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The Jewish year 5768, drawing to a close, was for better - and, unfortunately, for worse - a peculiarly Israeli year.
From its very outset last September, it was clear that this was going to be a year that would be different. It was a year of shmita - the agricultural sabbatical. The commandment of leaving fields fallow once every seven years is required only in the Land of Israel. There was a jump in the price of food for the body, and flowers for the soul, but it really brought home that, well, this is the Jewish homeland.
While the agricultural sabbatical comes around, naturally, once every seven years, there was one anniversary that will never be repeated. Israel celebrated its 60th anniversary in typically Israeli fashion - some cynicism and soul-searching with a dose of togetherness of the type you can't duplicate anywhere else in the world.
One of the strangest sights I saw were the three blue-and-white flags waving from the tip of a crane dominating the skyline of a Jerusalem neighborhood where another luxury residential building is going up. Among the memorabilia were sunglasses in the shape of a 60 with a Star of David on the side - so tacky, they were cute. Nowhere else in the world could you walk around a working-class area wearing such an obvious symbol of Israeli pride and poor fashion sense and actually receive compliments (and the oh-so-Israeli question: "How much do they cost?")
This was the year in which the country agonized over the cost of a very different kind. The price of freeing POWs - dead or alive. Ultimately, in July, we did a deal with the devil (in the form of Hizbullah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah), handing over childkiller Samir Kuntar and four other terrorists along with the bodies of 200 more in return for the remains of Eldad Regev and Ehud (Udi) Goldwasser, who were killed and dragged off to Lebanon two years before, at the outset of the Second Lebanon War. Non-Israelis found it hard to understand the emotions involved. But in a country where there is compulsory military service, these could have been anybody's sons and brothers. There was no consolation, but closure. May the new year be the one in which the families of the three MIAs missing since the Battle of Sultan Yakoub in June 1982 receive at least as much. Ditto the relatives of IAF navigator Ron Arad, missing since 1988. And may Gilad Schalit's family celebrate the next year with their son.
NOT JUST conventional war played a role this year. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last September and this week was feted in the UN while repeating his rhetoric against the Zionist state. Rhetoric that cannot be taken lightly from a nearly nuclearized Isla-maniac.
Kassams from Gaza continued to fall on Sderot and the surrounding area for much of the year (pity eight-year-old Osher Twito who will now have to learn how to play the soccer he so loves with a false leg). In fact, as the country's leaders ran around in circles, the missile range increased concentrically with Katyushas falling on Ashkelon.
And there was also deadly low-tech war. A new Hebrew phrase was coined: pigua drisa - a running-down terror attack. While most Israelis were praying for swords to be turned into plowshares - shmita notwithstanding - two Israeli Arab construction workers in July turned their tractors into deadly weapons in Jerusalem. Three people were killed in the first attack. As the year drew to a close, again an Arab resident of the capital, having had his marriage proposal spurned by his cousin, plowed into a group of soldiers on a tour of slihot prayers. Where else do soldiers go on slihot field trips?
The most deadly attack was the perpetrated in March by an Arab Jerusalemite who opened fire on pupils at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, leaving eight students dead. The perpetrator, killed by an off-duty IDF officer, was a former driver for the yeshiva.
There was also talk of peace. Lots of talk. In November, George W. Bush convened the Annapolis summit attended by Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas.
Olmert, who managed to retain his seat even after the Winograd Commission faulted his handling of Lebanon II, was finally forced to leave his office following five investigations into corruption cases. He's been replaced as Kadima party leader by Tzipi Livni, the first woman to head an Israeli party and potentially the country since Golda Meir.
Olmert spent his year not only struggling to stay in power and negotiating with Abbas (who is himself having less luck negotiating with Hamas). He even started indirect talks with Syria's Bashar Assad, although Assad's dreams of dipping his toes in the Kinneret (a.k.a. the Sea of Galilee) are not likely to come to fruition if the Israeli public gets its say on the subject. And as one satirist pointed out, with the current water crisis, he's likely to give up in frustration halfway across the parking lot on his way to the disappearing shoreline.
But to celebrate Israel's 60th, many leaders, would-be leaders and at least one has-been visited. Bush, John McCain and Barack Obama, among others, were photographed at the Western Wall. France's Nicolas Sarkozy came, although his beautiful bride got more attention. German Chancellor Angela Merkel in March addressed the Knesset - in German. And you probably have to be Israeli, or at least Jewish, to understand the significance of that. Jimmy Carter also arrived but sought a warmer welcome when visiting Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Syria.
SO MUCH happened, it's hard to recall it all. There were religious crises of the distinctly only-in-Israel kind with a controversy in the rabbinate over conversions. Deadly organized crime by families in which we take no pride grabbed headlines. There were also good deeds by ordinary people, most of which did not make the news.
In April, the country mourned the loss of Yossi Harel, 90, the legendary commander of the Exodus, among other things. Peacenik Abie Nathan died in August.
And in September we were shocked by the death of four-year-old Rose Pizem, whose mother and grandfather/stepfather have been charged with her murder. In a country in which complete strangers don't think twice about asking someone the price of their sunglasses, how did a little girl just disappear with no one noticing? This Rose should have been nurtured, not abandoned.
On the brighter side, as we marked our 60th, Beatlemania returned and Paul McCartney made his first visit to play at Tel Aviv's Yarkon Park on September 25.
New immigrants continued to arrive, although in depleted numbers, realizing that, for all its quirks, this is still a great place to live. The Jewish Agency ceded its immigration activities in the US to Nefesh B'Nefesh, but reminded us of its mandate by stepping in to rescue Jews caught in the war in Georgia. A reminder things could be worse.
There was much to celebrate: Just being here after 60 years is an achievement, let alone with an economy that seems to be surviving the current international crisis. Let's hope that the seeds that lay hidden in this year's untended fields will bloom next year.
A happy, healthy and peaceful New Year to all our readers!
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