November/December '99

Marking Time

(December 31) - Though the week, month, year, decade, century, and millennium are ending tonight according to the Christian calendar, the act of separating moments in the seamlessness of time is something with which the Jewish people can identify. By separating out every seventh day from what was an undifferentiated stream of time, Judaism gave the world the concept that time, not just people and places, could be holy. As a historically minded people, Jews should also welcome the opportunity to reflect upon chunks of time that stretch far beyond our own lives or generation.

As it happens, the 20th century neatly straddles one of the most significant events in Jewish history, the creation of the State of Israel. From this perspective, the century began in 1896 with the publication of Theodor Herzl's pamphlet The Jewish State, centered upon the founding of the state in 1948, and can be tentatively drawn to a close when, for the first time, Israel settles upon mutually recognized borders with all of its neighbors.

The success of Zionism, in contrast to the demise of the "-isms" that made this century such a bloody one - Nazism, fascism, and communism - is cause for satisfaction. The bloodiest phenomenon of this century was not war, though wars killed 60 million people. An additional 80 million were murdered by governments in the name of ideologies born and defeated in this century. The Holocaust was perhaps the most systematic of these slaughters, and the only one targeting of an entire people for extermination based on pure hatred, rather than a struggle for power.

The most striking thing about this century, however, was not the enlarged scale of man's age old capacity for evil but, but the changes that it wrought in the most basic aspects of human life. During the first eight or nine centuries of this millennium, most people lived their entire short lives in a small village and tilled the soil. In just the last century or so, life expectancy has doubled and world population has tripled - a transition that was and could remain unique in history.

As physicist Steven Hawkins writes in Time magazine, "The world has changed far more in the past 100 years than in any other century in history. The reason is not political or economic, but technological - technologies that flowed directly from advances in basic science." Toward the end of this century, the pace of technological change has accelerated beyond belief. As late as 1943, the chief of IBM predicted that "there is a world market for about five computers." Twenty years ago a fax machine was a novelty. Ten years ago the Internet was an arcane academic preserve. It took four years to register the first one million domain names on the World Wide Web; the increase from four to five million domain names took three months.

This technological explosion would not have been possible, however, without a parallel and synergistic expansion in human freedom. Future generations will probably be unable to untangle the twin legacies of the 20th century: the triumph of democracy and free markets and the dramatic take off of technological advance. Though it is tempting to assume that totalitarian regimes were doomed by the advance of the global economy and the tentacles of the information superhighway, it could have been otherwise. In the 1930s and early 1940s, many in the West viewed the democracies as weak and vacillating and looked admiringly at Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia. Without leaders such as Churchill, Roosevelt, and Truman, World War II could have been lost, and without decades of bipartisan and president Ronald Reagan's culminating push, the Cold War might not have ended so decisively with the Soviet Union's collapse.

This century marked the transition from a world in which most people lived short lives in poverty under oppressive regimes, to a world in which freedom, health, wealth, and technology have an unstoppable momentum. Israel's creation and development is among the more striking examples and beneficiaries of this transition. The challenges of the next century will have been created by the success of this one, such as finding meaning in a world in which the struggles for freedom and prosperity - and in Israel's case, existence - are largely won.

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