The year 2014 will not be remembered as a good one. Constantly rising tensions — religious, internecine, ethnic, political and otherwise — left an indelible blemish on the past 12 months.
The year began with hopes that 2014 would see peace talks with the Palestinians bear fruit, lawmakers broker deals to manage the economy, Syria end its civil war, Europe remain a safe place for Jews, the Arab world open up to us and Iran’s nuclear plans get thwarted. A year later, little has been resolved and many new tears have been opened in the fabric of Israeli and Jewish society, not to mention around the world.
Yet even in the darkest times, there was light and there was humanity. Grassroots efforts to spread understanding and heal rifts were ubiquitous, even in unexpected places, like the West Bank junction where three teens were kidnapped or the mourning tent of a Palestinian boy killed in revenge. The deaths of lone soldiers in Gaza brought out the best in tens of thousands, who escorted those they never knew on their final journeys. A Jewish man, in prison for years in Cuba, was freed amid a historic détente.
Through it all, The Times of Israel has attempted to bring a deeper understanding of Israel, the Jewish world and the wider universe to our readers. Looking back, these 14 stories, culled from some 20,000 published over the year, paint a picture of our year, the good, the bad, the parts we’d rather forget and those we will cherish as we move into the maw of 2015’s great unknown.
1. A warrior who embodied pragmatic politics
2014 began with the death of a lion of Israel’s political and military history. Ariel Sharon, a maverick fighter turned peacenik politician, was remembered in a bevy of different ways, and in “Ever the warrior,” Haviv Rettig Gur summed up the arc of his life and noted the difficulty in reconciling the seemingly opposite philosophies he embodied. “When it comes to determining the legacy of a leader,” he writes, “few leaders offer up a more complex, contradictory record than Ariel Sharon.”
2. On Mount Herzl with the keepers of the graves
Ariel Sharon was buried on his ranch in southern Israel, but for most of Israel’s other leaders, as well as thousands of soldiers and other casualties of wars and terror attacks, Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl is their final resting place. For Mitch Ginsburg, hearing that a bereaved sister could not eat rosemary because of the prevalence of the herb at the cemetery became the launching point for an absorbing discourse on the greenery surrounding Israel’s heroes, and the stories behind it, dating back some 67 years. “The green, the shade, the cool temperature, it creates a sort of tenderness,” one landscaper tells him. “Something is wrapped around you. You are not exposed at the grave.”
3. Nine tiny new Dead Sea Scrolls come to light
As Israel parted with national treasures, another even older one was discovered, or rather re-discovered. As Ilan Ben Zion reported in this exclusive story, an Israeli scholar studying the Dead Sea Scrolls found nine tiny unopened parchments that had been overlooked in the six previous decades of research on the find, considered among the country’s and world’s most important windows into our history. Once opened, the minuscule phylactery parchments from Qumran could shed new light on the religious practices of Second Temple Judaism. “We have to be prepared for surprises,” one researcher says.
4. For some dying Syrian children, Israel is the only hope
While some in Israel peered inward into history, others looked out at groundbreaking events happening in the here and now, or nearby and now. Lazar Berman, traveling to the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan, chronicled the extraordinary efforts volunteers from an Israel-based group were making to bring medical care to Syrian refugees, and their amazing journey to Israel, where doctors waited to care for them. “It’s not the black-and-white, Muslim versus Jew Middle East imagined by the American Studies Association or adherents of the Clash of Civilizations theory,” he writes. “It’s another, far more complex Middle East, with countless shades of gray, unspoken alliances, and people from a spectrum of communities cooperating in an attempt to give their families and peoples a chance at a better future.”
5. Netanyahu finally speaks his mind
That accepted narrative was also chipped at by David Horovitz who, when seemingly nobody else took notice, found Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally saying what he really thinks in an otherwise unremarkable speech in early July, just after Israel embarked on the war that would come to define much of the year. In a typically incisive opinion piece, Horovitz parsed Netanyahu’s words to find stances that had previously been a mystery to the public. “Most Israelis would acknowledge that they’ve never been entirely sure how Netanyahu sees a potential resolution of the Palestinian conflict, which concessions he’s truly ready to make, what his long-term vision looks like,” he writes. “But now we know.”
6. Waze traffic app becomes Israeli-Palestinian battleground
At the same time Netanyahu was talking (kind of) straight, a war of words was being waged between Israeli and Palestinian narratives in a most unlikely place, the Israeli-developed traffic app Waze. In David Shamah’s telling, what to call the West Bank security barrier on the application became a point of contention alongside rising tensions outside of cyberspace. “It appears that the gauntlet has been raised by both sides,” he notes. “Over the past week, portions of the structure have sported both ‘security fence’ and ‘separation wall,’ with the names switching back and forth, sometimes several times a day.”
