End of the year lists of best-of or most-important stories have several major deficiencies.
The first is that they are wholly subjective. While the top choice may be obvious to all, ranking the stories that round out such a list in order of importance is far less so. It’s here where personal preferences, and even guesses, take over.
Not too mention that such lists often do not distinguish between single headline-grabbing event stories and the trend, or ongoing story line, that the event underscores.
The second is that such lists tend to be completed before December ends because editors and readers have come to expect such lists to be published prior to the actual start of the new year. This means the mid- to late-December stories tend not to be included to meet deadlines.
Then there is another truth that journalists need to recognize: Often we miss some of the most important stories when they happen, but recognize their magnitude later.
All of this, in fact, is what has happened to one of the more reliable top-10 story lists — the one done annually by Rabbi A. James Rudin, the long-time Religion News Service columnist, former American Jewish Committee senior interreligious director and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author.
Rudin’s list pertains to the Jewish world, which includes the global Jewish diaspora and Israel and the Middle East. It's because Rudin’s list is confined to the relatively small Jewish world that he knows so well, that I consider his list one of the “more reliable” year-end features of this sort.
This year — just as the top story in the Catholic world is obviously the ongoing priestly sex abuse scandal and hierarchical cover up — Rudin’s top Jewish story is also obvious.
It’s the increasing displays of anti-Semitism, including, of course, the shooting in Pittsburgh that ended with the deaths of 11 Jewish Sabbath worshippers, slain by a lone gunman with a beef against Jews and, in particular, a Jewish community agency that helps settle immigrants in the U.S.
(Full disclosure: I’ve known Rudin for decades and worked closely with him when I was an RNS national correspondent in the 1990s. Nor is Rudin's the only Jewish top-story list out there. However, I'm confining myself to his alone in this post because of its widespread use by non-Jewish, RNS subscribers.)
Here’s the link to Rudin’s full top-10 column for 2018. And here’s what he said about the Pittsburgh mass killing:
1. The Tree of Life synagogue shooting
The “slaughter of the innocents” in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October was the single worst anti-Jewish attack in U.S. history, with 11 worshippers killed (among them were two of my cousins, Cecil and David Rosenthal). The swift public revulsion and denunciation of the massacre cut across all religious, ethnic and racial boundaries and resulted in a vast outpouring of support for the American Jewish community
Rudin’s third place pick was also about increased anti-Semitism, though this time he referred to the situation in Europe as well as the U.S.
3. Increase in anti-Semitic incidents
There was a sharp rise of overt anti-Semitic acts in both Europe and the United States in 2018. In the U.S., besides the Tree of Life shootings, a mural of the Star of David was defaced at Duke University in North Carolina and the office walls of a psychologist and Holocaust scholar at Columbia’s Teachers College in Manhattan were sprayed with anti-Semitic graffiti.
In Europe, swastikas and other graffiti expressing hatred for Jews appeared on public buildings, cemeteries and synagogues in Germany and France.
Two separate polls in Europe found that 1 in 4 Europeans expressed anti-Semitic views. At the same time, 38 percent of Jews living in Europe considered leaving the politically unstable continent because of the growing number of right-wing governments and ultra-nationalist movements.
But why separate the Pittsburgh incident from the trend for which it is a dramatically tragic example?
One-offs happen in connection with all sorts of issues. But isn't it more telling to connect the dots so that the bigger picture — and bigger problem — is more clearly in focus?
Also, I would have added Europe’s growing Muslim population, with its widespread religious and political disdain for Jews sustained by the generations-long Israel-Palestinian conflict, as another prime reason for the continent’s spike in anti-Semitic incidents.
Rudin’s third important story selection?
Here’s where the we-can’t-quite-wait-until-the-year’s-actual completion rule kicked in for him. He choose the U.S. moving its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, an act I considered little more than a politically motivated photo-op with little material gain for Israel.
I’d say it's more likely President Donald Trump’s decision to quickly withdraw remaining U.S. military forces from Syria, which occurred on Sept. 19, after Rudin’s RNS deadline. (Monday, Trump indicated he would slow the length of time it will take to complete the Syria withdrawal. Given that, and Trump's erratic decionmaking, we'll just have to see how fast this actually happens.)
This move, whenever it happens, has way more possible ramifications for Israel and the larger Middle East because it cedes much of the military theater to Iran, Russia, and Lebanese Hezbollah. This could result in more attempts to strike Israel, and for Israel’s military to strike back.
So having combined Rudin’s first and third pick, and slotting the Syria pullout in second place instead of the embassy move, my number three (and his number five) is the growing divide between American Jews and Israelis over political and religious issues.
This divide holds the very real possibility of putting in danger Israel’s security — much of it bolstered by American Jewish political, emotional and tribal ties. Because if growing numbers of American Jews continue to loose interest or even become hostile to Israel, so will more non-Jewish Americans and American politicians.
Here’s Rudin again.
5. The growing split between American Jews and Israel
There was much public worry about reports of a “parting of the ways” between Israel and some sectors of the American Jewish community over issues such as religious pluralism, the treatment of women and the widening cultural differences between the two countries. The largest number of the world’s Jews now lives in Israel, a trend likely to accelerate as a result of that nation’s increasing Jewish birth rate.
The rest of Rudin’s top-10 is, I believe, up for debate as to their sequential importance. Rather than debate them here, I invite readers to read his list in full and make your own decisions. If you like, share your thoughts in the comments section below. Here’s that link again.
There is, however, one more place in the list that the RNS deadline again tripped up Rudin’s list. That would be in his number 10, notable deaths in 2018. Had he the time to include him, I’m sure Rudin would have added famed Israeli novelist Amos Oz to his list.
Oz died Dec. 28. RNS published Rudin’s column on Dec. 27.
This clearly is an example of the power of deadlines to impact history -- or at least the historical record.