Apologies, Meaningless and Misplaced

A heartfelt “I’m sorry” is one of the most important and effective tools of interpersonal relationships. Some forms of apology, however, border on the inane. Some – especially in regard to Israel’s conduct – are downright dangerous.

Phi Beta Kappa’s American Scholar offers a tour de force of the trend towards national mea culpas for the sins of our fathers. Or grandfathers. Or remote DNA donors.

The author takes pains to demonstrate the situations in which collective apologies do serve some positive purpose, such as bringing some measure of justice or compensation to victims still alive, or making groups own up to troublesome attitudes and issues that still must be dealt with. There is ample room for the Japanese to do more than mumble a half-hearted acknowledgment for the treatment of the “comfort women” of World War II. Many of the victims remain among us. The extremity of Turkish unwillingness to own up to their role in the Armenian genocide suggests that it would be healthy for a new generation of Turks to confront the xenophobia that led to the orgy of killing that could easily occur again.

A certain sort of pathotheology or theopathology leads some — the president of Iran, the father of Mel Gibson, an engineering professor at Northwestern University — to join neofascist historians in denying that the Holocaust ever happened. In a 1956 Grace Kelly movie, The Swan, a minor German royal, dispossessed by the Napoleonic Wars, breathlessly announces: “I’ve just read the most wonderful book. It proves conclusively that Napoleon never existed.” Many such books find readers.

But then there are the other issues, queuing up to demand more and more of our guilt. Should the United States formally apologize to African-Americans for the scourge of slavery in early America? Should it offer reparations? To whom? Will a person descended from freed slaves on one side, and slave owners on the other receive or pay such reparations? What meaning do reparations have if the victims are not here to receive them?

Are not the million or more Europeans and Americans who, in the 17th and 18th centuries, were kidnapped and enslaved by the Barbary States of North Africa due an apology, too — from, say, Muammar al-Qaddafi or the king of Morocco? If the U.S. Congress starts apologizing to the Hawaiians for a treacherous regime change, what of the endless string of broken treaties with the Seminoles and the Cherokees and . . . well, with almost any tribe that managed to survive long enough for there to be a U.S. Congress to betray it? History, that is, offers so much to apologize for that the question is not where to start but where to stop. We could save time, energy, and the risk of invidious specificity by just apologizing for history itself.

The very premise behind many of the proposed apologies is flawed. It assumes that the way we relate to political realities today represents the “true” nature of things, an absolute truth that should have been available to our benighted forebears, had only they not been so obtuse.

Our mania for apology stems from a radical sort of “presentism”: the belief, in practice, if not fully articulated, that the actions and actors of the past should be evaluated, and usually condemned, by present-day standards. In our relativistic age in which advanced opinion notoriously eschews universals and absolutes, the criteria obtaining at the moment in Cambridge and Chapel Hill, Ann Arbor and Palo Alto, Austin and Madison seem to have more than contingent status.

One can only wonder what apologies might be forthcoming in the future, as ideas tentatively proffered today become the orthodoxies of the future

If the PETA imperative, for example, were to become our dominant ethos by, say, 2107, at which time no law-abiding soul would ingest animal parts or products or wear their skins and would recoil in horror at the thought that his ancestors had, what sort of apologies for history would then be forthcoming? To all the leashed canines run around in circles for the pleasure of dog lovers at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show or the thoroughbreds in the Kentucky Derby? To all the rats martyred in labs, victims of “science” — or, worse yet, “beauty”? To every pig rendered pork chops, to every mink become a coat?… The Hartford Courant has abjectly apologized for publishing ads in the 18th and 19th centuries for the sale of slaves; in the next century will they apologize for having run ads for puppies for sale?

This certitude (I caught myself before using the term “pig-headedness,” and having to apologize for speciesism) about the moral rectitude of the moment leads to some disturbing uncertainties.

You can go to bed as an apostle of liberty, the author of the Declaration of Independence, to wake up as a slave-owning, mealy-mouthed misogynist.

Professing our guilt for what we never did is not only silly, it deflects from the real work at hand.

