no means assured. Invaded by five Arab armies, the Jewish State might well have lost its War of Independence, but it prevailed. The cost in lives lost was staggering, but HaTikvah – The Hope of two millennia that Jews would reestablish sovereignty in our ancient homeland was realized! Even then, however, its future was not secured. In the War of Attrition, the Six Day War of 1967, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel emerged victorious. And yet, invasion by multiple armies of surrounding Arab states was still a real, ongoing danger. No longer. That indisputable fact is worthy of exuberant celebration.

Terrorist groups can inflict great damage, but they cannot destroy the Jewish State, and hostile nations on Israel’s border lack the will or capacity to try. Iran cannot do so either, at least not yet, though its steadily progressing nuclear program constitutes a threat to Israel’s existence, notwithstanding the alleged “moderation” of its new prime, foreign, and defense ministers. The last of these was implicated in the 1983 bombing that killed 241 American servicemen in Lebanon. Still, Iran has not crossed the red line of enrichment that Israel drew, and the threat it poses can yet be dealt with, by force if all else fails.

Egypt remains a tremendous concern, and the excesses of force the Egyptian military has inflicted on civilians are morally reprehensible. It is disturbing and unsettling to see an elected government overthrown. But it was clear, most importantly to Egypt’s citizens, that the Morsi administration was exploiting the forms of democracy to create an undemocratic, authoritarian Islamist regime. It was also actively providing support to Hamas in Gaza and sought to form an axis with the Moslem Brotherhood dominated government in Turkey. That nation, a security partner of Israel under its former, secular government, is now a bitter, anti-Semitic adversary. Perhaps that antagonism will abate somewhat, since Turkey and Israel both seek to thwart Iran. It is unclear whether Morsi’s fall will lead to eventual Egyptian democracy, but the isolation of Hamas and the setback to Turkey’s regional aspirations are good news indeed.

There is even a tiny, modest glimmer of hope of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After three years of steadfastly refusing to negotiate, the Palestinians agreed to meet. The fact that the contents of the talks have not been leaked suggests that the negotiations might be serious. Israeli diplomats I trust insist that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to make a deal that would involve two states – a Palestinian State and Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish People – living side by side with mutual recognition, full security, and genuine peace. I doubt this can be achieved at present, given the Palestinian Authority’s weakness and the strength of Hamas, which controls Gaza and is committed to Israel’s destruction. More plausible hopes have been dashed before. But talking is better than not talking, and who knows? Once in a rare while, miracles happen. In the meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as greatly as it needs to be solved for the sake of both sides, resembles a chronic disease. It can be painful and debilitating when it flares up, and it can’t yet be cured, but isn’t fatal.

The story is told of an itinerant Jewish peddler named Avrum, who travelled the back roads of eastern Europe selling schmates. Whenever he passed a certain village, he noticed a man sitting on a nearby hilltop. One day, after passing many times, Avrum climbed the hill and asked the man what he’d been doing there all those years. “The town hired me to watch for the Messiah,” the man said. “When he comes, I’ll let everyone know.” “Waiting for the Messiah!?” Avrum exclaimed. “What kind of a job is that?” “Well,” the man replied, “It doesn’t pay much, but it’s good, steady work.”

As it has been for Jews of generations past, as it is for us, and as it will surely be for generations to come, there is much to worry during these High Holy Days. Yet for us, unlike so many of those who came before, there is even more to celebrate. Worries and troubles come uninvited, and those we can do little or nothing to allay weigh heaviest of all, but we are not powerless. In democracies, engaged citizenship is both a high privilege and a sacred responsibility. Celebrating, too, is an obligation, one that stems from gratitude. As Ezra and Nehemiah told our worried ancestors on Rosh Hashanah some 2500 years ago, “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for [this] day is holy to the Eternal One. Do not be sad, for rejoicing in the Eternal is the source of your strength.” Even as we worry and face troubles, known and yet to be known, let us celebrate wholeheartedly as 5774 begins, we, whose burdens, though very real, are so greatly outnumbered by our blessings.

About the Author
Rabbi Richard A Block is Immediate Past President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic leadership organization of Reform Judaism, and Senior Rabbi of The Temple - Tifereth Israel, Cleveland, OH. Newsweek Magazine has recognized him as "one of the top 25 pulpit rabbis in America."