Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word
If a Jewish Rip Van Winkle (Rip van Finkle?) were to awaken today and read the papers, he would wonder if he had ever really been asleep. Names that were in the headlines when he dozed off years ago — Peres, Olmert, Barak — are still in the headlines. Despite their many errors and miscalculations, they remain in power. Nothing has changed.
Not so in other countries. In England, politicians who make serious mistakes resign from office. In the US, if the mistake is really bad, they apologize and go into re-hab. In Japan, they commit harakiri.
We are not advocating the Japanese way of expressing regret, but the British have a long history of parliamentary government, and their example should be of some guidance. If you fail in government, you resign and go home. But when Israeli politicians fail, they blame not themselves but everyone else around them, and — unfailingly — they manage to cling to office. Ours is a tradition of non-accountability. Our leaders never admit mistakes. They never apologize.
Instead, they run for office again, get elected again, or get appointed to high office. Being an Israeli politician means never having to say you’re sorry.
Despite their major misjudgments and failures, neither Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert, or Ehud Barak has ever admitted an error, or apologized to the public for their mistakes, much less displayed any contrition. Each one is riding high today, either reaching for, or clinging to, that heady drug called power and influence.
And the Israeli public? It has become so accustomed to these shenanigans that it is no longer shocked or offended by the self-serving ambitions of their putative leaders. Inured to corruption in high places, the public shrugs its shoulders and continues chattering on its cell phones.
IN TRUTH, the Israeli tradition of non-accountability is not Jewish at all. On the contrary, apologies and regrets are an integral part of our tradition. Judaism offers the profound concept of Teshuva — atonement. We are always given the chance to repent and to ask forgiveness from God for our sins. But there is one condition. We have to specify the sin, and we have to state that we regret it. It is not enough simply to approach God and to mumble something about being sorry. In his monumental Laws of Repentance 1:1, Maimonides puts it very clearly: “The act of repentance requires one to confess sincerely and verbally before God…and say, I have sinned, transgressed, violated such-and-such a law; I regret it and am ashamed of my deeds, and will never again repeat them….”
AS A public service to some of our politicians, here are some custom-made samples of prepared confessions — all inspired by the great Maimonides:
Peres: “I ask forgiveness for the sin of Oslo. I sincerely thought that a new Middle East was upon us, but I was completely in error. Oslo was a disaster for us. The Arabs never wanted peace, they want only to eliminate us by any means — even by declaring peaceful intentions. I was too blinded to see this and I pushed hard for the Oslo agreements. This led to misery and to bloodshed, and I sincerely regret it. I am ashamed of my deeds and will never again repeat them. Nor will I ever again ask for the trust of public office.”
Olmert: “I ask forgiveness for the sins of Gaza and the sin of the Second Lebanon War. I agreed with Sharon that by forcing the Jewish citizens of Gaza out of their homes, Israel would win the sympathy of the world and would convince the Arabs of our peaceful intentions. I was wrong on all counts. We achieved no sympathy, we hurt almost 10,000 of our most idealistic Israelis, and we only convinced the Arabs that we were in retreat. I was too blinded to see all this, and it has led to bloodshed and misery for all of us. The current nightmare situation in Gaza — which has become a Hamas and al-Qaida stronghold that bombs Israel daily — is a direct result of my miscalculation. I am ashamed of what I did, and I will never again ask for the trust of public office.
“The same holds true for my sins in the Second Lebanon war. Winograd was right: I made terrible errors in judgment that cost us dearly. The same holds true for all the ethical questions swirling about my financial dealings. I regret all this and apologize as I return to private life.”
Barak: “I ask forgiveness for evacuating our soldiers from Lebanon when I was PM. I thought this would convince the world and the Arabs of our peaceful intentions. I was wrong on all counts. The Arabs want only our destruction, and their several intifadas prove this. I also ask forgiveness for trying to give most of the Old City to Arafat during the Wye talks. All we got in return was more killings and more intifada. I regret all this, and as an act of repentance I pledge never again to ask for the trust of public office.”
I AM happy, as a public service, to make these pre-printed texts available free of charge to any politician who requests them. Each politician can fill in the appropriate blanks as necessary. I’m also making available, again without charge, special training classes for politicians who have difficulty in articulating the following three words: “I-was-wrong.”
These classes will be available in Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, and English. A brief four-week course will train the palate, lips, tongue and mouth to form these words and to pronounce them whenever appropriate.
It is of course highly unlikely that those who need it most will take advantage of these offers. There is something in the gene pool of politicians that prevents them from ever admitting an error. This is because there is only one raison d’etre of a politician: to remain in office. Even when he has some ideals and some principles, these are all subservient to his one purpose in life: to retain power. Phrases like “I am sorry” and “I was wrong” are uttered only when they are calculated to help one remain in office.
What happens to a country when the really good people refuse to enter government, and when only political hacks choose to remain? For the answer, look at the Israeli political scene today. The sadness is that Israel is blessed with a talent pool of brilliant and creative people of integrity — most of whom are not in government. How to attract such people into government office to replace the self-aggrandizing retreads now leading us is one of the great challenges of Israeli society.
In the meantime, move over, Rip Van Winkle. It is time to join you in a siesta. If we are lucky, some new faces will be in place when we wake up.
Published in today’s Jerusalem Post.