Friday, September 9, 2022 – י״ג אֱלוּל תשפ״ב
He said all the right things – a truly heartfelt apology and acceptance of responsibility for what happened. However, those whose lives were changed forever on that bloody day a jubilee of years ago were not so quick to forgive.
“We cannot make up for what has happened, not even for what you have experienced and suffered in terms of defensiveness, ignorance, and injustice. I am ashamed of that,” said German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
As President Steinmeier stood next to Israeli President Herzog at a commemoration ceremony for the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, he took full responsibility:
“As Head of State of this country and in the name of the Federal Republic of Germany, I ask your forgiveness for the inadequate protection afforded to the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games at Munich and the woeful investigation afterward, that it was possible for what happened to happen.”
Thank you. Was this too little and too late?
Against this background, one can’t help but ask the question of why German security forces did not allow the Israelis to intervene, why they weren’t prepared for such an attack, and why there was no retribution for the Palestinian people to exact justice (other than that carried out by the Mossad, featured in the Steven Spielberg film “Munich”)?
One can wonder whether these words have any meaning today in German society, or whether, and this is more likely, they are simply those that are appropriate to say in this place and at this time (BaMakom Hazeh U’B’zman hazeh?)
This raises several questions on the central theme of this month of Elul, for the Jewish people – Teshuvah (repentance).
While Germany has gone above and beyond to reconcile its past and to make amends for the greatest crime in modern history perpetrated by the Nazi regime against the Jewish people, repentance for how it botched the Munich massacre has come too little and too late. It took nearly five decades for the International Olympics Committee to acknowledge the massacre, and that came only when it was forced to make some kind of gesture at the 2021 Tokyo games.
During this month of Elul, we Jews have heightened awareness of taking responsibility and seeking forgiveness for wrongs we have committed and people we have harmed. But what is Teshuvah really all about? Is it simply a perfunctory formulaic iteration that has us, at the very least, saying what we think needs to be said whether we mean it or not?
Sometimes those difficult-to-utter words “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong” are what the other party/person needs to hear, and sometimes it is not enough. Is that real Teshuvah and does saying those perfunctory words fulfilling our obligation to seek forgiveness and absolve ourselves of our actions? While I am not doubting the sincerity of President Steinmeier’s remarks, I want to raise the question for the purpose of our own teshuva process.
Less than one year ago, President Yitzhak Herzog attended a very different commemoration. That time it was his turn to ask forgiveness. Standing before an audience of residents of the Palestinian Arab town of Kafr Kassem, President Herzog sought reconciliation with its citizens by acknowledging the tragic story that unfolded there, a stain on Israel’s history. He appeared there for the annual memorial ceremony for the 48 victims of Kafr Kassem killed by Israeli Jewish Border Police officers in 1956. The 48 Arab workers were unaware that an imposed curfew by the Israeli military had gone into effect four hours earlier. As they came home from the fields where they had been working, Israel’s border police were ordered to open fire on them for having broken the curfew. All were killed. This year, classified documents and reports of the event were unearthed for the world to see, and Herzog’s presence was an important step to acknowledge blame and ask forgiveness for the State of Israel.
In asking for forgiveness, Herzog said: “I extend a supportive and embracing hand to you, and I pray from the depths of my heart that the merciful and compassionate God will be by your side.”
Invoking an important lesson in sensitive diplomacy, Herzog continued:
“History shows us that a country’s strength is judged also by its ability to look directly at events in its past. … But, my brothers and sisters, the past, difficult as it may be, is the most important engine for our present and future here in the State of Israel. The deep wound that opened up here, in this place 65 years ago, is a wound for the whole of Israeli society – Jews and Arabs alike. Since that terrible tragedy, the prohibition on manifestly illegal orders has been engraved in stone.”
Herzog, of course, was trying to explain that this incident caused a tidal wave against certain military protocols and procedures, and considerably altered the rules for obeying and carrying out orders in the IDF. What I don’t know is how the Kafr Kassem residents and the descendants of those who perished in that tragedy felt about President Herzog’s presence and words. Was he comforting? Did he do justly? Obviously, neither the 48 Kafr Kassem residents nor the 11 Israeli athletes can be brought back to life, and no amount of reparations can compensate for their loss and the suffering of their surviving family members.
When we approach another to apologize and take responsibility for what we have done and ask forgiveness from the injured party, do we really see them and internalize their pain? More than victims hearing words – which is important – they have a need to feel seen and validated. Asking for forgiveness must come with an understanding that we see and feel the pain that we caused and that we see Others for who they are, as equal human beings created in the Divine image.
This is essentially the underlying message that every life taken matters. We Jews needed to hear from the German President that the lives of those 11 Jewish Israeli athletes mattered and that it was the German government’s responsibility to protect them and provide security before Black September terrorists kidnapped them – even without the pregnant memory from the period of the Holocaust that Jews were thought to be sub-human.
We needed to hear that our lives, that Jewish lives matter also.
The Palestinians also needed to hear from us that the lives of their loved ones mattered and that we take responsibility for having taken their innocent lives, and that we see them and thereby validate their essential human dignity as was conveyed by Herzog’s heartfelt apology.
Many have wrestled with this question of how to adequately achieve a sense of repentance, and as we embark on our own personal process of repentance and reconciliation, let this be our challenge.
As the German President stood before a crowd at a ceremony, or the Israeli President courageously went to make amends in a Palestinian-Israeli village, did they feel remorse, sorrow, and anguish for the pain their people caused so long ago? How do we experience through empathy the pains, trepidations, and vulnerabilities of others who we may have wronged?
How can we be certain that they empathize with our deepest fears and vulnerabilities? When we commemorate a half-century since the Munich massacre, it raises questions for us Jews. Are we alone in the world? When we are threatened, will others come to our aid? Do we have only ourselves to rely upon? Yes, we have strong relationships and meaningful alliances, but at the end of the day, we worry whether those too shall pass.
How do we regard neighbors and Palestinian citizens of Israel not as enemies trying to infiltrate our cities and communities seeking our destruction, but rather as human beings deserving of respect and dignity because their lives have value? This matter of doing Teshuvah is of great importance because of the rising rhetoric and hostility towards the Arab community in Israel, and the increasing hostility toward the right to a Jewish State in many circles of the international community.
That is our Jewish, Zionist, and human challenge this year. May it be the will of the Holy One to open our eyes and ears so that we see and hear the plight and story of the Other. And may they come to see us and understand our anxieties, fears, hopes, and desires. Only then will true peace be possible.