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

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.

And the holy day this year finds a surprisingly wide variety of opinions is in the air. More and more U.S. Jews every day are beginning to raise questions, criticize Israeli policies, and confess that far too many of those policies are both a strategic and a moral error. A growing number would even call it a sin.

We can expect to hear that kind of message even from some synagogue pulpits this year. Nearly 600 rabbis have joined the Rabbinic Cabinet of J Street, the nation’s most prominent Jewish pro-Israel, pro-peace group. The Cabinet is circulating a letter that acknowledges Israel’s “dangerous behavior,” cites the biblical injunction to “rebuke your kin,” and calls for the Israelis to make “difficult compromises and mutual sacrifice.” That’s a message hardly any rabbi would have dared endorse publicly just a few years ago. Now an impressively long and growing list of rabbis, including nine former presidents of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, have signed the letter.

In the same letter, the rabbis declare themselves “deeply committed to free and open dialogue about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” -- also something that would have been impossible a few years ago. If the Jewish dialogue is indeed free and open, the rabbis will hear some congregants tell them that even J Street does not go far enough in acknowledging the sins of Israeli policy.

In some of the pews, and even in a few pulpits, there will be new lines added this year to the traditional confessional, lines like these:

For the sin that we have committed by ignoring the suffering of Palestinians for so long

For the sin that we have committed by rejecting the Palestinian demand for self-determination

For the sin that we have committed by supporting a cruel military occupation

For the sin that we have committed by tolerating the expansion of West Bank settlements

For the sin that we have committed by approving the economic strangulation of Gaza

For the sin that we have committed by accepting our own government’s biased “special relationship” with Israel

For the sin that we have committed by lobbying for more U.S. military aid to Israel

For the sin that we have committed by ignoring even the most egregious Israeli abuses

For the sin that we have committed by remaining silent for so long in the face of injustice

For all these and more -- for the supposedly “pro-Israel” sins we have not yet recognized, but some day will -- oh God, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

The confession is supposed to bring a sense of spiritual cleansing as long as it triggers a sincere commitment to change one’s ways, to do the right thing in the coming year. I know plenty of Jews who have already expressed the need for such cleansing and made such a commitment when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict. This Yom Kippur I trust that they will spread the word and share their experience with their fellow congregation. In fact they must, because the confession is worded in the first person plural: “For the sin that we have committed.”

In this case, a collective guilt feeling is hardly pathological. In fact it’s totally realistic. It’s not just this or that individual Jew who has supported the Israeli oppression of Palestine. It has been a communal sin. Israel could not have sustained all these years of occupation without the political, diplomatic, and financial support of the worldwide Jewish community, especially the Jews of the United States. And Jews have based far too much of their group life on the foundation of a blind “support for Israel,” creating a monolithic bloc that has dominated U.S. government policy on the Middle East conflict. So it’s the whole community that must shift its attitude.

Which is why the spiritual cleansing -- the confession and commitment to change -- is also a profoundly political act. When American Jews publicly voice a more critical view of Israeli policies, the political effect ripples out around the world. Not only does it encourage other Jews to do the same, it also sends a message to gentile friends, relatives, co-workers, and neighbors that it’s now permissible to criticize Israel. (If you’re not Jewish, be sure to ask Jews you know about the change they see in their Jewish circles.)

The old monolithic consensus in the Jewish community had an immense chilling effect on gentiles; there was good reason to fear that even the mildest critique of Israeli policies would trigger charges of anti-semitism. A Jewish community engaged in free and open public debate, with even the most radical voices heard, will put an end to that chilling effect.

Once Americans of every persuasion feel free to voice their views on the Middle East freely, we can expect a slow but steady and sizeable shift in public opinion toward a genuinely even-handed U.S. policy. The mass media will gradually, even if grudgingly, follow suit. The old raucous right-wing views (from Christians as well as Jews) will still fill the air too, of course. But a diversity of opinion will eventually become the norm.

That will give the U.S. government a lot more room to maneuver in its diplomatic dealings with Israel. The Obama administration has clearly signaled its desire to put more pressure on Israel than its predecessors, especially in its early call for a halt to all settlement expansion on the West Bank. The administration quickly backed off from that demand, showing that the political times have not yet changed enough.

But Obama is still putting gentle pressure on Netanyahu to extend the moratorium, and at the latest round of talks U.S. envoy George Mitchell again called on Israel to take that step. The latest signal from Netanyahu is that the Israeli, not the U.S., leader is waffling, trying to find a compromise that might satisfy both the Americans and his own right-wing base. With the Pentagon now indicating that an Israeli-Palestinian peace is a vital U.S. national security interest, Obama has every reason to keep pushing the Israelis as hard as he can.

With a critical election coming up, though, he can push only as hard as domestic political conditions will allow. The more options the electorate gives him at home, the harder he can push. Of course the administration will still be somewhat limited by powerful pressure from the right. The policy shifts will be gradual and behind the scenes, at least at first. But that’s how all diplomacy works. So a publicly-voiced change of heart among U.S. Jews, opening the door to a wider debate among gentiles too, could have powerful political repercussions in Washington.

And the ripple effect would reach beyond our shores. Though Israeli Jews hate to admit it, they know deep down that they depend heavily on support from U.S. Jews and the U.S. government. Economic support isn’t as vital as it used to be. But military weaponry and, even more, diplomatic cover remain crucial. With the rest of the world increasingly questioning the very idea of a “Jewish state,” most Israelis see the U.S. as their last dependable ally. A changing American Jewish attitude would weaken the foundation of U.S. diplomatic support, which would throw Israel into deep anxiety, giving the U.S. more leverage to push the Israelis to make concessions.

The ripple would impact the Arab side of the conflict powerfully, too. In an extensive study of Palestinians and Israelis, asking what would really help to end the conflict, two social scientists found that it wasn’t so much tangible trade-offs as symbolic expressions of mutual acceptance and respect: “Palestinian hard-liners were more willing to consider recognizing the right of Israel to exist if the Israelis simply offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the 1948 war.”

Apology: repentance and atonement for sin. Not only Palestinians, but people around the world who support the Palestinian cause, would welcome such words of contrition, even if they came not from the Israeli government but from masses of Jews in the U.S. and around the world.

There’s a common view in most countries, with good reason, that Israel is a U.S.-sponsored outpost of American-style neocolonialism. A message of atonement from any sizeable portion of the Jewish community would begin to raise questions about that view, especially if it were accompanied by signals of change from the U.S. administration. That would go far to make the global political climate more amenable to constructive dialogue and eventually to peace.

So when U.S. Jews ask themselves and each other this Yom Kippur, “What sins? What are we called to atone for?”, the answers can have a profound impact that is both religious and political.

If this all seems too hopeful and naïve, perhaps it’s because I spent so many Yom Kippurs of my youth in synagogue, reciting not only those long confessionals but also the final prayer of the day, which says that even at the last moment God gives sinners a chance for what’s called in Hebrew “t’shuvah” -- repentance or, more literally, turning around and heading in the opposite direction. It’s no coincidence that Yom Kippur concludes the Jewish New Year season, the time of fresh hope and new beginnings, even when it seems impossible.

That’s hardly a distinctively Jewish idea, though. It’s the same kind of hope that spurred the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, the California farm workers, and so many other successful progressive movements. Most of them were able to go on fighting for justice, even when the world scorned them as naïve and gave up on their cause, because they were driven by a faith that was at once both spiritual and political. Who said religion and politics don’t mix?

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