Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has apologized to Arab Israelis for his fear-mongering statement on Election Day last week. That should be the end of it, right?
Not so fast!
Let’s recall: as voting was proceeding, Netanyahu posted a video saying. “The rule of the right is in danger, Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”
Six days later, Netanyahu offered the following: “I know the things I said several days ago offended some of Israel’s citizens, hurt the Arab citizens. This was never my intent. I apologize for this.”
The politics of apologies is a complex subject that has become much-studied in recent years as leaders and nations have issued a growing number of such statements to atone for historical sins or for their own shortcomings.
We’ve seen apologies for slavery, colonialism, the Holocaust and other genocides, racism, environmental crimes, the oppression of women and gay people, the sexual abuse of minors, the treatment of aboriginal peoples – you name it.
Moreover there is a rich theology in many religions including of course Judaism that examines the need, value and quality of individual and collective apology and repentance.
There’s even a website, which, in the words of one of its founders, Marjorie Ingall, applauds good apologies and analyzes what makes them good and examines poor apologies and explains what makes them bad. Cyclist Lance Armstrong and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are among those sharing the prize for truly poor recent apologies.
Poor apologies have a lot in common. They tend to be evasive and insincere and they don’t take responsibility. Very often, the person apologizing uses catchphrases like “I’m sorry if …” or “I’m sorry but …” Other common characteristics of poor apologies are use of the passive voice, as in “Mistakes were made.” Then there’s the ultimate get out of jail free card – “My words were misconstrued.”
In Judaism, Maimonides said that true repentance requires four elements: humility, remorse, forbearance and reparation.
The apologizer must name and accept his (or her) offense, directly and without qualifiers. He must acknowledge the impact of the offense in a way that is open and not defensive and express sincere remorse. The party apologizing should then listen to the words of the wronged party and acknowledge them. Lastly there should be reparations to address and if possible correct the harm that was done.
This last point is crucial, for the Talmud teaches that for wrongs against our fellow human beings, even repentance on the holy and solemn Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, cannot grant us atonement until the wronged party is appeased.
The Orthodox Union, in a guide to what makes a sincere apology, states: “When you come across as sincere, contrite, and validating, not making any excuses for your behavior, your apology will be received as heartfelt. If you follow it with action, you’ll restore your relationship to its former state.”
So, judged by these criteria, how did Netanyahu do?
He gets some points for not using the words, “I’m sorry if….” Rather, he said in effect, “I know I hurt you and for that I’m sorry.” He also avoided the “mistakes were made” formula and used the active voice.
But Netanyahu did fall back on the other classic excuse – My words were misconstrued.
To say that one’s words were misconstrued is really to say that the person giving the apology was not at fault at all. In fact, it could be argued that he’s actually the injured party since his perfectly harmless words were taken out of context or willfully misinterpreted. At worst, his sin consisted of a poor choice of words. Since Netanyahu prides himself as being as one of the world’s most brilliant users of words, this is a little hard to accept.
Where Netanyahu’s apology really falls short is on restitution or reparation. We can’t rerun the election. He will reap the benefit of his race-baiting for the entire duration of his next term as Prime Minister. Neither did Netanyahu make any pledge never to use such tactics again.
Instead, he argued that he had been a wonderful Prime Minister for Israeli Arabs, investing heavily in their communities.
Israeli Arab leaders of course saw things differently, focusing on proposed legislation likely to be advanced by Netanyahu’s next government to define Israel as an exclusively instead of merely predominantly Jewish state, further marginalizing its Arab minority.
Bottom line: Netanyahu’s apology did not pass the smell test. The only sin he admitted to was a poor choice of words. The whole world knows that he used exactly the words he intended to use – and that they had the effect they were intended to have.
Now he’s sorry? With respect and regret, I’m not buying it.
Alan Elsner is vice president of communications for J Street.