Apologizing to Chicago for Mrs. O’Leary’s cow really ought to take a back seat to rigorously enforcing the current fire codes.

Apologies can not only be senseless, they can be devastating.

Some people in Jewish establishment circles have taken misplaced apology to the level of compromising Israel’s interests. Israel, they claim, was guilty of terrible errors after the June War. She encouraged settlements, which led directly to injustices visited upon the Palestinian people. For inflicting that harm, Israel ought to own up to her guilt, and be more conciliatory towards those she harmed.

The argument is seen as risible throughout the Orthodox world. If there were any guilt to be owned up to, softening our negotiating position would not become an option. There is no one to negotiate with. Poll after poll of Israelis shows that they would be willing to trade land for peace – but there is no one to talk to. The Palestinians have shown themselves to be primitives who celebrate death over life, and who will not under any circumstances recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Middle East. You cannot sit down at a table knowing that your children are been urged by TV commercials to drink chocolate milk, while theirs are taught to drink Jewish blood.

Speaking theoretically – is there any room for guilt? The great ideological divide between Torah-true Judaism and the heterodox movements becomes pronounced in answering this question. In the Orthodox world, there is a resounding “no;” outside of it, a cacophony of different possibilities and voices, fed by a notion of guilt related more to the neuroses of Woody Allen than the perspective of the Torah.

It is not that the Orthodox world-view is shaped by Eretz Yisrael HaShelemah/ Greater Israel considerations. Most of the Orthodox world is on record as firstly, supporting the right of the Israeli people to make their own choices and secondly, agreeing in principle that there is room to trade land (outside of Jerusalem) for peace if there were a stable, non-barbaric entity to deal with.

Traditional Jews deny any guilt because the Torah both demands guilt, and sets limits to it. Orthodox children quickly learn from the Torah itself that “I didn’t mean it” does not absolve one of responsibility, and does not diminish the need to apologize. We bring a korban chatas / sin offering precisely when we did not mean to sin, but forgot a parameter of the law that we should not have forgotten, had we treated it with more seriousness.

We learn that ones, what others consider to be beyond control, is still often responsible in halachic tort law. We learn that there is an obligation to Heaven, i.e. moral responsibility – chiyuv latzes yidei shomayim – even when the court would hold us blameless for compensation.

But we also learn, in exquisite detail, that there are limits that the Torah sets even for moral responsibility. We come across the Meiri, who teaches that the chiyuv latzes yidei shomayim of one who causes a loss, but does not quite directly perform a tortious act, is limited by intent. Where the intent of such a gerama was to help, not harm, there is not even moral responsibility to offer compensation.

We find other limitations on responsibility. A professional such as a judge or a physician who follows established procedures, does not scrimp on deliberating and examining the case at hand, and still makes an error can be held blameless in halacha. There are professions and situations in which errors will take place, even when people do what they are supposed to be doing. They are not responsible for such errors, even though their consequences may be catastrophic.

At the end of the Six Day War, Israel found herself with a large swath of territory in her control, a much greater number of hostile Arabs in her immediate control than a week before – and no one willing to talk peace with her and prevent the growth of a humanitarian crisis. How do you control a population that has no incentive to be pacified? Can you post soldiers on every street corner? No one wanted to control the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, or the check points that went up only with the rise in suicide bombers, or the security fence that followed the escalation of horrors coordinated by Palestinian leaders with the full support of the Palestinian populace. No human being can demonstrate the existence of a better alternative to what Israel opted for in ‘67 – using Jewish settlements as buffers and as the eyes and ears of the Army; no one can categorically prove that she made the wrong decision. Even if one could, Israel’s policymakers acted deliberately, not precipitously, in slowly shaping a policy. Even if someone could somehow show that they were objectively “wrong,” they discharged their responsibilities responsibly, acting in a manner consistent with other foreign policy professionals. Such an “error” – if an error at all – where not a product of self-interest, incompetence, or sloth, is unavoidable to anyone who does not have a T-1 connection to the Heavenly Court.

