Yom Kippur Means Having to Say You're Sorry: Most Newsworthy Apologies of the Jewish Year

In time for the Days of Awe, Haaretz highlights some of the most notable apologies of the past year.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A screenshot from Netanyahu's recent video.
A screenshot from Netanyahu's recent video.Credit: Screenshot/YouTube
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

There was the Israeli prime minister who, in a desperate moment, tried to incite racism against Arab voters. There was the Harvard law student who made public reference to a prominent Israeli politician’s body odor. There was the Israeli defense minister who likened the United States to countries that appeased Hitler. In the end, they all apologized – or sort of did.

With the Jewish season of repentance upon us, culminating in the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Haaretz highlights some of the most newsworthy apologies of the past Jewish year:

Netanyahu apologizes to Arab citizens. It took 16 months, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eventually got around to apologizing for his famous Election Day warning about the Arabs coming out “in droves” to cast their ballots. Fearful that he might lose the election, Netanyahu had resorted to this last-ditch tactic hoping to boost right-wing voter turnout, and it seems to have worked. In a video message posted on his YouTube channel in July, Netanyahu expressed sorrow that his remarks were “misunderstood,” insisting that they were directed not at all Arabs, but rather at one specific political party (a clear reference to the Joint Arab List, which captured the overwhelming majority of the Arab vote in the last election). “Today I am asking Arab citizens of Israel to take part in our society – in droves,” he said. “Work in droves, study in droves, thrive in droves.” Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, dismissed Netanyahu’s apology as a “show of hypocrisy.”

Alsheich, at the Knesset last month. His decision is problematic given the recent spate of cases of senior officers coming under fire for apparent sexual harassment. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Police chief apologizes to Ethiopians. A few days after he said it was “natural” for Israeli cops to be particularly suspicious of young Ethiopians, Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich retracted his words. In a statement issued “to the entire Ethiopian community” the following day, Alsheich said his intention had not been to offend, but to “expose the problem in order to promote agreed-upon solutions.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the rollout of the Israeli F-35 fighter plane, at Fort Worth, Texas, June 22, 2016.Credit: Beth Steel/Lockheed Martin

Defense minister apologizes to America. Early last month, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman likened the Iranian nuclear deal spearheaded by the United States to the Munich agreement signed between European powers and Nazi Germany in 1938, which allowed Hitler to annex part of Czechoslovakia. “The Munich accord didn’t prevent World War II and the Holocaust because their fundamental assumption – that Nazi Germany can be partner to any agreement – was false, and because world leaders at the time ignored clear statements made by Hitler and other Nazi leaders,” Lieberman said in this unusual statement, issued by his ministry. He seemed to be responding to an earlier assertion by U.S. President Barack Obama that Israeli officials were pleased with the results of the Iranian nuclear deal. Lieberman’s comparison almost sparked a diplomatic crisis, and three days later, he was forced to retract his words. In a written apology, the Defense Ministry said it had not intended “to draw comparisons, historical or personal,” and expressed regret that the original statement “was interpreted otherwise.”

Labour MP Naz Shah as photographed on her Facebook page.Credit: Facebook

British MP apologizes to Israelis. In a 2014 Facebook post, Labour Party parliamentarian Naseem “Naz” Shah shared an image of a map of Israel superimposed on a map of the United States, under the heading: “Solution for Israel-Palestine Conflict – Relocate Israel into United States.” Speaking to members of a synagogue in Leeds in May, she later expressed her deep apologies, noting that she had been “ignorant about Jews.” Shah promised to take responsibility for speaking with fellow Muslims about the dangers of anti-Semitism.

Tzipi Livni.Credit: Erica Gannett for IRL Productions

Harvard student apologizes to Israeli MK. During a panel discussion in April at Harvard Law School, the head of a student group confronted Zionist Union MK (and former Israeli foreign minister) Tzipi Livni with the following question: “How is it that you are so smelly?” Following the uproar this question caused, the student, who was never officially identified by name, claimed to be unaware of its possible anti-Semitic connotations. “I want to be very clear that it was never my intention to invoke a hateful stereotype, but I recognize now that, regardless of my intention, words have power, and it troubles me deeply to know that I have caused some members of the Jewish community such pain with my words,” he wrote in a public apology.