7. The rocket that spelled the end of the two-state solution?
The war between Israel and Gaza, arguably the defining event of the year, resulted in many casualties, but one unexpected loss from the hundreds of rockets shot at Israel may have been the prospects of a two-state solution. While others were fretting over the air embargo imposed following a Gazan missile attack near the airport, Raphael Ahren took a longer view and illustrated what the unprecedented shutdown could mean for Palestinian statehood efforts. “If a single rocket fired from Gaza could bring Israel’s international air traffic to near standstill, it was argued by some on the right, how could Israel ever hand over control of the West Bank to the Palestinians,” he elucidates. “After all, it was reasoned, the future Palestine’s western border would be much closer to Ben-Gurion than Gaza, and given the West Bank’s mountainous topography, it would be simple for terrorists to rain rocket fire on the airport.”
8. On Jerusalem light rail, anxiety trumps co-existence
While planes were never really threatened during the war, Jerusalem’s light rail, once heralded as a key to coexistence in the eternally united-divided capital, became a flashpoint of tensions. Elhanan Miller, riding from one terminus to the other as the capital seethed amid interethnic strife, found riders both nervous about recurring violence as the tram passed through some Arab neighborhoods, and determined to make sure the long-awaited rail line did not become yet another victim of the fighting. “Despite the anxiety, Arabic and Hebrew still mixed on the tram Tuesday in the loud chatter of veiled Arab schoolgirls on their way home and the raucous cellphone conversations of middle-aged Israeli women,” he writes.
9. In wake of war, leftist ‘self-hating Jews’ find a voice
An ocean away, the effects of the war played themselves out in rallies, both pro- and anti-Israel in the streets of North America, Europe and elsewhere. While in many cases lines between the groups hardened, sometimes violently, left-wing and anti-Zionist Jews, for so long left in the wilderness between the camps, were able to find a voice. Amanda Borschel-Dan ventured into the heart of Jewish Voice for Peace and other like-minded groups to find a movement growing in popularity, to the dismay of some and the joy of others. “Love it or loathe it, in using what some call ‘guerrilla’ tactics to dissent from mainstream Jewry’s pro-Israel stance, far leftist activist group Jewish Voice for Peace is reportedly experiencing unprecedented growth since the start of Operation Protective Edge,” she relates.
10. In eternally stained Berlin, worrying about Israel
Traveling to Berlin, David Horovitz found a very different story in the wake of the war, one of a Europe where Jews of any creed are increasingly unwelcome in some quarters and where the need for a strong and stable Israel living in peace beside its neighbors becomes clearer by the day. “The steady return of anti-Semitism is gradually rendering Israel a potentially more vital refuge for European Jewry than at any time since its founding years,” he writes. “As ever, therefore, the Jewish nation needs towering leadership to guide it. The complex interplay with the Palestinians requires remembering, always, that neither people is going away, and that our Israeli interest therefore requires creating a climate in which we can eventually live together, without being seduced into misguided policies that exacerbate the dangers we face.”
11. The end of aliya?
So it is that since its founding, and even earlier, the greatest national project of the Zionist movement has been bringing the Jewish people to Israel. In an important essay, though, Haviv Rettig Gur explores whether the immigration effort as currently designed has become an antiquated relic in a time of relative worldwide prosperity and safety for Jews worldwide. With a front seat to Israeli bureaucratic squabbling over how best to bring Jews to Israel, Gur wonders if whether aliya as we know it has come to an end. “Most Diaspora Jews today speak English, have never personally encountered open anti-Semitism, and deeply and firmly identify with the country and culture in which they live. Most Diaspora Jews, it must be said, are Americans,” he finds. “Yet Israel’s immigration officials refuse to address or even acknowledge these realities.”
12. In rural Uganda, Conservative prayer services with an African lilt
Most, but not all. In rural Uganda, Melanie Lidman visited the little-known Diaspora community of Abayudada Jews, chronicling their history from roots with a fierce warrior at the turn of the 20th century to the explosive growth they are experiencing today, with schools, a yeshiva and a new Conservative synagogue and community center in the works. “Isolation used to be our biggest challenge, but we are no longer isolated,” on member tells her. “Nowadays we are showered with love by fellow Jews around the world. It’s a blessing.”
13. The Israelis who buy farmland to let it lie fallow
Back in Israel, Jessica Steinberg found another seeming anachronism, Jews who reject the loopholes allowing farming during the fallow year and instead actively buy up land to let it have a rest. Diving into the depths of what the biblical commandment of shmita means for modern Israel, Steinberg delivers an exploration of how it has become a means for individual self-expression in the religious community. “Given that shmita is an ancient commandment created during a time of subsistence farming, one may find it surprising that Jews are paying so much attention to its strictures,” she writes. “But 2014 is also a period of organic produce, kitchen gardens, alternative farming, produce boxes and locally sourced foods, which may help explain the desire for more active shmita observance.”
14. Once inside the hospital, the ‘terrorist’ becomes the ‘patient’
Last is a tale that in many ways sums up the frustrations and beauties and inherent contradictions of Israeli society in 2014. In a year that saw its fair share of terror attacks, Renee Ghert-Zand painted a picture of medical workers putting their humanity before their politics, unhesitatingly working to save those who just moments before had committed heinous crimes, sometimes before even treating their victims. “Whatever their opinions about what happens outside the hospital,” she writes, “once they stand within its walls, Israeli physicians, sworn by oath to do no harm and save lives, say they manage to put aside their emotions and treat each and every patient equally.”
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