There is room for a different emotional response to the plight of the Palestinians: compassion. There is ample room to be compassionate to those who would show us none at all. A case can be made for compassion for anyone who still bears the imprint of the Divine, the tzelem Elokim. The Gemara praises Dovid for returning after battles to bury the enemy soldiers he had just killed. Ramban treated an avowed enemy of his, when he could have just shrugged his soldiers.

Here, too, there are limits. The Gemara tells us that those who show compassion to the cruel will end up showing cruelty to the compassionate. We should leave room in our hearts – or make room – to feel for the plight of Palestinians who suffer. We should genuinely wish them well – but in a place where they cannot harm our brethren in Israel. There is no room for compassion towards the enemy while they are firing at you; you must fire back. There is no place for compassion while negotiating with those who declare that their goal is the destruction of your state. There is no room for Jewish organizations offering unsolicited confessions of guilt for the Israeli government in the weeks leading up to delicate negotiations that affect the lives of millions of people.

Labeling Israel as a country in need of making amends is inexcusable. In this case, no apologies accepted!

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8 comments to Apologies, Meaningless and Misplaced

  • dr. william gewirtz

    Agree entirely with your POV with three comments: 1) You write: “The great ideological divide between Torah-true Judaism and the heterodox movements becomes pronounced in answering this question.” True realistically and numerically but not intrinisically an ideological, Torah-true, halakhic issue, IMHO. One can certainly debate the difference between apologizing for an action as opposed to a regreting a consequence; the possible need for the latter extends beyond the former. I do not know if and how the Halacha explicitly treats this. 2) You write: “there is room to trade land (outside of Jerusalem) for peace.” Purely from a Halakhic perspective, I have never heard a halakhic basis for distinguishing Jerusalem (whatever halakhic defintion of boundaries you might use) from the remainder of EY. I could imagine some, but I have not heard any. The Rav ZTL’s comment on the Kotel is well known. 3) While apologies for the state are one thing, apologies for individual bad actors are another. Given its circumstance, I think the state of Israel does a remarkable job, beyond just apologizing, but prosecuting those individuals who cross the line. That is among the most compelling reasons that Israel should receive the apologies of the World community as opposed to have any need to tender apologies.

  • Ori Pomerantz

    In 1938, Germany had legitimate claims. Germany and Austria had truly wanted to unite after WWI. The Sudetenland were truly populated by Germans. Giving in to Germany on those legitimate claims, however, was a monumentally bad idea. It showed the sane Germans that Hitler knew what he was doing, and that they should support him. It also showed the insane Germans that France and the British Empire were weak. It took the devastation of WWII to turn Germany into a good neighbor again.

    Could Israel have done things better, for example by returning the West Bank to Jordan in the early eighties prior to the Intifada? Possibly. That doesn’t matter. The Palestinians have elected the Hamas. Until they despair of defeating Israel, they’re an enemy.

  • Ori Pomerantz

    Dr. William Gewirtz: The Rav ZTL’s comment on the Kotel is well known.

    Ori: I’m ignorant. Could you please tell me (and other non-Orthodox readers here) what that comment was?

  • Shalom Rosenfeld

    Dr. Gewirtz, I don’t know if this is what R’ Adlerstein was thinking, but there are numerous non-purely-Halachic sources — indicating much stronger (and more sensitive) heartstrings when it comes to Jerusalem than regarding the rest of Israel. For example:

    1.) The dialog between Vespecian and Raban Yochanan ben Zakai in HaNizakin; according to some meforshim’s reading of the “what to do with a snake wrapped around a jar” quandary, Vespecian questions why RYBZ didn’t break a new hole through the wall of Jerusalem to get out. Presumably, the answer would be that the idea was totally unthinkable — even under the most dire circumstances that they were — to RYBZ.

    2.) The “Palestinian” Talmud, thought to be edited somewhere near Cesaria, is of course known as the “Yerushalmi” — so much significance is placed on Jerusalem that we call anything from anywhere in the same country “Yerushalmi.”

