According to the Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashana is not only the beginning of the Jewish New Year but also the birthday of the world. It celebrates the day that, according to the rabbis’ calculations, God created the world. One of the universal themes of the entire High Holy Day season — as opposed to the very personal soul searching which this entire holiday season engenders — is to pray that the forthcoming year will be one of peace for family, the Jews, one’s country, and the world. In light of the events of this past summer in Israel and Gaza and even more recently throughout the Middle East, prayers for peace will require a dedication of much kavana — concentration — this year.
For Israel the trauma of another war appears to have passed, at least for the moment, but the possibility to look ahead to true peace seems dubious at best. So much unnecessary pain was inflicted — especially on the people of Gaza — by Hamas leaders for whom the battle seemed paramount and victory unlikely from the beginning.
To bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will require a changed mindset both among the angry militant voices within Hamas and within an Israeli governing elite which continues to deny opportunities for reconciliation. If the PA is going to move Hamas to be more reasonable and accept Israel’s place in the neighborhood, Israel needs to avoid throwing sand in the face of every gesture for peace. Israel is in a position of such strength and dominance that it could risk the peace process without virtually any downside costs, except for internal political gamesmanship. This is not Israel positioning itself in negotiating with the threat posed by Iran, but Israel testing again whether these Palestinian leaders just might be capable of cutting a peace deal.
On a regional level the prospects for peace do not look very promising either. As Tom Friedman observed in the Sept. 13 New York Times, only the Muslim world will be able to solve its internal strife; not the United States and not the West. As the renowned Princeton Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis and others have suggested for years, Islam has faced an internal conflict since the 16th and 17th centuries. It never dealt with modernity. From being one of the most advanced civilizations of the time, Islam stood still and the West passed it by. This is not to suggest that modernity has it all right or all the answers, but Islam failed to grow as the world changed. It did not adapt to a changing world. This makes achieving regional peace so much harder.
All religions have a problem with compromise, but Christianity and Judaism generally came to recognize that authoritarian and religious or ideological rigidity is unacceptable; it solves no problems. A non-coercive, live-and let-live approach is the only way to coexist. Modernity requires a willingness to compromise. Muslims may not like it or do it — certainly all the time — but many of them understand that is the way that politics can work.
Admittedly, Western states have repeatedly gone to war over the centuries. After wars were over, nations — both sides winners and losers — moved on. In Islam, the concept of the holy war —jihad — is totally inconsistent with this notion. If you lose a battle, you do so only to fight again tomorrow, because inevitably you believe you are destined to win. Compromise does not exist in the lexicon of Muslim politics. For those Western states seeking progress and advancement with Islam, this attitude has produced stagnation and more recently total frustration. Enter the dilemma of how to deal with ISIS.
President Obama wants to bring peace and democratic values to all nations and all countries; yet he understands that equality, liberty, and civil liberties are inconsistent with the Islamic religion and ideology. He wants it to work, but it cannot, will not, and never has. He needs to comprehend the genuine threat that the West faces from a radical Islamic world which will stop at nothing to win.
This is not a case of live and let live; rather it is whether Islam can tolerate our way of life. The challenge for peace is how to achieve it without rejecting our own values. The real challenge will be whether the new coalition being developed to attack the metastasizing Islamic State will ultimately need to make deals with some of the other regional villains, such as Syria’s Assad and Iran’s Khamenei. Peace in the region will only be achieved when this challenge is also addressed.
It will not be easy for those seeking a more secure, safe, and peaceful region in which the State of Israel can flourish. There is much to pray for on the world’s birthday this year.