Talk of “apology” and “forgiveness” is all around us today, from the international diplomatic front, where Turkey and Egypt have insisted on Israeli apologies for recent actions, to the personal and communal level, where our thoughts turn to the approaching High Holy Days and the central theme of atoning for our sins.
We are taught to seek forgiveness when we have done wrong, but is it appropriate to apologize for an act that we believe merits no admission of guilt?
That’s not a hypothetical question, or just a personal one. It is being discussed and debated in international capitals today, particularly in Jerusalem.
The status of Israel’s vital relationship with Turkey, a rare Muslim ally that has turned increasingly hostile toward the Zionist state in recent days, appears to hinge on whether Israel will issue a public apology for its role in its May 2010 raid on a Turkish-supported flotilla seeking to break the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Nine activists were killed in the violent struggle, as you’ll recall, and Turkey seized on the incident to sever its relationship with Israel, recalling its ambassador and canceling joint military exercises. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to the incident as a “bloody massacre” and “state terrorism,” and called for an immediate United Nations Security Council meeting, demanding compensation and an Israeli apology.
While the Israeli government values its political and trade relationship with Turkey, it has insisted that it acted within its legal rights in maintaining the blockade and that its soldiers were defending themselves against violent attack. Jerusalem did not want to appear weak by backing down; it offered various forms of apology, but none were considered sufficient by the Turkish government, and relations between the two countries are at a low point.
Remarkably, though the UN’s record of outright bias toward Israel is all too well documented, the UN commission that studied the incident issued a report two weeks ago that upheld Israel’s legal claim regarding the Gaza blockade and described the so-called “humanitarian” flotilla as suspect in its intentions and “reckless” in its actions. It also acknowledged that the Israel Defense Forces soldiers acted in self-defense after being met by “organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers.”
The IDF’s actions, though, were deemed “excessive,” resulting in the loss of life.
Israel accepted the report, including the suggestion that it offer Turkey a statement of “regret,” which in diplomatic terms is short of a full apology. But Turkey rejected the findings, expelled Israel’s ambassador and is still holding out for a full apology. Clearly Erdogan, visiting Egypt, Libya and Tunisia this week, was looking for an excuse to distance himself further from Israel.
The United States has been pressuring Israel to apologize to Turkey in the hopes of improving the diplomatic atmosphere. Some Israeli officials, disturbed by the growing diplomatic isolation of their country, say that Jerusalem’s relationship with Turkey warrants swallowing some pride and apologizing. But the government has resisted, insisting it is the wrong signal to convey at a time when the Zionist state must project strength.
The compelling case being made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is that an apology would not be enough to restore good relations with Turkey, whose leader increasingly is seeking to align himself with Israel’s enemies, including Iran and Hamas, and who insists that Israel end its blockade of Gaza.
Moreover, an apology would undercut the blockade, give legitimacy to Turkey’s behavior and prompt bolder efforts to delegitimize Israel, including bringing legal cases against its political and military leaders in international courts.
On the Egyptian front, Cairo has demanded an apology from Israel for the IDF killing of three Egyptian soldiers, unintentionally, while in pursuit of the perpetrators of a terrorist act that left eight Israelis dead.
Perhaps that demand will be withdrawn, or at least downgraded, now, in light of the crowd attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo this past weekend, which could have resulted in tragedy for Israeli staffers had it not been for the swift diplomatic intervention of the U.S. and the response of the embarrassed Egyptian military leadership.
In any conflict, whether it is national or personal in nature, resolution comes when both sides want a positive outcome and are willing to hear and acknowledge the other’s argument. But Judaism does not teach us to turn the other cheek, like Christianity does.
While it is a Christian ideal to love and forgive the sinner, Judaism teaches, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” And in our prayers we ask God to show no mercy toward those who would do us harm.
Even on Yom Kippur, the holiest and most solemn day on the Jewish calendar, when we repeatedly ask God for forgiveness for our sins, we also pray: “Our Father, our King, avenge, before our eyes, the spilled blood of your servants.”
There are limits, then, to compassion, Judaism reminds us. Suicide, for an individual or nation, is forbidden. As King Solomon noted in Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for war and a time for peace.”
We pray for peace, and do all we can to achieve it — short of weakening our core beliefs, mission or future. But there are times, like now, when Israel must say to those who make excessive demands, “enough,” not out of stubbornness or pride but self-respect — and self-preservation.