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Redeeming Ishmael

With Rosh Hashanah upon us, inaugurating 10 days of repentance dedicated to freeing ourselves of negative personal habits, it seems an appropriate time to ask if fundamentalist Islam can be freed from its most bloody and aggressive tendencies. Is the enmity between many Muslims and the West destined to remain a feature of world history until the end?

That question lies behind much of the debate about the defensive war President Bush is waging against Islamist terrorism. Bush invaded Iraq as a step toward democratizing the Arab Middle East. According to neoconservative thinking, that’s also a step toward securing our own safety. In other words, the president is an optimist on Islam.

Critics of the Iraq war complain that it has been revealed as the hopeless enterprise they knew it would be. They say the United States should never have sought to bring liberal democracy to a Muslim nation, much as Napoleon was naive to think he could Westernize Egypt when he invaded that country in 1798. The French general would hold dinner parties in Cairo at which he distributed copies of the Quran and Thomas Paine’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man.”

There is a good but overlooked reason for contemplating all this on Rosh Hashanah. I refer to the centrality, on Judaism’s New Year, of the biblical character Ishmael. According to both quranic and biblical religion, he is the spiritual ancestor of the Arab peoples of Muslim faith. Muhammad claimed him as a direct ancestor. The firstborn son of Abraham, Ishmael is arguably the star of the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

That reading, Genesis 21, begins with Isaac’s birth to Abraham and Sarah. But very quickly the focus shifts to Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, an Egyptian and Abraham’s concubine. Sarah observes Ishmael comporting himself in a disturbingly inappropriate fashion, terrorizing Isaac. According to tradition, Ishmael would shoot arrows at Isaac and then claim that he was only joking.

Sarah demands that Abraham eject Ishmael and Hagar from the family, which the patriarch reluctantly does. The mother and son wander, lost, in the desert of Beersheba, where God hears Ishmael’s cry “in his present state” (21:17). The rabbis understood this to mean that God took note of the youth’s righteousness at that moment. Ishmael had repented of his past deeds. Even though God knew that his descendants, the Arabs, would torment Isaac’s children, the Jews, He chose to save Ishmael. God sent an angel who promised Hagar, “I will make a great nation of him.”

The Bible’s descriptions of Ishmael, with details from Jewish tradition, are strikingly reminiscent of the more troubling aspects of Islamist culture. Ishmael’s shame and humiliation at being rejected in favor of Isaac, as Abraham’s heir, remind us of the shame and humiliation at Islamic civilization’s failures that drives so many terrorists.

Abraham’s not perceiving the danger Ishmael posed to Isaac recalls the pre-September 11 refusal on the part of Western leaders to see the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. Ishmael’s resentment of Isaac reminds us of radical Islam’s obsessive, hate-filled focus on Isaac’s children and their homeland, Israel.

The Western world’s dysfunctional yet inextricable ties with the Arab world, based on our need for their oil and their need for our money and technology, recalls the ancient and authoritative Aramaic translation of Genesis 16:12. In Hebrew, an earlier promise from an angel comes to Hagar that Ishmael “shall be a wild-ass of a man: his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him.” The translation by Onkelos says that last phrase means, “he will be in need of everyone else and mankind will be in need of him.”

Genesis concludes its narration of Ishmael’s story with the sour summation that he lived “in the face of all his brothers” (25:18). The idiom, suggesting obnoxiousness, is startlingly modern.

Now the good news. Despite his flaws, Ishmael is a model for us of repentance and redemption. In the same way that God heeded only his remorse at the moment he cried out to Him in the Beersheba wilderness, we can expect God to heed only own good intentions in the penitential season that starts on Rosh Hashanah. That is, even though He knows that our repentance will likely falter in the end, reverting to past patterns of misbehavior, God forgives us “in our present state.”

According to the Talmud, Ishmael’s own repentance ultimately stuck. He ended his days as a righteous person. When Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael buried him together, with Ishmael giving precedence to Isaac, indicating that he accepted their father’s will that the Isaac assume spiritual leadership of the family.

Judaism teaches that the biblical stories didn’t just happen once, never to be repeated. Instead they set patterns that history will follow down to the end of history. This is true of Ishmael, representing Islam. While voices in the media and academia insist with increasing stridency that ideals of democracy and freedom can never be implanted in the Islamic East, Jewish tradition insists that Ishmael is redeemable, and that Islam can be turned to the good.

That doesn’t mean the United States was right to invade Iraq. It doesn’t mean our war will bring freedom to the Iraqis. Napoleon failed, and so may George W. Bush. But at least let it be said that the president’s optimism was not without a foundation — an inspiring and uplifting one, found in the Bible.

David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and author of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).

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