Middle Israel: Not just another year

2005 offered two contradictory events that in future years may prove it no less pivotal than 1492.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Chances are low that 2005 will go down in human memory as, say, 1492, 1789, or 1939 - years whose seminal events have so obviously changed the course of history. Yes, in 2005 the world has seen an unusual set of natural disasters, including the aftermath of the tsunami that drowned thousands in Asia, Hurricane Katrina that erased New Orleans, and an earthquake that leveled a swathe of Pakistan. And yes, at least some of these events served as harsh reminders that even in our super-technological age man remains that feeble creature whose weakness in the face of God's - or Satan's - wrath only renders his Sisyphean effort to defeat nature ever more grotesque. Yet 2005's unusual share of natural disasters is not likely to make it a particularly historic year. Tempest, thunder and fire have been part and parcel of the human experience since prehistory, and will surely remain such in the future. The year that ends this weekend will also not be remembered for the rise or demise of any individual. Sure, this was the year of Pope John Paul's passing, an event that justly elicited much discussion about the Polish pontiff's role in burying the Soviet empire and the communist idea. Yet it is that very claim to fame that will make other years in John Paul's illustrious life overshadow the one in which he died. The same will have to be said of Angela Merkel. Yes, Germany's first woman chancellor, and the first (and probably last) product of the former East Bloc to lead a western power, may well emerge as an exciting historic figure, but in 2005 she had no opportunity to do much more than penetrate the international community's radar screens and raise its hopes that she will emerge as an economic reformer, social visionary and diplomatic trailblazer. In the Western hemisphere, 2005 may go down in history as the year in which George W. Bush began losing political altitude. Yet even if it does - and of course a thousand things, good and bad, may still happen by 2008 - his will hardly have been the first American presidency to have gone from boom to bust. In our part of the world, while Ariel Sharon has emerged this year - for better or worse - as a historic leader in the Israeli context, he cannot claim to have reshaped more than his own country, at any rate not in 2005. If anything, Sharon's trademark unilateralism takes as a given our neighbors' hostility and, rather than tackle it with a root canal, makes do with treating it symptomatically. IN THE ARTS, too, this was almost a dull year, with King Kong leaving us wondering whether the dominance of such a rehash may not imply that Hollywood's creativity is on the decline, and craving a new film that would match in its novelty and durability, say of, Doctor Zhivago, The Godfather, or Scenes from a Marriage. In sports, too, the legendary Lance Armstrong's last Tour de France will hardly justify 2005 as the one year in which his heroism and success made him one of history's most celebrated athletes. Economically, the sharp appreciation of oil, gold and technology stocks this year, while often dramatic, was far from unprecedented, and even less so was it pivotal. Gold is hundreds of dollars away from its historic high of $875 per ounce a quarter of a century ago; oil, which actually did reach historic peaks, has failed to cripple the global economy the way it did in the mid 1970s; and hi-tech has merely, and not fully, recovered from the blow it was dealt half-a-decade ago with the Nasdaq meltdown. Yes, in 2005 many felt more gadgeted and connected than ever before, with iPods, MP3s, disk-on-keys, Blackberries and photographic cellphones abounding. Obviously, mankind has traveled technological light-years since 1705, when the youthful Johann Sebastian Bach had to trek 200 miles to hear a concert. Still, no one will claim this to have been the year in which technology created what Tom Friedman has called "the super-empowered man" - a turning point best located in the 1980s, with the advent of PCs, cellphones and e-mail. Geopolitically, 2005 certainly seems forgettable when compared with 1905's revolution, the one that anteceded 1917, or 1805's Napoleonic dramas. Surely, and fortunately, the elapsing year lacked anything quite like the bloody Russo-Japanese war of 1905, or the decisive Austerlitz battle of 1805, probably Napoleon's most brilliant ever, nor the French navy's defeat that year by Admiral Nelson. 2005 did, however, offer two contradictory events that in future years may prove it no less pivotal than 1492; not as the year when America was explored, but as the year when Islam was evicted from Spain, and the long and painful process of that civilization's decline began in earnest. The 2005 riots in France have been portrayed by the French media, government and cultural elite as anything but what everyone knows they really were: a Muslim uprising. Meanwhile, the elections in Iraq offered an antithetical, last-ditch Western effort to perform brain surgery on a Middle East whose political illness of despotism is spewing westwards millions of culturally and socially indigestible immigrants. Of course, the 2005 rioters lacked a visible leadership, manifesto, or even a catchy slogan, and it would be foolish to see at this early stage in those violent weeks anything on the scale of a historic revolution a-la 1917, or for that matter even a kind of grassroots anti-government challenge of the sort staged against post-Mao China's mandarins at Tienanmen Square in 1989. However, as French philosopher Alan Finkelkraut has noted, most of France's myriad immigrant groups had no presence among the rioters; they were mostly Muslim. That the West is facing a massive Islamist challenge is no longer debatable. The 9/11 attacks demonstrated the violent extent of Islamist fanaticism, and raids like those waged in Madrid, Bali, Beslan, and this year in London displayed its geographic reach. The riots in France were potentially the first sign of an Islamist uprising on European soil. It is very convenient to assume that what happened there several weeks ago was but an accident, a sudden outburst of hard feelings that will be assuaged by some social empathy and governmental generosity. Middle Eastern experience, alas, makes one suspect that what began in France this year is but a harbinger of more, and worse, discontent, disenfranchisement, triumphalism and violence. Similarly, chances remain low that what was inspired this year by America in Iraq will work better than Napoleon's reforms did following his invasion of Egypt in 1799. Yet Iraq's democratization, just like France's Islamization, may indeed mature, last and spread, thus rendering 2005 one of modern history's most pivotal years.