There were many occasions during 2022 when events in the news almost tricked us into thinking that we were living in an earlier time.
The clearest example of what I mean is Russia’s brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine, launched at the end of February. In ideological terms, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime is fighting a battle that, by its own telling, stretches back at least to the medieval period in its bid to deny that the Ukrainians are a legitimate nation. In military terms, meanwhile, much of the fighting has been reminiscent of the darkest days of World War II, with tanks and infantry alike starved of basic resources alongside an aerial campaign of missile and drone strikes that has little strategic value, but which has made the lives of Ukrainian civilians an absolute hell.
Meanwhile, the spectacle of refugees fleeing the fighting, bearing gruesome tales of rape, torture and other war crimes, alongside the abduction of up to 13,000 Ukrainian children to Russia itself, conjures up more recent memories of the genocides that took place in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda during the 1990s. In many ways, the ordeals of Bosnian cities like Sarajevo and Tuzla under siege and bombardment prefigured the current plight of Ukrainian cities such as Kherson, Kharkiv and Odesa.
But Ukraine was not the only major news story of the year that brought forth a blast from the past. The death of Queen Elizabeth II in September released a wave of nostalgia for the 70 years that she occupied the British throne. Especially for the boomer generation born in the aftermath of the Allied victory of 1945, Elizabeth’s reign encompassed a dizzying number of their own milestones, among them JFK’s assassination, the economic strife that plagued the UK in the early 1970s, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and, of course, the Royal Family’s own internal crises that famously led Elizabeth to call the year 1992 her personal annus horribilis.
Many commented on the fact that 15 prime ministers served under her, including Winston Churchill, the most influential British politician of the 20th century, and Liz Truss, who was appointed by the queen just two days before her death and who lasted just 45 days in the post. As for US presidents, that illustrious list began in the dying months of Harry Truman’s administration in 1952 and ended in the midst of Joe Biden’s term this year.
Of course, this overwhelming sense of history was not present in every story of the past year. In my review of 2021, I highlighted the growing adoption of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and Ethereum’s ether, arguing that these would fuel the next iteration of the internet.
While I maintain that this pathway remains open, the grand project of replacing “fiat,” or state-backed, currencies with digital alternatives that are based on blockchain technology and eschew both central banks and bankers has endured a massive blow in the past 12 months—a warning, you might say, not from the past, but from the future.
Yet as financial analysts fell over themselves to declare the death of cryptocurrencies in 2022, the traditional economy was suffocating in both the U.S. and around the world, squeezed by interest rate hikes as well as anxiety about the impact of the invasion of Ukraine on food and energy supplies. There is little consensus as to whether 2023 will bring any relief on these fronts.
Of the many acronyms invented by cryptocurrency enthusiasts that have taken off on social media, one—FUD (“Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt”)—is particularly pertinent as we embark on a new secular year. The ideas and institutions that anchored us in the past are falling away, yet the shape of our new era remains unclear.
In politics, the age-old battle between authoritarianism and freedom, between popular movements rooted in civil society and the various layers of state repression confronting them, continues to rage with little clue as to its ultimate direction. Will Putin’s regime be the face of the new year? Will another authoritarian power, such as China, regard 2023 as an opportunity to shift the regional balance of power in its favor? Or will 2023 be the year that democracy finally flowers in Iran, assuming that the historic people’s revolution that erupted in September with the death of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, at the hands of the Tehran regime, can overthrow the mullahs? Will the new year produce a combination of these events?
I know what I would like to happen, even if I am reluctant to offer any predictions. Decisive setbacks or even outright defeats for both the Russian and Iranian regimes—now locked in a deadly military alliance in Ukraine—would be most welcome developments and look like more realistic prospects now than at any other time over the past decade. However, even in defeat, these regimes are willing and capable of unleashing campaigns of cyberattacks on infrastructure, assassinations and acts of terror, and further regional conflagrations. Die they might, but their deaths will be slow and fraught with danger to the world.
Around the world, Jewish communities are going into 2023 armed with a strong sense of caution. As befits a world immersed in conflict, antisemitism has surged with a vengeance this year, encompassing a range of countries, institutions and influencers who are either trying to mitigate the effects of Jew-hatred, or who—like the hip-hop mogul Kanye West—are actively promoting it.
There are few reasons to believe that 2023 will see the pressure lessen and plenty of indications that the problem will get worse. The election of the most right-wing government in the history of the Jewish state presents another opportunity for its anti-Zionist adversaries to depict Israel in the most demonic terms. We should expect them to do so, and we will, unfortunately, witness the results on our university campuses and in our streets. After all, some things are bound to stay the same.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.