The Jewish New Year Is a Time to Take Responsibility

At Rosh Hashanah, a link is evident between the issue of African migrants, the U.S. elections and how the Jewish community responds to ‘price tag’ attacks.

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Two subjects have dominated my Facebook news feed lately. The first, prevalent among my American friends both in the United States and abroad, has been a discussion and analysis of the presidential election. The second, much more prevalent among my Israeli friends (including those abroad) has been the treatment of African migrants trying to reach Israel.

Both of these topics have a strong Jewish element to them. The refugee question, of course, has to do with the State of Israel, and whether or not the state is living by its Jewish values. Those who claim that Israel must accept the African migrants base their arguments on quotations from the Torah and a comparison to recent Jewish history. Those against argue that admitting hundreds of thousands of Africans to Israel would be detrimental to the Jewish state. A rare few even suggest that our Jewish values can be a resource to these asylum seekers on their way to a new home.

While the link to Judaism might be clear for the refugee issue, it is less obvious for that of the U.S. presidential election. But it is precisely this time of year that the U.S. election has a decidedly Jewish tone. Not because of the discussions on Iran, not because of the question of Jerusalem in the political platform, but because of the nature of the debate. By analyzing the state of the nation over the last four years, Americans are simply engaging in “heshbon nefesh,” an accounting of the soul, as is customary for Jews to do in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah.

Unfortunately, this heshbon nefesh is lacking from much of the discourse around the question of Africans trying to enter Israel. People on all sides of the argument make very cogent arguments, but they inevitably end with an accusatory finger toward somebody else. The question often ends with, “Why doesn’t the world look at Egypt?” or “How could the Israeli government behave this way?”

While the arguments have their logic, they could benefit from some true soul searching. With the High Holy Days fast approaching, Jews are reciting penitential prayers, reminding ourselves out loud of our sins so that we can strive to move beyond them. We focus on our own sins, not those of others - even when we know that others do wrong. We also pray in the first person plural, recognizing that we must take responsibility for the shortcomings of other community members.

While the question of African migrants has largely resulted in pointing fingers, there was one recent incident in which heshbon nefesh played a large and impressive role. On September 4, Israelis woke up to the disturbing news that a monastery at Latrun, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, had been vandalized and nearly burned to the ground. The attack had been a so-called “price tag” attack, in retaliation for the evacuation of the Migron outpost in the West Bank two days earlier, and was presumably perpetrated by young right-wing extremists.

At least in my circles, there was little debate over this incident. People across religious and political spectrums condemned the attack; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced it immediately, while a group of Haredi rabbis visited the monastery to show solidarity. However, there was a clear sense that others had also committed this crime, a sense that regular Israelis were so distant from this hate.

The evening after the attack, I had the privilege of visiting the monastery as part of a group of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who came to support the residents of Latrun. I came as a representative of the Masorti (Conservative) movement, joined by many of our rabbinic and non-rabbinic leaders, and alongside us stood Reform and Orthodox rabbis as well. All of us agreed that the violent act against the church had no place in our religion.

But what impressed me most about the evening was not just the show of solidarity among people of different faiths and different expressions of faith, but the expression of collective responsibility. Many speakers mentioned that all of Israeli society needs to look at ourselves, see where we went wrong, and make sure these acts do not happen again. In short, the attendees were asked to do heshbon nefesh, and we collectively asked for atonement for the sins that we all had committed.

This year, as I lead my community in services for the High Holidays, I will be including special confessionals included in the Selichot service provided by the Masorti movement. These confessionals, called the “Societal Accounting of the Soul” call us on to look at our society and see where we need improvement. My hope is that all of Israeli society and the worldwide Jewish community will join me, and, together, we may turn our prayers into action.

Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.

An African migrant eating food distributed by volunteers in Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv.Credit: Reuters