My Word: Almost reaching the moon and other memories of 5779

Having the right to vote is a precious privilege. But you can have too much of a good thing.

Israeli scientists inspect Beresheet in Yehud  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Israeli scientists inspect Beresheet in Yehud
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
I often recall the words of writer Haim Gouri whom I interviewed for The Jerusalem Post’s 60th anniversary edition in 1992: “We are a people of ups and downs, euphoria and pathos, pride and pique. Everything about us is drastic... Hazal [Sages] wrote: ‘The Jewish people is compared to the dust of the ground and to the stars of the sky. When they sink, they sink down to the dust; when they rise, they rise into the stars.’”
This year, The International Jerusalem Post celebrates its 60th anniversary – a cause for celebration and reflection for me as the editor. Reviewing the year goes with the job, yet it is also very personal. As we wave goodbye to 5779, I find myself looking at the year’s highlights and low spots. As Gouri predicted nearly three decades ago, we’re still swinging between highs and lows.
Nothing demonstrates this roller-coaster phenomenon this year better than the fate of Israel’s spacecraft, Beresheet (Genesis). Like many in Israel and around the world, I held my breath on April 11 as I watched what I hoped would be the successful landing of the SpaceIL lunar probe on the moon.
The crash-landing only minutes before Beresheet was due to make history – and take its ultimate selfie – hit us hard. The project’s scientists and sponsors could only collect the pieces in a figurative sense, but they quickly agreed that the next space project would be able to benefit from the mistakes made as well as having got so far.
“If it at first you don’t succeed, you try and try again – and we’ll try again,” declared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the control center in Yehud. That could be his motto of the year.
Beresheet’s rise and fall took place only two days after the general election: The national election 2019, Part I, as it turned out. After Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman refused to compromise on anything that would enable Netanyahu to build a coalition, the prime minister did the unheard of and called for a vote in which the nascent 21st Knesset dissolved itself.
Hence, this month we’ve been back to ballot box. Having the right to vote is a precious privilege. But you can have too much of a good thing. Like most Israelis, I don’t want to have to go to the polling station again in 5780.
THERE WERE impressive sporting achievements in 5779. One of my favorites was the news last week that Israel’s baseball team has earned a spot in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The team is also a tribute to Israel-Diaspora ties, using the talents of American-born Jews and immigrants to Israel. Another pleasant surprise was that our equestrian team’s show jumpers took a giant leap for the small country and can also show its stuff in Tokyo next year. And watching rhythmic gymnast Linoy Ashram win her Olympic slot was literally a beautiful experience.
There were many noteworthy shows and performances, but the biggest show of all was the Eurovision Song Contest, held in Tel Aviv in May. It came with the added satisfaction that as much as it was an Israeli success, it was a BDS fail for those like Roger Waters who called for its boycott.
Like many Israelis, my favorite act was by the Shalva Band. The group of disabled young performers gave up on an almost assured chance to represent Israel in the actual event because it would be impossible for those who are Sabbath-observant members. Instead, they won hearts around the world as guest artists during the most spectacular semi-finals in Eurovision history.
A STRONG personal memory from this year ended in tears. They were tears of neither joy nor sadness. They were tears of relief. In the aptly named Operation Bittersweet Song, the remains of IDF soldier Zachary Baumel, missing since the early days of the First Lebanon War in June 1982, were brought home to Israel, with still classified help from Russian forces. Knowing the family personally for decades, my heart has ached for them as every year went by without knowing his fate. For the family to receive his body, with his tzitzit (ritual fringes), was indeed bittersweet.
I joined the thousands who thronged to Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl Military Cemetery for his burial, 37 years after he fell. Some knew Baumel or his family, others felt compelled to come to salute a Brooklyn-born soldier who had made the ultimate sacrifice for Israel.
“The land is already embracing you so strongly,” eulogized his sister, Osna Haberman, at the grave of her younger, forever 21-year-old, brother.
I pray that 5780 is the year that brings closure to all the families who still do not know the fates of their missing loved ones or do not have a burial place where they can mourn.
High on the list of fallen heroes whose bodies have yet to be buried in Israel is Eli Cohen. Sacha Baron Cohen plays The Spy in Netflix’s new dramatized version of the extraordinary story of the undercover Mossad agent who managed to penetrate the highest echelons of the Syrian regime. Eli Cohen was captured and hanged in Damascus in 1965. His contribution to Israeli intelligence played a major role in the country’s success the Six Day War two years later.
US President Donald Trump’s recognition in March of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, from where Syria used to attack Israeli farmers and fishermen as seen in The Spy, was a definitely a high spot of the year.
Netflix this year adopted and adapted another story of Israeli courage and chutzpah. The Red Sea Diving Resort tells of the remarkable Mossad rescue of the Ethiopian Jewish community from a site in Sudan running in the guise of an international tourism facility. Many Israeli-born children of those immigrants took to the streets this year to protest police violence – one of the national lows – so the movie was a timely reminder that we are one people, with one future.
There were heartbreaking terror attacks at home, each one a trial for the families who are approaching the High Holidays with an empty chair at the table. The continuing wave of antisemitism abroad, and particularly the lethal attacks at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway in the US, also caused me to shed tears, of sadness, frustration and anger.
THIS TIME last year i24 News determined “In Israel, the most important event of the Jewish calendar year 5778 was, in fact, the one that did not occur. There was no war.”
We came close to it again this year (which is not over until it’s over), but despite the rounds of serious (and lethal) rocket attacks, there was not an all-out war. When Lt.-Col. “M.” was killed during an undercover intelligence operation in Gaza in November, I took comfort where I could find it – in the knowledge that the country is evidently taking action against Gaza-based terrorism, but action that can’t be revealed.
The uncovering and destruction of a web of Hezbollah-built attack tunnels from Lebanon into Israel was another moment for mixed emotions: relief at what was destroyed, a nervousness at knowing to what extent Iranian-funded Hezbollah, like Hamas, is willing to invest in ways of trying to hurt Israel rather than help its own people live good lives in peace.
A much better tunnel was the Pilgrimage Road. After six years of excavations led by the Israel Antiquities Authority, a 350-meter-long section of the route used by those ascending to the Temple 2,000-years ago was unveiled at a festive ceremony in the City of David in June.
This is the path worn smooth by the millions of Jews who fulfilled the commandment of aliyah l’regel – going up to Jerusalem to bring sacrifices during the festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.
Rabbi Stewart Weiss among others has noted that most Jewish holidays take place under a full moon, but Rosh Hashanah, the start of the new year, takes place naturally when the moon is still a sliver. It’s the start of a new cycle. As we say in Hebrew, we start from Beresheet. May it be a year in which we rise to the stars without crash landings.