It’s not easy to say I’m sorry

First published in the Jerusalem Post, August 8, 2011

by Rabbi Barry Leff

Why should Israel apologize to Turkey over the Mavi Marmara incident? After all, the forthcoming report from the UN’s Palmer Commission is widely expected to say Israel’s blockade of Gaza is legal under international law, and that the Turkish government’s involvement with the flotilla was inappropriate.

Shouldn’t we insist that Turkey apologize to us? There are several reasons why we should apologize nonetheless.

First of all, the Palmer report is also widely expected to be critical of the IDF’s behavior, claiming it acted too soon. While an internal Israeli military investigation said the deaths of the nine people on board the Mavi Marmara were justified, it also said the operation was “plagued by errors of planning, intelligence and coordination.” It would appear likely that if the operation had been better planned, loss of life could have been reduced or eliminated.

Any unnecessary loss of life should be reason enough to apologize.

FROM THE perspective of Jewish tradition, our responsibility to apologize – and more, to seek forgiveness – is not dependent on whether the other party apologizes. We are responsible for our actions, whether or not someone we wronged takes responsibility for the wrongs they inflicted on us.

Furthermore, we should apologize because it will further the cause of peaceful relations with our neighbors.

The Marmara incident has severely damaged relations with Turkey, once a key ally. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has said “Normalization of relations between the two countries is unthinkable unless Israel apologizes for this illegal act…” Some might say it would be wrong to apologize if the apology is not 100% sincere: after all, the Torah cautions us to “stay far from a false matter.” Wouldn’t it be a “false matter” to apologize if we believe we are the ones who were wronged? Fortunately, God Himself seems to approve of the need to fudge the truth a little bit sometimes in the interests of diplomacy. For the sake of shalom bayit, domestic peace, God did not reveal to Abraham exactly what Sarah said when she was told she would become pregnant.

For the people of a religion that places a huge premium on peace – we greet each other with “peace,” we pray for peace three times a day, one of God’s names is peace – we certainly seem to be struggling to achieve that desired state.

And in our pursuit of peace, we need Turkey more than Turkey needs us.

ONCE UPON a time, Turkey did serve as a bridge between Israel and the Islamic world. It is not only a fact of geography that Turkey straddles both Europe and Asia, but it’s also an aspectof its national identity. Even though Turkey’s bid for membership in the EU seems to be stalled for the moment, the fact that this Muslim nation is a serious candidate speaks volumes about its potential to be a bridge between East and West. Israel needs all the friends in the Islamic world that it can get.

Whether it is between friends or family members, or a matter of relations between nations, being the first to apologize is difficult. It is not easy to apologize when you feel you have been wronged. That is a reason so many family feuds go on for years. “Me, apologize? No way! He (or she) needs to apologize first!” It is both proper for Israel to take responsibility for its actions, regardless of what others do, and in our enlightened self-interest. Acting wisely in this instance will further our national interests much more than displaying righteous indignation, no matter how justified.

The writer is a business executive and rabbi. He serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors of Rabbis for Human Rights. Opinions expressed here are his own.


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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