The White House has released President Obama’s greeting to American Jews on the occasion of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year set to begin tonight at sundown. This greeting — extended to me, my family and the American Jewish community — comes at a time in which many Jews are collectively and individually reflecting upon those people we’ve wronged in the past year, and those apologies we need to extend.
This is one of the central tasks of Rosh Hashanah: to perform something called teshuvah (תשובה), which on an interpersonal level is the act of apologizing to those we have individually and communally wronged in the past year.
Obama’s greeting is appreciated as a nice gesture, as are his general wishes for reflection, which are wholly appropriate for the holiday. The problem is this: if there is one people President Obama, together with the larger American Jewish community, need to collectively extend an apology toward this holiday season, it is Palestinians. Unfortunately, Obama’s remarks, rather than offer such an expression, are actually an extension of our continued wronging of Palestinians, a wronging for which our government should apologize.
Allow me to explain. But first, Obama’s remarks:
Hello. As Jews across America, Israel, and the world gather together for the High Holidays, Michelle and I extend our warmest wishes to you and your families for a sweet and happy new year.
My good friend Elie Wiesel once said that God gave human beings a secret, and that secret was not how to begin but how to begin again. These days of awe are a chance to celebrate that gift, to give thanks for the secret, the miracle of renewal.
In synagogues and homes over the coming days, Jews will reflect on a year that carried its shares of challenges. We’ve been reminded many times that our world still needs repair. So here at home we continue the hard work of rebuilding our economy and restoring our American dream of opportunity for all. Around the world, we continue to stand for the dignity of every human being, and against the scourge of anti-Semitism, and we reaffirm the friendships and bonds that keep us strong, including our unshakeable alliance with the State of Israel.
So let’s approach this new year with new confidence and new hope. Let’s recommit ourselves to living out the values we share as individuals and as a country. Above all, let’s embrace this God-given miracle of renewal, this extraordinary opportunity to begin again in pursuit of justice, prosperity, and peace. From my family to yours, shanah tovah.
This summer, as innocent Palestinians were dying by the hundreds in Gaza at the hands of American-made bombs, Palestinians were dehumanized here in the U.S. as ‘human shields’ and blamed for their own deaths by ‘pro’-Israel organizations using Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s talking points. Unfortunately, Elie Weisel — who Obama counts as a good friend in his Rosh Hashanah greeting — was a profound participant in this via a New York Times ad published by a right-wing organization.
For this wrong of dehumanization, Palestinians deserve an apology.
This summer, during the difficult and painful violence which erupted in Gaza and Israel, the Obama administration repeatedly affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas’ crude missiles, providing Israel with an important missile defense system for which I — and those friends of mine living in Israel — are grateful. However, not once did our government affirm Palestinians’ right to defend themselves from Israel’s assault, largely financed by the U.S. Not once, even as the innocent victims mounted, did the White House grant Palestinians the equal right to live free of Israeli strikes.
For this wrong of abandonment, Palestinians deserve an apology.
This past year, as Israel built settlements at a record pace, appropriated the largest block of Palestinian land in thirty years, and made pronouncements that it would never give up the West Bank, the Obama administration did nothing but offer a predictable word or two of being disappointed in Israel’s actions, mirroring the institutional Jewish community’s general silence in America. Far from “for the dignity of every human being,” America continued to allow Palestinians’ dignity, and rights, to be denied by the ongoing occupation.
For the practical ignoring of their basic human rights, Palestinians deserve an apology.
Now, I can already hear the immediate response echoing from some in America, and in the American Jewish community: why don’t Palestinians apologize? My response: 1) Would we demand, in any other reconciliation context, that victims of oppression apologize as a prerequisite for such reconciliation? 2) This is a matter with which Palestinians — an oppressed and brutally victimized people — must wrestle. 3) Such a question is meant as a deflection.
I appreciate Obama’s desire to reach out to the Jewish community on Rosh Hashanah. However, many American Jews over the next twenty-four hours will be reflecting on this “year that carried its shares of challenges.” We will be reflecting on what transpired this summer in Gaza and Israel, what continues to transpire in the occupied territories, and how the American Jewish community at large, and our actions as individuals, have contributed to the wronging of Palestinians.
Such a reflective message by Obama would be welcomed by many Jews this holiday season, rather than one that underlies those wrongs we’ve collectively made.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.