Middle Israel: Person of the year

‘Who by fire, who by water?’ we will ask in the holiday’s chilling prayer, recalling what began with a torched grocer in Tunisia and continued with a drowned child from Syria.

Four-year-old Rashida from Kobani, Syria, part of a new group of more than a thousand immigrants, sleeps as they wait at border line of Macedonia and Greece to enter into Macedonia (photo credit: REUTERS)
Four-year-old Rashida from Kobani, Syria, part of a new group of more than a thousand immigrants, sleeps as they wait at border line of Macedonia and Greece to enter into Macedonia
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Our person of the year 5775 cannot be an Israeli. Unlike 5774, which was dominated by its summer’s protracted fighting in Gaza, the year that will end Sunday night produced no locally based drama of the sort that 12 months ago rendered Lt.-Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz person of the year. Fortunately, no single event since last year’s skirmish was experienced by Israeli society nearly as intensely and collectively.
The elapsing year’s most notable Israeli event, such as it was, did not produce an eligible person of the year.
For several weeks it seemed Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprisingly clear victory in March’s premature election would qualify him for the title. Yet the victory that initially seemed swift soon proved Pyrrhic, so much so that the political momentum it was poised to spark produced paralysis instead.
The one Israeli-related event that could produce our person of the year was the deal over the Iranian nuclear program. Though technically no Israeli was there, emotionally every Israeli was in the event whose bottom line was read by the government and the main opposition with equal alarm.
Indeed, until recent weeks this seemed like the event of the year, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seemed the person of the year, having shaped the talks’ outcome more than anyone else, while bringing his country renewed legitimacy and redoubled clout.
Such a choice would have also reflected the lack of a breakthrough in our region’s multiple civil wars. The sense of stalemate that has descended on the Middle East’s many flash points, from Libya and Yemen to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and now also Turkey, leads the search for the person of the year away from the intractable battles between Sunnis and Shi’ites, eastern and western Libyans, or Turks and Kurds.
The Iranian nuclear deal, by contrast, represents transition and now also finality, as its American approval has just been secured. Such, then, were our thoughts after the deal was signed in Vienna. But then lightning struck halfway between an indulgent Europe and a desperate Middle East.
WHAT BEGAN to accelerate as summer unfolded soon assumed biblical proportions. Behind the multitudes that are now pounding on Europe’s doors lurk millions of others.
“The wave of immigration is not a one-time incident, but the beginning of a real exodus,” warned European Council President Donald Tusk, before noting soberly: “We will have to deal with this problem for many years to come.”
The refugee onslaught is the event of the year not only in its quantity but also in its quality. As demonstrated by Tusk, the former prime minister of Poland, it takes no theologian to be reminded of the Exodus by the sights of multitudes storming the horizon, tearing fences, and braving the sea.
It also takes no historian to draw analogies between this drama and the great migrations from inner Asia that preceded the Sack of Rome.
Thoughts of the undocumented migrations that ultimately separated between Europe’s ancient and medieval eras intensify in the face of the current migrations’ impact on the Old Continent’s cohesion. Though the migratory pressure is still gathering and apparently has yet to climax, there is reason to fear that it will ultimately crack Europe.
With its economic disjointedness already exposed by its artificial currency’s tribulations, Europe’s quest for political cohesion is now challenged by its leaders’ conflicting responses to the crisis, which have pitted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s xenophobia against German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s humanity.
Indeed, Merkel’s conduct makes her a major contender for our person of the year.
Last year, following her third election as chancellor in 5774, this column considered crowning Merkel but then dismissed the thought because “she has not seriously impacted a global event.”
Today Merkel can no longer be dismissed in such a way. The year’s main event has been seriously impacted by her vision, compassion and resolve, all of which contrast with most other leaders’ levity and infuse millions, particularly Jews, with respect and also awe.
Then again, at this early stage of the rapidly unfolding events, it would be premature to assume that Merkel’s humanity will not only impact history but also shape it. At the top, her inclusiveness has yet to be shared by fellow leaders, and at the bottom, the social, religious, cultural, economic, and political aftermath of this migratory influx might be entirely different from what she has in mind.
Moreover, if we crown as person of the year a European, we will shift history from its subjects to its objects. Yes, the drama that we are witnessing has a stark European chapter, one that is fast becoming a drama in its own right, yet with all due respect to its European tremors, this earthquake’s epicenter is in the Middle East. It follows that we must seek our person of the year in the region whose social ailments and political disease have come to unsettle the entire world.
HAVING NARROWED our search in terms of its theme and location, we must now decide whether to seek a person who shaped the year’s main event or one who symbolized it.
Over the years, our persons of the year have been more frequently shapers of events, from Ariel Sharon, Yossi Beilin, and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to Stanley Fischer, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the suicide bomber.
Our symbolic persons of the year, like bribery vehicle Moshe Talansky, rape victim “Alef,” and Nobel laureate Ada Yonat, have personified trends, such as political corruption and scientific excellence, rather than ignited events. Shapers of events, those whom future historians will treat as “historical actors,” also have dominated our Middle Eastern choices, which added up to three of the four persons of the year we have so far crowned this decade: a Tunisian- Egyptian-Syrian threesome that today is being joined by another Syrian, one who shaped nothing but symbolized everything.
The very fact that an Israeli version of history’s first draft keeps finding its persons of the Jewish year among its neighbors speaks volumes of the Arab cataclysm that has dominated the decade and rocked the world.
The political volcanoes, social earthquakes, and migratory tsunamis that the Arab world has triggered are in fact poised to dominate not only the decade but the entire century whose arrival they heralded with the September 11 attacks.
Dramas on such scales are never attributable to one person, but parts of them often are. That is how our persons of the years 5773 and 5772 were Syrian president Bashar Assad and former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, as they were major vehicles, respectively, of the tribalism and fundamentalism that have been fueling much of the Arab upheaval.
The line between shaper and symbol is sometimes fine. Such was the case with 5771’s Mohamed Bouazizi, the dispossessed grocer who torched himself in Tunis, and thus both sparked and symbolized what began with a North African fire before proceeding to South European waters.
The current spectacle’s ignition, by contrast, cannot be ascribed to any single individual, whether a member of the ruling elites, like Assad, or a representative of the helpless masses, like Bouazizi. It does, however, have a symbol.
Alan Kurdi was three when Mediterranean waves swallowed him between Turkey and Greece. Yet in his brief life he got to be victimized by four of the Arab world’s festering ailments: tribalism, fundamentalism, racism and tyranny.
The tribalism of Syria’s Alawite leaders made them hate the Kurdish minority into which he was born. The fundamentalism of the Islamic State units who stormed his family’s town of Kobani made his parents flee it and run for their lives. And the Syrian tyranny deprived the toddler’s family of the passports they needed in order to emigrate safely, a human-rights violation that is part of the Assad regime’s persecution of its Kurdish minority.
Kurdi, then, was the victim of the Arab elites who feed the Middle Eastern masses on a steady diet of hatred, violence, ignorance, fanaticism, destitution and despair.
Alan Kurdi is dead, but in his death he has yelped a politically decadent, socially torn, and morally bankrupt Middle East’s cry for the outer world’s help.
Consequently, when asking “Who by fire, who by water?” the chilling prayer that will fill synagogues Monday morning, Jewish minds the world over will reflexively turn to what began with a torched grocer in Tunisia and then proceeded to a drowned infant from Syria.
That is why Alan Kurdi, may he rest in peace, is our person of the year 5775.