Sunday, 21 December 2014

I'm sorry, I haven't a clue

Please, thanks and sorry. Three simple words that formed the cornerstone of my earliest sentences. They were not superfluous extras, and if I did not mention one of them where appropriate, a reminder from my parents would swiftly follow.

All three words are admissions that you are in some way reliant on others in order to co-exist together. If you don’t apologise, it means you don’t need other people to carry on. If you don’t say please, you imply that others are there to serve you. If you don’t thank someone, you are failing to appreciate what you have. These three implications cut to the core of the most fundamental ethics of Jewish teaching; that of loving one’s fellow, treating people with respect and appreciating what one has.

I started thinking about this idea when I saw the Bayit Yehudi (National Home) Party’s new satirical promotional clip on Facebook. It features leader Naftali Bennett dressed up as a hipster, walking around Tel Aviv apologising for things he clearly hasn’t done. A waitress spills coffee over him, a car drives into his and a lady takes a bike he was about to take – and in all three cases, he apologises. After reading an article in the left-wing newspaper Ha’aretz entitled ‘Israel must apologise’, he reveals himself and announces that “from today, we stop apologising”.

Without entering into the political implications of this promotion, the satirising of an apology as weakness is a very dangerous step. In one of the Torah’s most dramatic moments, Yehuda, who had descended into a cycle of sin and depravity apologises for his actions, admitting he was wrong. God viewed this as a sign of strength, not weakness, and it is because of this episode that Yehuda was able to assume the mantle of Jewish leadership, and ultimately kingship, for all time.

Living and working in Israel, and specifically in the Religious Zionist community, my anecdotal perception is that people say please, thanks and sorry less in Israel than in Britain. This perception is compounded by the many times I have heard Israelis make fun of British people for being polite. Don’t worry, I have a sense of humour – but I don’t find this joke funny. I am proud to maintain my British manners of saying please, thanks and sorry even when my parents are in another country – and I won’t apologise for it.

I agree that people – and states – should not apologise for things they haven’t done wrong and should apologise for things they have. But even this basic level of nuance is not reflected in his ‘anti-apologist’ message. What starts as a political campaign could well reinforce societal norms. Israeli society on a day-to-day level needs people to start healing wounds with one another, and could do with its leadership promoting the notion of apologising when relevant.

It could be that Naftali Bennett has a point that the Bayit Yehudi, or more broadly Israel, needs to be less apologetic for its beliefs and actions. However with this strategy, he is playing around with one of the traits most crucial to maintaining Israel as a tolerant and inclusive society. It is time for those of us who have grown up with a culture of saying please, thanks and sorry to unashamedly bring these words, and associated concepts, to the discourse of Israeli society. If we can’t, well, I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue.

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