December 9, 2018

In defense of optimism

When I was learning Hebrew, I asked an Israeli friend the word for “optimistic.”

Optimi,” he said.

“There’s no native word?” I asked.

“Well,” he asked back, “why would we need one?”

It doesn’t come easy to us Jews, this thing called optimism. And this year we seem to be in a particularly dark mood. Anti-Semitism is rising in parts of Europe (again). A quarter of America’s Jewish college students report having been harassed because they’re Jewish. Terrorists continue to seek out Jewish targets here and abroad.

So it’s easy to look forward with dread, to gather in our nice homes and fine restaurants, in our safe neighborhoods and ornate banquet halls, and speak to one another about how we’re doomed and it’s all going to hell. 

But our predisposition to pessimism clouds our ability not just to see what is working, but to focus and build on it. You want to know the four words that will get you instantly ostracized from a Jewish conversation? “Things aren’t so bad.”

Go ahead, try saying them one day at your cocktail party or conference. Heads will turn. You’ll hear stifled laughter. People will whisper: “Who let that child out of his room?”

But here’s what you might point out about the year that was, in defense of optimism:

Big oil is hurting

For those of us who have been saying for decades that our dependence on foreign oil is the single greatest threat to our security and environment, this has been a very good year.

A year and a half ago, oil was selling for more than $100 a barrel. Now it is hanging on at $40. That has thrown exporters such as Venezuela, Russia and Saudi Arabia into dire straits, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of countries.

This week, Saudi Arabia released a 2016 budget that showed an $87 billion deficit. At this rate, the country will blow through its foreign currency reserves by 2020. The country that, as columnist Douglas Bloomfield has pointed out, has fewer female drivers than Israel has female fighter pilots, either will have to modernize or go back to the Bronze Age.

Alt energy is booming

One reason for the oil bust is the bull market in domestic production and alternative energy. The Climate Change Agreement signed in December in France by major powers and developing countries — one of the most hopeful stories of the decade, let alone the year — will energize an already flourishing market in wind, solar and other sustainable energy sources. 

Iran is stopped — for now

This week, Iran completed shipping the majority of its enriched uranium stock to Russia, fulfilling the first part of last summer’s historic agreement to deprive the Shiite theocracy of nuclear weapons. That means Iran’s breakout time to a nuke has gone from almost zero to nine months, and is expected to extend further. Yes, it also means Iran will get back $100 billion in frozen assets and can sell oil on the international market, but see No. 1 above.

And true, Iran might still cheat and wreak havoc, but so far we are safer than if the deal had fallen through and Iran raced to the bomb.

ISIS is losing

The publishers of Dabiq magazine were run out of the Iraqi city of Ramadi this week, and experts predict ISIS will not be able to hold on to the larger city of Mosul. Nothing is worse for recruitment than humiliating defeat. That inexorable march to the caliphate? Kaput.

Love is winning

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all states must allow same-sex marriages. From Ireland to Mexico to Japan, something that seemed so unlikely in 1990 has become so inevitable in 2015 (same with legalized pot, just saying). Popular culture has proudly led the way toward greater acceptance. Ten years ago a lesbian kiss on TV was groundbreaking; now television’s best show, “Transparent,” is expanding society’s embrace even more.

Terror is temporary

The year began badly. On Jan. 7, 2015, two Muslim terrorists in Paris killed 12 people and injured 11 others at the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper. The reaction was a display of unity across France and around the world. Terror has never and will never fully go away, but “Je suis Charlie” — “I am Charlie” — proved that societies have the power to survive and face it down.

The gun lobby is on the ropes

Up to and including San Bernardino, there were 57 mass shooting across the United States in 2015, incidents in which three or more people died in a spasm of gun violence. But these mass shootings have also invigorated the long-dormant gun control movement. “We’re seeing much more forceful political mobilization on the gun control issue than we had seen in decades,” Second Amendment expert Adam Winkler told me after the San Bernardino killings.

To recap: Things aren’t all bad. By any objective standard, Israel is stronger militarily and economically, and American Jews are more successful, free and influential today than at any time in our history. So let’s take a breath, relax and recite together in Yiddish:

Ven me zol Got danken far guts, volt nit zein kain tseit tsu baklogen zikh oif shlechts.

“If we thanked God for the good things, there wouldn’t be time to weep over the bad.”

Here’s to 2016.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.