Ten worst news stories of 2008

by David A. Harris
Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC)
New York, December 22, 2008

This year, it wasn’t difficult to identify candidates for the worst news stories. The challenge was limiting them to ten. Here’s my list:

An ethical meltdown

An Israeli prime minister compelled to leave office, on the heels of an Israeli president who was obliged to leave his post under a cloud in 2007, sent another disturbing message that all is not well in Israeli politics.

The Bernie Madoff story, embodying greed and fraud to the Nth degree, inflicted more harm this year on the Jewish world than all of our external enemies combined.

And the front-page stories on the accusations against Agriprocessors, the kosher meat plant in Iowa charged with massive labor violations, triggered shock and embarrassment.

For a people whose mission statement puts a moral code front and center, clearly, there’s remedial work to be done.

An American meltdown

For those who believe that a strong, robust United States is critical to the defense of freedom and protection of human rights worldwide, there were troubling signs in 2008.

The world’s leading nation was revealed to have major cracks in its foundation.

Wall Street is teetering and Main Street is reeling. Detroit’s car manufacturers are on the brink of collapse, while many of the nation’s bridges and roadways aren’t far behind.

America was revealed to be #1 in the rates of obesity and incarceration, and at the bottom in the rate of savings. It was strikingly absent from the top ten countries in the Human Development Index, the global barometer of quality of life.

Iran’s nuclear ambition

Iran kept brazenly marching ahead toward nuclear weapons capability. It added substantially to the number of centrifuges – last month, it claimed 5,000 – and was revealed to have enriched sufficient uranium for one nuclear bomb.

At the same time, it brandished its latest missiles with a range of more 2000 kilometers.

Various diplomatic efforts, including sending a senior U.S. official, Bill Burns, to join talks with the Iranians, came up empty.

Legitimizing evil

While Iran violates UN Security Council resolutions, many nations carried on with a business-as-usual attitude toward Tehran.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called for a world without Israel, denied the Holocaust, and trampled on the human rights of his own citizens, visited India, Turkey, and China in 2008. Brazil extended an open invitation for him to visit.

In addition, he returned to New York for the opening of the UN session, where he was literally embraced by UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, and hosted at a dinner by Mennonite and Quaker groups.

And the reluctance of China and Russia to support toughened sanctions measures against Iran has stymied the efforts of the U.S., France, and Britain, the other three permanent members of the Security Council.

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey traveled to Tehran in March, where she met with Ahmadinejad and was caught on camera laughing with a leader who should be a pariah.

And despite public proclamations to the contrary, many European countries actually increased their volume of commercial dealings with Iran. EU exports for the first eight months of 2008 rose 13 percent over the same period in 2007. Iran’s three largest European partners all increased their exports. Italy registered the most significant jump, followed by France and Germany.

Iran’s proxies gain ground

Hamas and Hezbollah emerged stronger in 2008. The two Iranian-backed terrorist groups are better armed, prepared, and fortified than one year ago.

In the case of Hamas, the just-ended six-month “lull” with Israel allowed it to add to its extensive tunnel network, command-and-control structure, arsenal of advanced weaponry, and training of forces, while keeping a tight grip on Gaza and holding on to kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Hamas believes it can have the best of both worlds – the right to attack Israel at will, while complaining about Israeli counter-measures and seeking sympathy from the international community.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s position was strengthened. True, UNIFIL forces deployed in southern Lebanon have prevented further fighting with Israel. But intelligence reports indicate that Hezbollah, with Syrian and Iranian help, has doubled its arsenal of missiles from 2006 and increased their range to include most, if not all, of Israel.

Child murderer honored

In a highly controversial exchange, Israel released Samir Kuntar. He was involved in a terrorist attack, in 1979, in the Israeli seaside town of Nahariya. Among his victims was a four-year-old girl, Einat Haran, whose skull was smashed.

Unrepentant, Kuntar returned to Lebanon, where he received a hero’s welcome. In fact, the country was given the day off to celebrate.

Not to be outdone, Syrian President Bashar Assad awarded Kuntar the Order of Merit, the nation’s top honor!

Anti-Semitism on the rise

In September, the highly regarded Pew Global Attitudes Project released its latest report.

Of European countries, Spain had the highest rate of negative attitudes toward Jews. By a margin of 46 to 37 percent, more Spaniards had an unfavorable image of Jews than favorable. In fact, more than twice as many Spaniards hold negative views of Jews than in 2005.

The same study revealed that, since 2004, negative views of Jews have also risen in France (from 11 to 20 percent), Germany (from 20 to 25 percent), Poland (from 27 to 36 percent), and Russia (from 25 to 34 percent).

Previous Pew studies revealed that 76 percent of Turks have a negative view of Jews, while the same figure for Lebanese is 97 percent, Jordanians 96 percent, and Egyptians 95 percent.

The Mumbai massacre

Once again, an open, multicultural society was the terrorists’ target. Once again, Jews were among those sought out for the “crime” of simply being Jewish. As a result, two-year-old Moshe Holtzberg will go through life as an orphan, his parents having been among the targeted victims.

The story is yet another reminder that Pakistan is “ground zero” in the war against radical Islamic forces.

With a weak government, nuclear arsenal, intelligence service with questionable loyalties, Saudi-funded madrassas spreading radicalism, and vast swaths of the country beyond central control, it’s not at all clear how to rein in the forces wreaking havoc in neighboring Afghanistan or plotting terrorist attacks at home and abroad.

Add places like Somalia and Sudan, also havens for jihadists, and the extent of the global challenge becomes still starker.

Russia is back

After reeling toward third-world status in the ’90s, Russia is back, its reemergence highlighted by its August conflict with Georgia.

Though largely dependent on high commodity prices to fuel its superpower ambitions, Russia has the talent and resources to be a major factor once again on the world stage. And it’s wasting no time in underscoring the point.

In 2008, Russia went ahead with providing fuel for the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran, after stalling for several years. And it discussed major arms deals with Iran, Lebanon, and Syria, all of which, if they go forward, will prove destabilizing in a region not known for its stability. (At the same time, ironically, Russia seeks to purchase weapons from Israel.)

And Russia’s coziness with Hugo Chavez, underscored this year by major weapons deals and warships arriving in Venezuelan ports, is a reminder of Moscow’s capacity for long-distance reach. Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, linked by anti-American sentiment, must be joyful at Russia’s reemergence as an alternative big-power address.

Self-inflicted wounds

With all the external challenges faced by Israel and the Jewish people, it would be nice to think that internal differences could be minimized. Hardly.

Instead, the Jewish world continues to be riven by an ever-growing profusion of organizations battling each other for funds, members, publicity, and access. And in tough economic times, the atmosphere only becomes more highly charged.

Moreover, some individuals and organizations hurl charges – privately or publicly – at one another with abandon, as if anyone with an opposing perspective needs to be cut off at the knees.

But then again, what’s new? In 1914, the legendary jurist Louis Marshall, president of AJC, spoke of the threats to Jews in Europe triggered by World War I:

“Unity of action is essential. There should be no division in counsel or in sentiment. All differences should be laid aside and forgotten. Nothing counts now but harmonious and effective action.”

Ninety-five years later, despite the external challenges, we’re no closer to Marshall’s idealistic goal. If anything, we’re only further away.

What a pity!


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