Being Jewish Means Sometimes Having to Say You're Sorry

We owe no apology for our continued existence or for having a strong army to defend Israel, But unlike what Naftali Bennett would have us believe, passionate Jews and committed Zionists have no qualms about admitting our failures.

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Naftali Bennett stars in a campaign video urging Israelis to stop apologizing (screenshot).
Naftali Bennett stars in a campaign video urging Israelis to stop apologizing (screenshot).

I've got great news. The October blues are a thing of the past. From now on, we will never have to suffer another Yom Kippur again. Our days of hunger, exhaustion and lengthy selihoth services are over. Instead, on the holiest day of our year, even the most religious Israelis will head to the beaches for a day of barbecuing, drinking, playing sports and partying.

Some of you may suspect that I have abandoned my Orthodox Jewish beliefs or lost my mind. Have no fear. This proclamation is not my own. It comes from no less an authority than one of Israel's most senior and successful politicians: Naftali Bennett.

Followers of Israeli politics will have heard him entreating us to stop apologizing. We have apologized too much, too long, he says. It is time to stop saying "sorry," and if we vote for his Habayit Hayehudi party, we will have nothing to repent for. This must be true, because Bennett is also the minister for religious services and is much feted by religious Zionist rabbis.

Cynics will try to pick holes in his argument. They will point to the Talmud (Eiruvin 13b), which reports on the rabbis' debates about the value of the creation of mankind, concluding that now that we are here, we should constantly examine and improve our ways.

They may point to Maimonides' "Laws of Repentance," which says that every Jewish prophet exhorted us to constantly repent for wrongdoing and watch our every step.

From rabbinic literature, it may seem that there should be no end to our apologies. This, too, is untrue.

Jews face some implacable enemies; people who would like to see us wiped off the face of the earth. At the Limmud Conference last week, I heard outstanding Swedish thinker Annika Hernroth-Rothstein describe the anti-Semitism that pervades her country, preventing Jews from living regular Jewish lives. This is unacceptable.

We owe no apology for our continued existence and the flourishing of our communities. Nor should we apologize for having a strong army to defend Israel or a brilliant Iron Dome system to protect us.

Israelis who have suffered from excessive and unjustified criticism are rightly fed up with the hypocrisy of some of those who bash us.

We must stand proud, reasserting our commitment to Jewish survival, and reaffirming our dedication to Jewish values.

But Jewish pride does not rule out the recognition that sometimes we make mistakes. Only small-minded people with something to hide arrogantly boast their perfection and refuse to examine their own actions, apologize for wrongdoing and make amends.

Passionate Jews and committed Zionists have no fear of admitting our failures, apologizing, improving and moving on. We should enter this election with a healthy awareness of where Israel has succeeded, but also a determination to rectify those areas where we have not performed well.

These are essential components of the Jewish aspiration to moral perfection and our mission to be a light unto the nations.

Genuinely religious Jews are unafraid to ask uncomfortable questions measuring ourselves against our highest Jewish values. We must ask whether our culture nurtures politicians of integrity who never pilfer from the public purse. We must inquire whether our state budgets reflect Judaism's commitment to caring for the poor. We must query whether imprisoning refugees and unfairly ruling over millions of Palestinians appropriately expresses the Torah's love for the stranger, and whether education cuts reflect our highest ideals. Where our country has been found wanting, we must apologize.

I am very proud of Israel's magnificent achievements. But when religious Zionists court popularity by declaring Israel perfect, they sacrifice our highest values to an idolatrous worship of the state. Bennett's arrogant call to stop apologizing is a complete perversion of Jewish ethics. He should apologize to us all immediately.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi and the Senior Rabbinic Educator for T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He writes in a personal capacity.

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