Rosh Hashana is a time for gathering with family and friends, to take stock of the year that has passed and set our sights expectantly on the promise of the year ahead. As we look to the year 5775, with all its challenges and opportunities, one thing Israelis can be confident of is the deep, unbreakable bonds of friendship and cooperation between Israel and the United States.
Over the past three months, Israelis, particularly those in the South, endured the onslaught of rockets and mortar shells that terrorist organizations in Gaza fired indiscriminately at men, women and children. Hamas operatives attempted to infiltrate Israel via elaborate tunnels methodically excavated for purpose of conducting terrorist attacks. Nearly 70 IDF soldiers were killed and roughly 470 injured while bravely defending their fellow citizens from these attacks; civilians were also killed and injured by rockets and mortar shells. There were also many civilians among the casualties on the Palestinian side. Each civilian death, on both sides, represented a tragedy.
In Gaza, Palestinians were deliberately put in harm’s way by a regime that intimidates its own people, brutally suppresses dissent, and uses civilians as human shields. During the months and years preceding the most recent conflict, when Hamas had the opportunity and the governing responsibility to improve the lives of the people of Gaza through investments in health, education and infrastructure, it chose instead to dig tunnels, build rockets and stockpile weapons.
Israelis showed remarkable resilience in the face of those attacks launched from Gaza. No nation can accept such aggression against its people. They demonstrated extraordinary unity and compassion, which touched Americans through the outpouring of support for the families of the two American lone soldiers who lost their lives during the conflict, a poignant illustration of the bonds between our two peoples.
The United States steadfastly supports Israel’s right to defend its citizens and will continue to strengthen Israel’s capability to do so. We also work together to counter the common threats we face from Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and from extremist groups like ISIL and al-Qaida. During Operation Protective Edge, we saw one of the most meaningful, visible and dramatic examples of our security cooperation in the performance of the life-saving Iron Dome missile defense system, an Israeli technology that the United States helped develop and support. During the recent conflict, Iron Dome intercepted more than 700 rockets fired from Gaza aimed at civilian areas in Israel, thus saving lives, reducing casualties and protecting property.
But defense and security tell only part of the story. Our open societies, growing investment and trade, and information exchanges help Israelis and Americans remain among the leading innovators in science and technology, and founts of creativity in academia, arts and culture. Our shared commitment to democracy, education and entrepreneurship create opportunities that benefit not only our own peoples, but all mankind. Our shared values account for the strong affinity between our peoples and to a positive vision for the future.
Our deep bilateral relationship is grounded in our commitment to help ensure Israel’s future as a secure, Jewish, democratic state. That objective will require Palestinians and Israelis to build a lasting, sustainable peace between them. When they are ready to seize the moment and set a path toward negotiations resulting in a comprehensive peace agreement that will allow two states to live side by side in peace and security, the United States will be their partner in the quest.
After three difficult months, we enter the holidays with an uncertain cease-fire, but with negotiations having resumed in Cairo this week. We are hopeful that the outcome will be a period of extended quiet, followed by a real chance for reaching such a lasting agreement.
For there to be a sustainable solution to Gaza, Israelis must be able to live in peace and security, without terrorist attacks, without rockets, without tunnels, without sirens going off and families scrambling to bomb shelters.
Palestinians need to be able to live in peace and security and have full economic and social opportunities to build better lives for themselves and for their children.
We therefore welcome the resumption of negotiations in Cairo, and the planned donors’ conference on Gaza reconstruction to be held in Cairo on October 12. We are prepared to work with international partners to support these efforts, and to ensure that appropriate measures are put in place so that reconstruction efforts benefit the civilian population in Gaza, and do not benefit Hamas and other terrorist organizations, or enable them to rearm.
We know this will not be an easy path, but Rosh Hashana is a time to reflect on possibility and renewal. And so I prefer to look forward to toasting the New Year among friends and family with hope and optimism.
With that in mind, two brief stories provide meaningful and hopeful insights.
The first story comes from American history.
Two hundred years ago, the American people also endured a long summer under attack. In August 1814, in one of the darker chapters of the War of 1812, British troops invaded Washington, burning the White House, the Capitol and the US Treasury. President James Madison was forced to flee the city.
It was a demoralizing setback for our young nation. President Madison didn’t have an Iron Dome system, but he did have the indomitable spirit of the American people to rely upon, much as Israelis today have demonstrated unquenchable spirit, resolve and resilience in the face of adversity and threats of terrorism.
After the attack on Washington, the British turned toward Baltimore, but American troops held the line. On September 13, a young lawyer, Francis Scott Key, watched as the British bombarded Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor all through the night. At the break of dawn on September 14, Key saw that the American flag was still flying. Inspired by his fellow Americans’ spirit and perseverance, he penned the words to the “The Star Spangled Banner,” which would become America’s national anthem.
Coincidentally, September 14, 1814, was Erev Rosh Hashana, 5575. We don’t know whether anyone at Fort McHenry was observing the Jewish New Year. But we can say that 200 years ago in America, Erev Rosh Hashana was illuminated by the hope for peace and freedom overcoming, in the words penned by Key, “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.”
Perhaps this year, Rosh Hashana can be “the dawn’s early light” that follows the darkness of the most recent conflict in Gaza. It can be a time when we lift our eyes for signs of hope, and a time to dedicate ourselves to the task of bringing about a better future for ourselves and our posterity.
The second story is from the Tanach, the Bible.
The Torah portion that is read in synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashana includes a short tale of an agreement between Avraham and the local king, Avimelech, over the ownership of a well that Avraham had dug.
This agreement put an end to the disputes between them, and allowed Avraham to settle and raise his family in peace around this well, the well of the seven, or the well of the oath, otherwise known as Beersheba.
The Torah then continues: “Va’yita eshel b’veer sheva, va’yikra sham bashem el olam.”
“Avraham then planted a tree, a tamarisk, or eshel, and called out to God.”
Today, the same Beersheba is the leading city of the Negev, and has, along with the other towns and kibbutzim and moshavim of southern Israel, endured the thousands of rockets fired from Gaza over the last decade, and especially, over the difficult summer just past.
Just as Beersheba was the site of one of the first peace pacts of the Torah, may the new year bring with it the dawning of an era of peace and security for the residents of Beersheba, the residents of all of southern Israel, the civilian residents of Gaza, the citizens of the entire State of Israel, and all its neighbors. Like Avraham, this is our hope and our prayer.
But for Avraham, it was not enough to hope and pray. Avraham was a man of deeds. His planting of a tree, an eshel, that thrives in harsh desert conditions, sets down deep roots in sandy soil, and provides cooling shade to all who sit under it, was an act meant to provide peace, security and shelter to future generations, as the tree would long outlive him.
Avraham prayed and expressed the hope, yes. But he knew that it also took the work of his own hands to bring peace and security to his family and his people.
So it is with us. Let us hope and pray that the new year will be a good year, a sweet year, a year of peace, a year of security, a year of hope. But let us, together, the United States and Israel, take action, so that the work of our hands can bring the peace and security we seek.
Shana tova umetukah tikateivu! The writer is US ambassador to Israel.