Fabulously observant: Top Jewish stories of 2008

More than 30 Jewish historians and journalist pick the most important events of the year.

David Benkoff 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Benkoff 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This year saw many significant Jewish events, but which ones will go down as important in Jewish history? More than 30 Jewish historians and Jewish press journalists responded to a survey I distributed asking precisely that question. Below are the five most important Jewish stories of 2008, as seen through the eyes of experts: 1) BARACK OBAMA elected with heavy Jewish support. Earlier in the year, many pundits predicted that for a Republican, John McCain would win record Jewish support. Yet Democrat Obama scored 78 percent of the Jewish vote in the November election, two points higher than John Kerry had earned in 2004. Respondents to the survey felt Obama's Jewish support was the most important Jewish news story of the year. Dr. Jonathan Krasner, professor of the American Jewish experience at Hebrew Union College, speculated that "the Democrats would need to run a personality with the radioactivity level of a Jimmy Carter" for non-Orthodox Jews to stop heavily supporting their candidate. And even then, he said, "the default voting pattern would reset in future elections and would continue to typify voting in state and local races." Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News, felt the most newsworthy aspect of this story was "the bitter campaign waged against Obama by his Jewish opponents... The attacks against Obama revealed a dark and paranoid streak among a certain kind of Jew - just as the eventual vote suggested optimism had carried the day." Finally, a few journalists pointed to the effect of Obama's election on intergroup relations in the US. For example, Judy Bolton-Fasman, a columnist for the Jewish Advocate in Boston, wondered whether the 2008 race "may be the second renaissance of black-Jewish relations in the United States." 2) RUBASHKIN PLANT closed for labor violations. The travails of the Rubashkin kosher meat company got the second most votes for most important Jewish news story of the year. Most of the respondents were appalled at the alleged abuse of workers, inhumane practices and hiring of illegals that took place at the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse and meatpacking facility in Postville, Iowa. Dr. Harriet Freidenreich, a professor of modern Jewish history at Temple University, felt the controversy reflected poorly on the Orthodox rabbinate and community. In fact, she commented, "Jewish values and ethics seem more highly valued in the non-Orthodox (Conservative and Reform) rabbinate and community than among most of the Orthodox spokesmen." Similarly, New Jersey Jewish News staff writer Marilyn Silverstein said the Rubashkin scandal shined a spotlight on "the disconnect that many times exists between the observance of Jewish law and the observance of Jewish values." Krasner pointed out a more practical challenge of the controversy: the short-term shortage of kosher meat, which led to a "spike in prices in the midst of a recession." But not every one of the experts survey described Rubashkin and Agriprocessors as villains. Susie Rosenbluth of the Jewish Voice and Opinion in New Jersey said the kosher meat plant was the victim of two groups "whose power and influence the company failed to recognize": People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the unions who were "livid that Agriprocessors was not unionized." She said that PETA attacked the company as a way to reduce the amount of meat eaten by Jews. Ultimately, Rosenbluth said, the Rubashkins deserve credit for making sure kosher meat could be found not only in major Jewish centers, but also in out-of-the-way locations. 3) ATTACK ON the Chabad House in Mumbai, India. The November 26 assault, committed by Muslim terrorists, was described by New Jersey Jewish News reporter Robert Wiener as a "horror show in an unexpected venue." Boton-Fasman said the attack "highlighted how Islamic extremists want to destroy world Jewry." The effect on international relations was important to Rosenbluth. She pointed out that "India and Israel (Hindus and Jews) already have very amicable relations. Having a common enemy - and the Islamists make no secret that they identify both groups as the 'enemy' - should bring these natural allies closer, to their mutual benefit." Silow-Carroll pointed out an effect of the event on the Jewish community, that it "repositioned Chabad as the de facto Jewish vanguard, and made other Jewish groups acknowledge it." 4) CONVERSION CONTROVERSY in Israel. A number of the respondents were particularly upset by the 2008 news that a haredi rabbinic court in Israel called into question the legitimacy of thousands of conversions by a prominent Israeli Orthodox halachic authority. Anne Phyllis Pinzow, a regular contributor to Jewish newspapers throughout the US, said that as far as she understands it, declaring converts to Judaism not Jewish "is against the Torah." Thus, she said, "to cut these people off is an internal form of bigotry." And Washington University in St. Louis professor of Jewish history Hillel Kieval predicted that "conversion to Judaism in the State of Israel and definitions of Jewish status will continue to grow as issues in 21st century Jewish history." Similarly, Elaine Durbach of the New Jersey Jewish News said the controversy "is going to rage on and on, with political, aliya, and demographic consequences." 5) MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD speaks at the UN. The September 23 prominent public forum for the violently anti-Israel leader of Iran drew jeers from the experts surveyed. Wiener called him "threatening and gruesome," and Freidenreich described the event as a "reaffirmation of anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism in the broader Islamic world" which "emphasizes the role of Iran as a direct threat to Israel." Finally, Dr. Dennis Klein, a professor of Jewish history at Kean University, said that the speech "tested the limits of free speech and the relationship between words and actions." He noted that he was impressed that there were not immediate, violent actions, which he hopes will "remind us of the value of protected speech." DavidBenkof@aol.com