Jewish Year in Review: 2006

Four stories that mattered--and three that might have.

When MyJewishLearning’s editorial team got together to pick the top Jewish stories of 2006, two things became clear: (1) America can’t compete with Israel for history-making headlines; (2) Judging the long-term significance of the year’s events is, at this point, impossible.

In the end, we bowed to both of these considerations. The four stories that we think mattered most include two (War in Lebanon; Provocation in Iran) that are central to Israeli Jewry. And we decided to compose a second list, too: The three stories that seemed to matter, but whose significance is still pending.

So without further ado, here are MyJewishLearning’s picks (in no particular order) for the four stories that mattered in 2006–and the three that might have.

The Conservative Movement Moves

It was a busy year for the Conservative Movement. In April, Stanford professor Arnold Eisen became the second non-rabbi to be named chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, replacing Ismar Schorsch. Eisen’s selection surprised some, but in many ways it was a safe choice. As a relative outsider, his nomination was not seen as a referendum on the future of Conservative Judaism.

Meanwhile, Schorsch made sure to slam the door on his way out, delivering a JTS commencement address that included a stinging rebuke of his movement’s congregants, students, and rabbis. "Conservative Judaism lost access to critical scholarship as a source for religious meaning, with nothing substantially spiritual to replace it," Schorsch said. Of course, a few people grumbled the obvious: As the leader of JTS for twenty years, surely Schorsch bore some responsibility for this.

In addition to leadership changes, the movement grappled with other fundamental issues in 2006. Most monumental was the Law Committee’s decision in December to accept a responsum that sanctioned the ordination of gay rabbis and same-sex marriage.

Though Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ responsum on workers’ rights failed to win Law Committee approval in September, a few months later Conservative leaders announced their intent to establish a "tsedek hekhsher"–a justice certification that would ensure that kosher food producers meet standards for social responsibility.

Are these progressive religious initiatives a sign of things to come? Will the Conservative movement–which some say has been floundering for years–reassert itself as a primary voice of American Jewry? Whatever happens, one thing is clear: in 2006, the movement took bold steps toward trying.

War in Lebanon–and Israel

The abduction of two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, by Hezbollah forces, was the impetus for the Israel-Lebanon War that began on July 12, 2006.

Israel responded to the abduction and to the ongoing firing of Katyusha rockets into Israel with air strikes and artillery fire, an air and naval blockade, and a ground invasion of southern Lebanon. Back-and-forth shelling disrupted normal life across Lebanon and northern Israel and killed over 1,400 people, mostly civilians.

On August 14, a United Nations-brokered ceasefire went into effect. The conflict formally ended on September 8, when Israel lifted its naval blockade.

Reactions to the conflict were mixed. Within Israel and abroad, the bloodshed and suffering–particularly in Lebanon–raised questions about the use of force and the massive civilian casualties.

On the other hand, Israel garnered a great deal of support, and the Israeli public stood behind the war much more than it had the 1982 Lebanon conflict. Leaders of Jewish communities abroad expressed almost unanimous support for Israel, and many politicians in America urged Israel to act decisively, even with increased force. This reflected the perception that Lebanon was a front in the ongoing confrontation with terrorism generally–and Iran specifically.

Provocation in Iran

What was the most cited name in the Jewish press in 2006? It very well may have been Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The President of Iran solidified his role as Public Enemy #1, continuing to assert that Israel should–and will–disappear, ramping up his nuclear provocations, and capping the year by hosting a conference of Holocaust deniers.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are the scariest part of this story, but its obsession with the Holocaust may be the most interesting. In February 2006, the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri announced that it would hold a contest for the best Holocaust cartoon, a reaction to the Danish cartoon that had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad. Though clearly not a philo-Semitic move, Hamshahri‘s contest did make a noteworthy point about the nature of Western civil liberties: There’s no free speech when it comes to Holocaust denial in many European countries, but caricaturing a revered Muslim religious figure is a protected right.

At the same time, Ahmadinejad added subtlety to his anti-Semitism, insisting that he is really only anti-Zionist. To prove the point he invited members of the ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist group Neturei Karta to his Holocaust conference.

Is Ahmadinejad a real threat to Israel? Very possibly. Is he an anti-Semite? Almost definitely. But he’s no mere thug.

Pop Culture: Attack of the Jews

Discussing Jews in the media traditionally meant discussing Jewish studio executives or the Jewish "sensibility" of a Woody Allen or Jerry Seinfeld. This year was different.

In 2006, Jewish musicians, actors, and TV personalities seemed as "out" as ever about their identities. They also seemed more comfortable speaking directly to their co-religionists. And if the rest of the world wanted to laugh or listen, too, well fine.

First and foremost, of course, was Matisyahu, the Lubavitch reggae star whose album Youth debuted at #4 on the Billboard Top 200 and garnered a Grammy nomination–despite its lyrics about "Torah" and "Hashem."

Meanwhile, a man with a similar beard and yarmulka, Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, furthered his march through American pop culture with his TLC advice show Shalom in the Home. And the Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart continued bringing fakes news and real Jews to the masses by hosting the 78th Academy Awards. Despite the global audience, Stewart still managed several particularistic quips, including his address to Steven Spielberg: "Schindler’s List and Munich. I think I speak for all Jews when I say, I can’t wait to see what happens to us next."

Most notable of all, though, was Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedic masterpiece, about a fake Kazakh journalist who takes his anti-Semitism on an American road trip. The film seemed filled with private jokes (including the fact that Borat’s Kazakh speech is actually Hebrew), but America laughed along to the tune of $26.4 million–in the first weekend alone.

The Three (That Might Have Mattered)

Ariel Sharon’s Stroke

On January 4, 2006, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke that left him comatose. Sharon’s incapacitation came less than three months before a national election that he had single-handedly remade in his image. Facing opposition from his own political party, Likud, Sharon had left the right-wing party to form the centrist Kadima.

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert assumed the duties of Prime Minister and became Kadima’s candidate, but the party was so closely associated with Sharon that many thought Kadima was doomed.

But Olmert and Kadima won, and it’s unclear whether the election or anything that’s happened in Israel since would have been much different had Sharon been in power. Sharon was long associated with military might, but could Israel have used more force in its war with Lebanon? Sharon’s stroke seemed historic when it happened. But was it really?

Jews for Darfur

Tragically, 2006 saw the continuation of mass violence in Darfur, which in three years claimed more than 200,000 lives and forced at least 2 million more into refugee camps in Sudan and Chad.

Since 2004, when the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum first issued a genocide alert, Jewish groups have poured money and resources into Darfur advocacy. In 2006, the Jewish presence in the Darfur activist community–particularly at an April rally in Washington–was unmistakable.

As president and executive director of the American Jewish World Service, Ruth Messinger, more than any other leader, was credited with organizing the Washington rally and with thrusting the Sudanese region to the top of the Jewish communal agenda.

But with the genocide continuing, how do we measure the impact of this Jewish activism? Only time will tell.

Maybe We’re Not Disappearing

Population reports shouldn’t be so exciting, but ever since the 1990 National Jewish Population Study inspired a communal preoccupation with continuity, the numbers game has been the only game in town. And as 2006 came to a close, reports of two new studies hit the press.

A 2001 population study counted 5.2 million Jews in the United State, but the 2006 American Jewish Year Book put the U.S. Jewish population at 6.4 million. Meanwhile, it was reported that a study being conducted at Brandeis University expects to find 6 to 8 million Jews in America.

What will be the ramifications of these new studies? Will they suggest that American Jewry is not, indeed, endangered? If so, will that shift the community’s focus away from continuity and toward more substantive matters? Probably not. But the possibility is truly historic.

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