The settlement of Nof Zion in East Jerusalem.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Congressman apologizes for using settler metaphor. Hank Johnson, a Democratic congressman from Georgia, came under fire a few months ago for using a problematic metaphor to describe Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied territories. In an interview with a Washington newspaper, Johnson was quoted saying that “almost like termites can get into a residence and eat before you’ve been eaten up and you fall in on yourself, there has been settlement activity that has marched forward with impunity and at an ever increasing rate to the point where it has become alarming.” After the Anti-Defamation League denounced his remarks in a Twitter post, noting that “demonization, dehumanization of settlers doesn’t advance peace,” Johnson tweeted back: “Poor choice of words – apologies for offense.” He did add, however, that the point he was trying to make was that settlement activity is undermining hopes for a two-state solution.

Dani Dayan.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

New York consul-general apologizes to J Street. In an interview with i24News before assuming his post as Israeli envoy to the Big Apple, settler leader Dani Dayan took the opportunity to attack J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel organization that was founded with the intention to serve as a counter-balance to the right-leaning AIPAC lobby. “I prefer the attitude of AIPAC to that of J Street, that endorses all the anti-Israel candidates,” he said. “The more anti-Israeli you are, the more you are endorsed by J Street. That’s un-Jewish.” J Street struck back, saying: “These kinds of slurs impugning our faith should simply be out-of-bounds for an official emissary of the Israeli government.” In a Twitter response, Dayan said his words had been taken out of context and that he had never called J-Street “un-Jewish.” Rather, he said, he had called an action taken by the organization “un-Jewish.” “Nevertheless, it was wrong,” he conceded.

Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., March 21, 2016. Credit: Saul Loeb, AFP

AIPAC apologizes to Obama. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump took advantage of the podium at the annual AIPAC conference in March to launch an attack against President Obama that drew loud applause. Clearly shaken by the experience, newly installed AIPAC president Lillian Pincus offered an emotional apology a day later, saying: “There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night, and for that we are deeply sorry. We are deeply disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone.”

Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn ahead of his speech during the Durham Miners' Gala on the old Racecourse in Durham, England, July 9, 2016.Credit: Scott Heppell, AP

U.K. Labour Party apologizes to Israel. Speaking at the launch of a report examining anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, the party leader, appeared to be comparing Israel to ISIS. Jews were “no more responsible for the actions of Israel,” he said at the event, than Muslims were for Islamic State extremists. Corbyn denied trying to draw any moral comparison, but an Israeli embassy spokesman reported that the party’s foreign policy adviser, Emily Thornberry, apologized for what were perceived as “unacceptable remarks.”

Rabbi apologizes for challenging number of Holocaust victims. In an online lecture posted in January, Yosef Mizrachi, an ultra-Orthodox American rabbi with a large following on social media, claimed that less than one million of those who perished during the Holocaust would have been considered Jewish according to traditional religious law. Following the backlash his remarks triggered, Mizrachi apologized for what he described as “my incorrect statement regarding the 6 million kedoshim (martyrs) who were tragically murdered in the Holocaust.” Mizrachi made the statement after he had been shown “the accurate statistics,” he said. Mizrachi can’t seem to resist provocations though. Recently, hundreds of British Jews signed a petition to bar him from visiting the country after it emerged that in another lecture, he had suggested that autism and Down’s syndrome were punishments for sins committed in a previous life.

A swimming pool in the northern Israeli town of Rameh.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Israeli mayor apologizes to Arab neighbors. In a radio interview in July, Lower Galilee Council head Motti Dotan said that Arabs and Jews should be segregated at pools because of their different hygienic habits. He insisted he did not hate Arabs, “but I don’t want them at my swimming pools.” Responding to the public backlash triggered by his remarks, Dotan maintained that his “slip of the tongue” had been misunderstood. In a Facebook post, he wrote: “In any case, I apologize to anyone who felt offended.”

94-year-old former SS sergeant Reinhold Hanning sits in the courtroom in Detmold, Germany, Friday, April 29, 2016.Credit: Bernd Thissen / AP

Auschwitz guard apologizes to survivors. On trial in a German courtroom, a former guard at the Auschwitz death camp expressed remorse for doing nothing to prevent the atrocities he had witnessed. “I am ashamed that I saw injustice and never did anything about it, and I apologize for my actions,” Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old former SS sergeant, told the court in April. “I am very very sorry.” Hanning was charged with 170,000 counts of accessory to murder.

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