Although apologies are often required throughout the year, during these ten days of penitence Jews are supposed to struggle harder and ask forgiveness for offenses they overlooked during the year – or for cumulative injuries beyond the dramatic hit-and-run sins for which they need to apologize immediately. While “I’m sorry” is the simple phrase to become friends again and make amends, sometimes more elaborate apologies are required – or offered. The legendary New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s classic supplication “When I make a mistake it’s a beaut,” conveyed his large personality, when right or wrong. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara did not just say, “We were wrong, terribly wrong” about Vietnam, he added, poignantly, “We owe it to future generations to explain why.” And the Yom Kippur “Ashamnu” prayer is doubly poetic, in affirming individual and community responsibility with its cascade of communal sins, from A to Z.
In the US, Mitt Romney so fears that Barack Obama’s apologies for American foreign policy conveyed weakness, especially to the Arab world, that he issued a manifesto: “No Apology – the Case for American Greatness.” While dodging that debate, we should note that the two concepts “apology” and “greatness” are not inherently at odds. The right apology – proportionate, appropriate, heartfelt – elevates; the wrong apology – grudging, insincere, or unnecessary, demeans.
A grudging or false apology is like a botched shofar blow. We await a clear, dramatic clarion call, at once familiar yet unique, but end with a tepid pffft of hot air, blocked sound, and dashed hopes. Every parent has had to extract a more sincere apology after a child spit out the words “I’m sorry.” In March, 1987, Ronald Reagan offered an older man’s variation on the schoolboy’s side step when he said about the Iran-Contra affair: "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that is true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” One Reagan staffer wrote out the words he believed the American people wanted to hear -- “I’m sorry” -- but the President purposely ignored the text.
I do not solicit apologies from terrorists, murderers and the like. We don’t share the same moral universe, which is essential for repentance and reconciliation. But in honor of these ten days, here are ten individual apologies I would love to hear, based on recent events:
- From Barack Obama to the American people for allowing his personal pique at Bibi Netanyahu to unsettle Israelis just when they need more demonstrations of American friendship, both symbolic and real.
- From Bibi Netanyahu to the Israeli people for allowing his lack of personal chemistry with Barack Obama to cloud relations with Israel’s closest ally.
- From Tzipi Livni to the Israeli electorate for failing to secure the job of foreign minister in Netanyahu’s government, Livni could have forged a relationship with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that would have alleviated some of the predictable Obama-Netanyahu tension.
- From Ehud Olmert to his fellow citizens and to the Jewish people for failing to live up to the high ethical standards we merit from our leaders.
- From Shaul Mofaz for making Israeli politics appear even more ridiculous than usual by leaving the coalition as abruptly as he joined it – what could he possibly have learned about Netanyahu, the Likud, or Israeli politics he didn’t know before he joined?
- From Bill Clinton to the American people for demonstrating once again his tremendous political talents, thereby reminding many of us that his presidency disappointed because he indulged his baser needs, repeatedly.
- From Mitt Romney to the “47 percent” of Americans he dismissed for allegedly being too dependent on government handouts – and to the other 53 percent for failing to offer the uplifting, competent, gaffe-free campaign all Americans yearn for, regardless of partisan affiliation – or net worth.
- From the Haredi extremist bullies who spat on 8-year-old Na’ama Margolis in Bet Shemesh, and to all those who sweep innocent children into their vortex of hate.
- From the Jewish teenagers, their parents, their teachers, and in some cases their rabbis, who attacked a young Arab Jamal Julani in Jerusalem, and to all bigots and hooligans everywhere.
- From UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for emboldening Iran and undermining the Western campaign of sanctions by attending the non-aligned movement meeting in Tehran.
On a personal note, allow me to apologize publicly to all friends, colleagues, relatives, students and readers for whatever words or actions of mine that hurt them this year. I apologize specifically for resorting to sarcasm in a recent column when challenging rabbis-for-Obama not to assert their spiritual authority to make partisan endorsements. The confrontational tone contradicted my work in various contexts, such as the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel Program and the Red Lines and Blue-and-White Lines initiative, trying to construct as big and as welcoming a tent as possible when talking about Israel and Zionism. Striking the right balance on issues close to our hearts is easy to endorse, sometimes hard to implement. I promise to do better in this realm and others.
The difference between a heartfelt apology and one that is phoned-in is the difference between ending up with a relationship doomed to stagnate – at best -- and one that can be renewed. True reconciliation is not a monologue but a dialogue. An artful apology not only expresses the deliverer’s remorse but recruits the recipient to accept, stretch, and join in the act of resetting.
In the spirit of the season, I wish everyone a meaningful fast, a good stretch, a healthy epidemic of heartfelt reconciliations and revitalizing resets.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published in November.