It's the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah is followed by Yom Kippur. We listen to that strange instrument called the shofar, made of a ram's horn, with long plaintive and short bleating notes resounding in synagogues around the world. The mix of dissonance and energy calls for reflection and renewal, and we've got a lot to reflect on, particularly now that Israel and the Palestinians are once more the focus of ferocious debate. (As they always seem to be.)
Jews once raised glasses of sweet wine with a toast, "Next year in Jerusalem." It was a wistful challenge to hope in remembrance of their ancient temple, twice destroyed.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jews around the world felt it all the more crucial to regain a homeland, to have a place where they could be safe and secure. The world, or most of it, agreed. The Nazis had targeted the Jews for extermination, and it was time for the Jews to have their own sacred homeland. Now they have the homeland of that famous toast, but must fight constantly to keep it.
The United Nations General Assembly, on a remarkable day in November 1947 (before the United Nations had become an international joke), endorsed the idea of two states in Palestine -- one for Jews, to be called Israel, and the other for Arabs, to be called whatever they wanted to call it. The Arabs rejected the idea completely. They were determined to destroy the Jews and get it all. The secretary-general of the Arab League announced on Cairo radio, "This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre."
It didn't happen, but only because the Jews took on Arab armies from the region and whipped them all. The Jews went on to govern themselves and built a prosperous, independent state. The Palestinians have spent the years since nourishing violent grievance.
The "what if" questions abounded last week when Mahmoud Abbas asked the United Nations for instant endorsement of a Palestinian state, without resolving disputes with Israel. What if the Palestinians had accepted statehood when it was offered to them 64 years ago? Life in the Middle East could have been very different for everyone.
There was only one, brief, breathtaking moment, in 1977, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat surprised everyone with a promise that he would travel anywhere, "even Jerusalem," to discuss peace. He redeemed that promise and paid for it at the hands of Egyptian assassins.