Center Field: The Yom Kippur conundrum: Should our ‘blame game’ shape our politics?

It’s the 10 days of repentance, and Jews around the world are busy examining their actions, reconsidering mistakes, asking forgiveness and granting it in our annual Super Bowl of soul-searching.

Jewish worshippers covered in prayer shawls pray @kotel 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Yazel Shavit Communications)
Jewish worshippers covered in prayer shawls pray @kotel 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Yazel Shavit Communications)
It’s the 10 days of repentance, and Jews around the world are busy examining their actions, reconsidering mistakes, asking forgiveness and granting it in our annual Super Bowl of soul-searching.
Judaism teaches that we must first reconcile with one another before asking the Lord for forgiveness. If we reject a sinner’s repeated and sincere apology, we are no longer the injured party. We risk becoming unrepentant sinners.
The repentance rituals and their meanings are profound, humbling and effective.
Here in Jerusalem, one feels the tradition’s moral power intensely. Hearing the nightly buzz of “Slichot,” penitential prayers, at the Western Wall, seeing the learn-a-thons around town, luxuriating in the car-less silence of Yom Kippur morning, delighting in the family groups gliding in and out of synagogue, feeling the sincerity of the prayers, witnessing the collective exercise in self-examination, is deeply moving.
Every Kol Nidre night, when people pour out of the synagogues and parade up and down Emek Refaim and other Jerusalem boulevards, you feel the power of the Jewish experience in the Jewish state.
A fashion parade it ain’t. While trend-setters may impose Emerald, Linden Green and Mykonos Blue on shoppers as this fall’s colors, the Jerusalem colors are white, off-white and dirty white. The march of turbans, robes, scarves and shawls, transforming Jerusalem into Jewish Amish country, contrasts dramatically with the glitzy fashion parades I witnessed at the Cathedrallike synagogues of my youth in New York and Montreal, wherein too many spend more time choosing their outer garments than stretching their inner selves.
This scene’s vitality, in all its counter-cultural glory, proves that Jerusalem remains the Jewish people’s spiritual capital. This despite the Right’s absurd campaign-driven claims that welcoming non-religious Jews diminishes the city’s holiness, and despite the Left’s insulting, delegitimizing claims that the city has repelled the enlightened and been overrun by fanatics.
However, particularly this year, our annual guilt-fest, whereby we take on blame both individually and collectively, is giving me pause. In our personal and political lives, there are objective limits on how guilty we should feel when the other party is objectively more at fault. At what point does a helpful humility become a harmful, blinding, self-imposed humiliation? Seeing the culture of guilt so many of us have programmed into our internal Jewish discourse about the Middle East, and how that is exacerbated by a Palestinian culture of blame, I am tempted to stand up and shout, “Enough!,” when the whole community starts with its public “ashamnus,” the breast-beating, alphabetical confessional proclaiming: “We have sinned.”
Beyond Israel’s borders, we see an age-old scapegoating of Jews, reincarnated. Egyptian extremists blamed “the Jews” for Morsi’s rise and for Morsi’s fall. The Iranians threaten Israel with retaliation if America attacks Syria to punish the Assad regime for gassing its own people. Remember what former prime minister Menachem Begin said: “Goyim kill goyim and they blame the Jews.” And in that 1982 case of the Sabra and Shatila massacres Israel at least controlled the camps where the Christian Phalangists did the killing, whereas Israel is distant from the Egyptian or Syrian messes.
I know, modern professors are not supposed to talk like that. We are supposed to obscure guilt and causation behind a postmodern mishmash, blaming everyone and no one simultaneously, or at least follow the academic herd in assuming that those who can be cast as the “whites” and the “powerful” in any situation are by definition guilty. Jewish professors, in particular, are supposed to take on the blame, especially for Palestinian suffering.
But I am an historian, not a political fantasist.
And some pesky historical facts ruin the “blame Israel” narrative. We should not forget that Palestinian leaders have consistently rejected compromises that could have secured them a state – especially in 1947 and during the Camp David II negotiations in July, 2000. We should remember that Yasser Arafat led his people away from negotiations and back toward terror, starting that September 2000. We should emphasize that the Oslo peace process, launched with such hopes 20 years ago in September 1993, ended with over a thousand Israelis killed in an orgy of suicide bombings and shootings. And we should teach that president Bill Clinton, as his presidency ended, yelled at Arafat: “you made me a failure.”
More broadly, there has been a consistent peace consensus in Israel, with public opinion polls repeatedly showing Israelis open to real compromise despite a worldwide campaign rejecting Israel’s basic right to exist, orchestrated by Palestinian radicals.
Nevertheless, the Blame Israel First chorus dominates academia, the UN, the EU, America’s far left, and, increasingly, elite segments of the Jewish community. This cycle of blame escalates from fey rhetoric to real politics, to the point that many blame Israel as the obstacle to Middle East peace, despite the Palestinian record of terrorism and rejectionism. As a result, when negotiations begin, even Israel’s American allies insist on Israeli sweeteners, unilateral Israeli concessions, to mollify the Palestinians.
I do not believe that Israelis or Jews are blameless. I do appreciate Yom Kippur’s call for self-examination nationally as well as individually. We must cleanse mainstream Israeli society of anti-Arab rhetoric, of discrimination in education, housing and employment, while guaranteeing that the rule of law protects Palestinians from Israeli hooligans, from despicable “price tag” attacks,” from illegal hilltop seizures.
We just need some balance. We need self-criticism and self-improvement, but not self-abnegation. We should offset the spiritually useful breast-beating with some historically accurate finger-pointing. And we must use history, not to chain us to the past with shackles forged in anger but to free us from previous mistakes, applying lessons only learned via sober analysis and clear moral standards, not relativistic mass guilt-fests or biased, politically-correct lynchings.