Not Hard to Say I'm Sorry

The era of apologies began at the beginning of the previous decade when, toward the end of the millennium, the Catholic Church started apologizing to everything that moved. Zohar Kampf of the Hebrew University's Department of Communications says that by the year 2000, the church and its various branches had apologized at least 100 times. From the start of the third millennium, the church, its organizations and its branches have chalked up at least another 100 requests for forgiveness, he says. The pope's recent remarks about Islam will no doubt contribute several more.

In Israel the era of apologies began on September 26, 1997, when then-Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak asked Mizrahi Jews to forgive the party for the treatment they had received here. Since then, we have not stopped apologizing. Based on the Haaretz archives, Kampf counted 354 apologies made in Israel or related to Israel between 1997 and 2004. This study was part of his doctoral thesis, under Prof. Shoshana Blum-Kulka, which deals with apologies in Israeli public dialogue. In addition to asking for forgiveness, the era of apologies includes another 204 other "incidences of apology." Among them, for example, is every apology demanded from Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef after slips of the tongue. Or the granting of forgiveness where none was requested: President Moshe Katsav, for example, announced after his election that he was forgiving all those who had slandered him. Also included is the statement by Major General (res.) Amiram Levin that everyone would apologize for blaming him for the Tse'elim military base disaster. Altogether, Kampf counted 559 instances of public apology over the eight years he checked. The record year for apologies in Israel was 1999, with 88. Perhaps it is therefore symbolic that that was the year Ehud Barak, the serial apologizer, was elected prime minister.

Words are cheap

Altogether 152 of the instances were international. These included several related to the Holocaust. Argentina, for example, apologized in 2000 for granting refuge to perpetrators of Holocaust crimes. But there were also apologies where Israel was at fault. Israel was required to apologize at least twice for letting Mossad agents use forged foreign passports, once to Canada and again to New Zealand.

There were 82 instances for political reasons and 98 between the left and the right. Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu has a long and impressive history of apologies. In a memorable interview with the Mabat news program in 1993, Netanyahu spoke about "a senior Likud official who is surrounded by a gang of criminals." Two years later, he expressed regret to David Levy and his followers. "I hurt you and your friends and I apologize for that," he said. The year 2004, the year before the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, saw a record number of apologies between the left and the right - a total of 19.

Netanyahu has also made repeat performances in the field of "ideological apologies": In November 2001 he expressed regret for having lashed out at the left, the elites and the media, and for his famous remarks, "They are not Jews" and "They are afraid." This was apparently part of the attempt to convince people he had turned over a new leaf. All the same, Netanyahu chose a somewhat strange location for this apology: Channel 33, which does not have very high ratings.

Netanyahu's apologies can perhaps be best understood against the background of remarks he made to Nahum Barnea for the journal Ha'ayin Hashevi'it in January 2001. "I held a private meeting with myself," he related, "and I said to myself, 'I have made mistakes.' I found out that when I admit my mistakes, people become convinced. It is extremely effective."

Politicians tend to apologize when they leave political life or when they are preparing the ground for their return to it, Kampf says. Then-prime minister Ehud Barak apologized, for example, in his parting speech to members of his party for not including them enough in the decision-making process. Sometimes an apology has the opposite effect. The televised apology by minister Joseph Paritsky to his colleague Avraham Poraz over a framing attempt helped end Paritzky's political career.

People will always suspect a politician who apologizes has ulterior motives, says Kampf. Therefore, one of the classic responses to such an apology is that he should act rather than talk. Kampf says people are more convinced of the veracity of an apology when it is more difficult for the apologizer to make.

Apologies and half-apologies

There were 33 apologies between Jews and Arabs in the years covered by the study. The year 2001 was the record year for apologies of that kind - 10. One very notable apology in this field was - could it be any anyone else? - by Ehud Barak. Speaking from the Knesset podium toward the close of 1999, he expressed regret on behalf of the government for the suffering caused to the Palestinian people. But Barak made sure to clarify he was not doing so out of feelings of guilt or responsibility.

Kampf explains there is great significance to how the apology is phrased. The term "to apologize" can be interpreted to mean legal responsibility. Expressing regret is a much more vague way of phrasing things. Officials in Barak's bureau agonized over the wording of an apology regarding the events of October 2001 and in the end, Barak sufficed with expressing regret. Representatives of the Arab public had a prolonged argument over whether this indeed was an apology.

After (not very) targeted assassinations in the territories, in which civilians are harmed, Israel makes sure to express its regret but not to apologize. The inherent vagueness can be seen in the events following an April 2001 event when Israeli border policemen opened fire on a convoy of Palestinian security personnel in the Gaza Strip. A source in the bureau of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon explained to the Hebrew daily Ma'ariv: "The prime minister is not apologizing, and does not intend to apologize [for the incident], but rather expresses his regret over what took place. Those who read the letter closely will learn the prime minister is actually pointing an accusatory finger at the Palestinians."

Upon looking at the wording of the apologies, Kampf found that only one out of every two actually used the term "to apologize," while one out of every four used the weaker phrase "to express regret," and only one in ten included the phrase "I'm sorry."

Ovadia Yosef almost never apologizes but instead clarifies his remarks - because of the public storm or out of fear of a criminal investigation, Kampf says. This was the case when Yosef said in 2000 that then-education minister Yossi Sarid "must be extracted from the seed of Israel." He then proceeded to explain: "Heaven forbid, I did not intend that someone should raise a hand to him." His only actual apology may be in an interview he gave to Adam Baruch in Ma'ariv about a remark he made - that Jews who died in the Holocaust were reincarnations of souls who had sinned - even though this was merely a half apology and a half denial. "I didn't say that those who died in the Holocaust were sinners," Yosef said. "I could not have said such a thing. I do not think that that is so. I regret with all my heart if someone did not understand and was hurt." But not everyone in Shas is entitled to clarify his words. Former Knesset member Yair Peretz was forced in 2003 to apologize over his remark that then-attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein was worse than Adolf Hitler.

President Katsav not only forgave, he also apologized. In 1997, when Katsav was minority affairs minister, he apologized to the residents of Kafr Qasem for the Israel Defense Forces' massacre there (in 1956). But that apology was not accepted with great enthusiasm in the Arab sector. There was criticism because Katsav had not spoken in the name of the entire government. The wreath Katsav laid on the memorial for the victims was removed.

Danger of extinction

One can get a good picture of the national agenda by dividing the apologies into categories. The years 1998 and 1999 were record years for apologies about religious affairs, with 10 each year. In 1998, for example, MK Avraham Ravitz shouted at MKs from the left: "Little anti-Semites, you are garbage." He later withdrew his remarks but made it clear that he was not backtracking on the disgust he felt.

In 1997 then-president Ezer Weizman referred to the "unpleasant" things the Bible discusses. Soon after he apologized. "It is possible I should keep my mouth shut more," he said. "The Bible is the basis for everything." But since the start of this decade, apologies over religious matters have virtually disappeared. It is certainly possible that since the political influence of the religious parties has waned, their ability to draw apologies has also been on the decline.

A total of 32 apologies over ethnic affairs were recorded in the period under study. In 1999, the year Barak was elected prime minister and minister Aryeh Deri was convicted, there was a record number of ethnicity-based apologies. The most prominent of these was the apology by Labor MK Ori Orr. In an interview with Haaretz's Daniel Ben-Simon, Orr said Moroccans did not have sufficient curiosity to know what was happening around them. After that he toured the country to ask forgiveness, but was unable to save his political career. However, since 2001 the issue of ethnic origins has virtually disappeared from the agenda of public apologies, and in the past few years zero to four of these apologies were recorded.