This week: Jewish New Year 5777 and its challenges

The Jewish New Year season comprises two major holidays: Rosh Hashanah, the New Year itself, this year October 3 (beginning at sundown the night before), and Yom Kippur, known as the Day of Atonement, October 12 (also beginning the night before). During this reflective time, Jews are asked to give thanks for the year past, to review their actions, apologize for their misdeeds and make amends, and resolve to do better in the year to come.

The New Year festival, often called the “High Holidays,” is not meant to be easy. It is a season for kheshbon hanefesh, a reckoning of the soul, a close examination of our shortcomings. For adults in good health, Yom Kippur is a full 25-hour fast so that no distractions such as food, or even water, take away from concentration on the task of the day.

It is traditionally a time to reclaim our real and authentic selves, honoring both ourselves and others by the commitments we make. If we value the bonds of community – not only within our families or within the larger fellowship of Jews, but more universally as members of the human race and custodians of the Earth – we assume the burden of honesty and candor. If we are going to be depending on one another in the months and the years to come, we have to be open, frank, accountable for our actions, and constructive. If we can manage to be hopeful, well, optimism is one of humanity’s most useful survival tools and may get us through the next year.

The new year – number 5777 according to the Jewish calendar, dating from the mythical creation of the world – gives Jews and non-Jews alike much occasion for examination. At temple and synagogue services, rabbis will no doubt refer to two giants of 20th-century Jewish history whom we have lost recently. First, the Holocaust survivor and through his writings one might say “Rememberer in Chief,” Elie Wiesel; and former Israeli President Shimon Peres, who died on Sept. 28th. Both of them bore witness to timeless principles of justice and repair of the world, though neither rose above criticism.

Wiesel, a 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was known for his steadfast support of the State of Israel, almost no matter what policies it pursued. It is not hard to understand that a “graduate” of the concentration camps should be joyous that from 1948 on there existed at least one country in the world where oppressed Jews from anywhere in the world could find haven, yet the cry of “Never again!” in his vocabulary seemed not to apply to Gaza and the West Bank.

Most of the Jewish world sighed sadly at the passing of Shimon Peres at 93. But he leaves behind a complicated legacy. Advocates for peace in the Middle East remember that he worked to forge the 1993 Oslo Accords which envisioned a future Palestinian state alongside Israel, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize, along with fellow Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Yet his vision of such a state was less than sovereign and fell short of basic Palestinian needs, and he green-lighted early settlements in the West Bank against his government’s policy. Peres was also a military strategist who was responsible for overseeing at least part of Israel’s nuclear weapons program, organized its responses to attacks from Hezbollah, and in 1996 ordered a bombing in Lebanon that wiped out the village of Qana, killing at least 100 civilians. Much earlier in his career, as one of Israel’s founding statesmen, he was partly responsible for the Nakba, the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in the Israeli independence wars of 1948-49.

Still, until the time of his death he was Israel’s most prominent advocate for a two-state solution, which is now supported by a bare majority of 53 percent of Israeli Jews, but has next to zero support in the current Benjamin Netanyahu government. (In fact, Peres told a newspaper editor two years before his death that he had stopped Netanyahu from launching an attack against Iran.) A realistic goal for a just, amicable peace between Israelis and Palestinians is elusive at best, whether in the form of two states, one state, a binational state, a federation, or anything else. Even the status quo is not static, with West Bank and East Jerusalem settlement by Jews growing every day, producing ever more instability on the ground.

5777 will be difficult

The year 5777, or 2017 in the Western calendar, marks 50 years since the 1967 war in which Israel began the occupation of historically Palestinian lands envisioned for a future independent state. The ongoing occupation is internationally regarded as illegal: No nation in the world recognizes Israel’s land claims. This 50th anniversary year will be a difficult one. The struggle for Palestinian freedom, justice, and equality is not going away. If anything it has continued to move from the margins to the mainstream in the U.S. and around the world.

Today the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel is attracting wide support from many quarters. Some surely comes from recognizably anti-Semitic elements. But much of it comes from people of different nationalities and faiths who simply feel compelled to witness their nonviolent opposition to the occupation by censuring companies that do business in the West Bank, or by withdrawing from union or church pension funds invested in Israel. Some academics are declining to collaborate with Israeli scholars, and some artists are refusing to perform in Israel.

Increasing secularization of America is a factor in the declining importance of Israel in the minds of both Jews and Christians. Israel ranks far from the top of major concerns at election time even among Jews. But the occupation policies of present-day Israel are also driving Jews away, especially liberal-minded younger ones.

Uncritical defense of “Israel right or wrong” is still preached from many pulpits, but it is more and more heard as a turnoff by more progressive people. In part as a response to that trend, a few new Jewish congregations have emerged that reject nationalist identity as central to the Jewish religion.

These are among the challenges for Jews going into the year 5777: How to live in accordance with the professed egalitarian ideals of the democracies most Jews live in, while also feeling out of step with the declared “homeland of the Jewish people” that is steadily going politically more to the right. The significant exodus of not only liberal-thinking Jews from Israel – interestingly enough, many of them to Germany – indicates that Israeli Jews are also feeling that disconnect and despair.

Here the two values of Jewish particularism and universality are clear, for many non-Jews around the world also feel that disconnect between the stated beliefs of their countries and the realities of everyday life. We will undoubtedly see more sentiments such as those expressed by the Colin Kaepernicks, the Black Lives Matter movement, the fighters for $15 an hour, the School of the Americas Watch, so long as justice is delayed and denied.

Although the Jewish New Year is still particular to Jews, it reminds us all that any time is appropriate for some kheshbon hanefesh, a reckoning of the soul.

Photo: Lloyd


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. Aside from numerous awards for his writing from the International Labor Communications Association, he received the Better Lemons “Up Late” Critic Award for 2019. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.