As we enter the year 5774 on the Jewish calendar, I find myself thinking about where the world was 100 years ago. In particular, I am imagining the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean that is today the state of Israel, and the region surrounding it. In my mind’s eye, I see the crumbling Ottoman Empire and the Jerusalem of 1913 and 1914, a backwater inhabited by Christians, Muslims and Jews.
At this time, both the Jews and the Arabs are forging their modern political identities. Jews, inspired by the Zionist movement in Europe, are settling in Palestine, returning to agriculture and reviving Hebrew as a spoken language. Arab nationalism is stirring: In 1913, the First Arab Congress is being held in Paris, and in 1914, the young British officer T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia) who will later take up the mantle of pan-Arabism, has arrived to map the border between the Negev and Sinai deserts. While Western nations such as Britain, France and the United States begin to ponder their future moves on the chessboard of Middle East power and petroleum, the first secret peace talks between Zionists and Arabs are taking place.
I often hear complaints that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is proceeding at a glacial pace—I sometimes feel that way, too—but viewed from the perspective of 5674, the pace of history seems fast and furious. Two national narratives—often clashing and focused on detailing the injustices of the other—have grown out of decades of painful wars, religious and ideological clashes, terrorism and lost opportunities. There have been moments of visionary leadership, resulting in peace treaties that have withstood the test of time, so far at least, and improved living conditions, both in Israel and the West Bank as well. Like it or not, the last 100 years have painted the desert canvas with two nations, one de facto, both imperfect and with roots entangled in contemporary, medieval and ancient history.
Each side is often irritated, even angered, by the other’s narrative, viewing the alternate version as a threat to its own. I am always amazed by the vast amounts of thought and resources continually poured into defending narratives. We cannot and should not forget the past, but in the case of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, it is time to set aside this discomfort over a natural expression of national identity building and refocus our energy on the next 100 years.
This New Year, let’s stand in awe of all that 100 years can bring and move forward with wisdom. This is easier said than done, of course, because as humans we live at time’s frontier. It’s hard to imagine what the year 5874 will bring. Change could occur much faster than in the last century, thanks to technology that increases the ability of one person or a small group to make a difference in a shrinking globe. Or change could proceed more slowly because of information overload and a surfeit of new players. I don’t know, no one does, but I do know that we must begin by imagining what we want 5874 to be like.
One thing I want is for women to play a more proactive role in world affairs—everywhere—but especially in the Middle East, a region where we lag far behind in rights and visibility. Some progress has been made on this front: Had I been alive in 5674, I would not have had the right to vote and my voice would have been muted, even more than it is today. But we have far to go, and I hope that in 5874 the increased influence of women will tip the balance of political brinks-man-ship for the better.
This leads me to this issue’s symposium: Is religion good for women? This is an important question for the past, the present and the future with many possible answers. It is a deeply Jewish question, and a deeply human one that transcends individual faiths. We talk to a range of women and men who have given this topic thought: Margot Adler, Rachel Adler, Reza Aslan, Simone Campbell, Blu Greenberg, Rebecca Goldstein, Lucette Lagnado, Judith Plaskow, Katha Pollitt and many others, including sociologist Robert Bellah, who sadly passed away prior to publication. Our “Ask the Rabbis” section explores this same query from a uniquely Jewish perspective, further expanding the rich diversity of opinions. We are impressed by how many intelligent ways there are to approach this very big question, and look forward to continuing this conversation.
We also look at another pressing issue for the next century in the Middle East: the fate of the Dead Sea. Perilously low water levels have caused thousands of sinkholes to open, just one of the problems threatening its rare ecosystem as well as tourism and agriculture. In this fifth installment of Moment’s ongoing series on Israel’s environment, reporter Eetta Prince-Gibson looks at a plan for saving the sea, the controversial conduit between the Dead and Red Seas, that, should it come to fruition, would provide an opportunity for Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to work together toward a common goal.
Plus we talk with information architect and TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, and new Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti. We visit a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, take an inside look at New York City’s religious politics, trace the history of Jews and coffee, and discover the changing meanings of the Yiddish word beshert. There’s also an expanded book section, packed with superb reviews.
Please note the amazing lineups for upcoming Moment events and symposiums that are being held this fall in Washington, DC, and New York City. A list is on the next page. I hope to see you at one of them.
I wish you a happy and healthy 5774!