‘I scatter Yom Kippur over the entire year,” wrote poet Yehuda Amichai, “for grapes ripen in their season, but sins and their atonements – how will they ripen in one mere day?”
If this is true for the individual, it is doubly so for the collective; and in our case the collective had an abundance of sins in the elapsed year, both ones that ripened on a particular day of 5778, and ones that we scattered over many of its days.
One sin we committed in a moment as brief as the raising and lowering of a voting hand happened this summer, when our legislature gave non-Jewish citizens the feeling that they do not belong.
Having failed this way more than a million Israelis, including the Druze, who have fought in all our wars and lost on our battlefields 421 sons, we thus turned our backs on fellow citizens in a way that socially cannot stand, and politically must be offset.
Middle Israelis therefore apologize to the Druze general, to the Muslim surgeon, to the Christian engineer, to the Circassian farmer and to their communities’ every member, from the school principal and the factory owner to the hewer of wood and the drawer of water, and we tell them what our ancestors so much wanted to hear from their own neighbors in other times and other lands: You are one of us, you are equal, you belong.
HAVING FAILED in the elapsed year that many people who live in our midst, we also failed millions who live in distant lands but share our faith.
These people’s problem was not that they are not Jews, but that they are not proper Jews, meaning ones who worship according to the customs and dictates of the holier-than-thou clerics who clutch our holy sites.
To these offshore Jews we sinned every day, but most visibly upon the arrival of every new Jewish month, when some of them would gather to pray at the Western Wall only to be quarantined like biblical lepers and heckled like medieval thieves while paraded to the gallows.
Middle Israelis therefore apologize to their non-Orthodox brethren, both here and abroad; to the Reform accountant, to the Conservative professor, and to the Reconstructionist lawyer, who spend time, energy and money upholding their Jewish identity and defending the Jewish state.
To them and to the millions lurking beyond them we promise to do a better job next year upholding our founding fathers’ vow in the Declaration of Independence that the State of Israel will ensure freedom of conscience and faith.
HAVING FAILED the non-Jews in our midst as well as Jews who are not in our midst, we also failed the “semi-Jews,” both those in our midst and those beyond our realm.
The “semi-Jews” are those whose Jewish roots are too shallow for the rabbis who get to decide whether they are Jews, and what it should take for them to become Jews; even if they journeyed here from afar saying they feel they are Jews, even if they risked their lives fighting for this country, and even if those who tell us to exclude them did not themselves serve anywhere other than in Torah’s tent.
Well, on this Day of Atonement we apologize to our “semi-Jews” for our rabbis’ shortsightedness in the face of people who tell us, as Ruth said to Naomi, “your people shall be my people and your God my God; where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried” (Ruth 1:16).
Faced with thousands of locally born and raised Hebrew-speakers who were sent on the elapsed year’s weekdays to marry offshore and to bury their parents out of bounds, Middle Israelis now say to them – as Boaz told Ruth – “have no fear” (ibid. 3:11) and, as our forebears told King Agrippa I who burst in tears when he read the Hebrew law “you must not set a foreigner over you” (Deuteronomy 17:15), having been himself the descendant of converts: “You’re our brother!” (Mishna Sota 7:8).
YET ALL the elapsed year’s sins of exclusion dwarf when compared with 5778’s overarching sin, the abandonment of our construction workers to the devices of heartless owners and reckless taskmasters.
More than 200 workers were killed in construction sites throughout Israel in the past two years alone.
With a death rate 2.5 times higher than the European Union’s average, the figures keep rising because the workers keep falling. This year, between January and July alone, 19 workers were killed, three more than the same period last year, according to worker-protecting nonprofit Kav LaOved.
In recent weeks the fatalities’ number rose to 26, after Ibrahim Zacharia Mohammed al-Hadidi, 32, and Rami Abdallah Ali Badr, 43, found their deaths in the construction site where they eked their living, in their case in Rosh Ha’ayin.
Like 84% of the construction sites’ fatalities, the two fell from height, in their case when the scaffolding under their feet collapsed. The other 16% died after having been hit by falling objects.
Like Hadidi and Badr, both of Beit Likya outside Ramallah, 47% of the fatalities have been Palestinians. A further 32% were Israeli Arabs. The rest are mostly foreign workers, including four Chinese men killed in the years 2017-18 in four different places in four different sites run by four different contractors.
This travesty, in short, is mentally about us Israelis’ attitude toward responsibility and discipline, and morally it is about the way we Israeli Jews treat the non-Jews in our midst.
Faced with this, many of us tend to say, like the elders gathered around an unsolved murder’s unidentified body, “our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done” (Deuteronomy 21:7).
Sure, we also didn’t humiliate the Druze and we didn’t hassle the semi-Jews and we didn’t harass the non-Orthodox; someone else did the doing. We merely stood by.