    3.) Heard from R’ Herschel Shachter shlit”a a few years ago, when there was talk about negotiating Har HaBayis: when Herod expanded municipal Jerusalem during the late Second Temple period, many people who thought they knew better than the rabbis (“amei ha’aretz”) said “okay, this new neighborhood is called Jerusalem, so we can eat sacrifices here” when in fact, as it hadn’t been annexed to “religious” Jerusalem via a prophet, procession, etc., sacrifices couldn’t be eaten there. But the rabbis didn’t complain about calling these new neighborhoods “Jerusalem”, despite the sacrifice confusion, because they knew that a Jewish soldier would fight harder to defend “Jerusalem” than he would some no-name town.

    4.) Continuing on that theme: according to “nigla” sources, we take knives off the table for benching because of the fellow who stabbed himself while saying “uvneh yerushalayim …” after witnessing the fall of Beitar. But wait, I thought Beitar isn’t Yerushalayim! But it pulled at heartstrings and provided a rallying cry. (Historical indications that Beitar was sparked by the Romans’ indications that okay we could build another Temple, just, oops, it would have to be dedicated to Jupiter, also help explain that Gemara.)

    5.) Archaeological evidence supporting the same idea? Ever been to Gamla? They have a powerful presentation there about “Gamla fell from Jewish hands in the year 67 [according to Traitor Joe, er, um, I mean Josephus Flavius], and was taken back in 1967.” The lead archaeologist describes how he never understood why the people of Gamla fought so hard, to the bitter end, against the Romans; and then he found a coin they minted during that struggle — it said:
    “L’Tzion.”
    They knew where the Romans were headed next.
    “And at that point”, said the archaeologist, “I felt I had to apologize on behalf of the people of Gamla.”

    (Oops, is that a collective mea culpa?)

  • dr. william gewirtz

    Shalom, my point exactly – these are excellent sources but not strictly halakhic. Believe me I would never part with Jerusalem and the sources you cite (as well as our daily prayers) are indicative of the centrality of Jerusalem to our people for 3000 years. I suspect the best quasi – halakhic rationale, is the use of Chillul haShem in the halakhic process. See article by R. Charlop in techumin25 for a discussion of chillul haShem as a factor in the halakhic process. And I suspect that this attachement to Jerusalem goes well beyond the “Torah – community” narrowely defined.

    Ori, in a Teshuva Drasha in ’67 or ’68 at the 92nd street Y, the Rav ztl, acknowledging the presence of prof. Peli A’H (who would accurately report what he said), in reaction to comments by a particular Gadol, said that the government of Israel, is an assumed (mumchah) expert and were it to decide that the security of the people of Israel required that the Kotel be returned, that would be acceptable halakhically. One could easily argue that recent history and current Fatah/Hamas behavior makes all that moot, but that still does not change RYBS’s theoretical halakhic stance.

  • mb

    Thiece piece of journalistic excellence is somewhat wasted on this blog. No disrespect to the blogmasters but it is preaching to a beloved choir. This should be an op-ed piece (carefully edited) in left leaning journals such as the LA and NY Times.
    Rabbi Adlerstein, use your well deseved clout!

  • Calev

    Ori Pomerantz writes: Could Israel have done things better, for example by returning the West Bank to Jordan in the early eighties prior to the Intifada?

    That assumes that Jordan would have accepted the territory back! Why would it when it has had such a tough time keeping its own Palestinian-Arab population in check? Why would the Hashemite rulers risk their throne by accepting more of these aggressive, victimhood-wallowing people?

    Rather, the Arab strategy of throwing all the hot potatoes into Israel’s hands and then standing back and blaming Israel for its occasionally poor juggling is paying dividends.

    As harsh as it sounds, I think Israel would have done far better to push all the Arabs out of Judea and Samaria in 1967. I’m not suggesting that such a policy be considered today, only that an opportunity was missed.

  • Ori Pomerantz

    Calev, there was a window in 1987 where that appeared possible – see here. I’m not sure the Wikipedia article is accurate, but it does appear to conform with my personal memory (I was in 7th grade at the time).

    Once the Intifada started and the Palestinians learned how to fight against law and order, King Hussein changed his mind.