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This Yom Kippur, We Must Atone for the Sins of Israeli Policy

Israel could not have sustained all these years of occupation without the political, diplomatic, and financial support of much of the worldwide Jewish community.

On this Yom Kippur, as always, millions of Jews will observe their most solemn day of the year by fasting. Why? “No food. You know, we have to atone for our sins.” That’s how Woody Allen’s stereotypically Jewish father explains it in the classic film, Annie Hall. But Annie’s ultra-WASP mother is still baffled. “What sins?” she asks. “I don't understand.” “Tell you the truth,” Woody’s dad admits “neither do we.”

This year plenty of Jews will feel the same confusion, wondering exactly what sins their community should be atoning for. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are now underway; Israel faces an imminent deadline for extending the moratorium on settlement expansion. That raises troubling questions about Israel’s guilt and the Jewish people’s guilt for perpetuating the conflict. Here in the U.S., at least, more Jews than you might think will feel that they and their people have a lot to atone for.

There has always been something confusing about Yom Kippur. A centerpiece of the worship service is a ritual confession that the whole congregation recites, admitting their guilt for a very long list of sins -- a list so long that it’s virtually impossible for anyone to commit all of them in a single year. So every Jew is supposed to repent for a whole bunch of sins that they’ve never done and would never even think of doing. I once showed the Yom Kippur prayer book to a psychotherapist, who promptly pronounced it a pathological outpouring of fantasied guilt.

On the other hand, most rabbis are quick to explain that there’s a healthy logic to it: The confession is in the first person plural -- “For the sins that we have committed” -- to emphasize the Jewish value of communal solidarity and mutual responsibility, the idea that everyone is responsible to everyone else for the moral status of the whole society. It should be easy enough to see the implication: All Jews are responsible for the actions Israel takes (or, in the case of settlements and peace talks, perhaps doesn’t take) in their name.

Until a very few years ago, though, Israel’s policies triggered virtually no guilt in synagogues across the U.S. It was all too easy to assume that communal solidarity and mutual responsibility meant supporting the Israeli government, no matter what it did, and standing firm against any Palestinian demands for self-determination. Now the climate of American Jewish opinion is rapidly changing, complicating that crucial question: “What sins? Precisely what should we, as a community, feel guilty and atone for?”

Yes, there are still far too many Jews who see Israel as totally blameless. And that old guard is still very, very loud. So from outside the Jewish community it can be hard to perceive any meaningful change -- especially hard for progressives who’ve rightfully been demanding a radical change in Israeli policies and Jewish attitudes for years. By the moral standards of genuine freedom and justice, the Jewish state still deserves the condemnation that it receives daily from progressives.

From inside the community, though, the change looks dramatic. Most Jews now endorse a Palestinian state -- even Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, once the darling of the hard-core Jewish right. Though he’s dragging his feet and digging in his heels to slow down the process as much as he can, he’s at least going through the motions of negotiating for Palestinian independence. But the future of the peace process is hardly up to Netanyahu alone. He’s just one player among many in the process -- including the several million U.S. Jews observing Yom Kippur.

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