The liberating responsibility of atonement

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Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year because it is the day that the Torah sets aside for us to reckon with ourselves. We are commanded to give an accounting – before our fellow men and before God – for our actions in the previous year. We must make amends to both for our misdeeds. And since none of us is perfect, every one of us has things to atone for.

Yom Kippur’s power stems from a basic assumption that forms its core. That assumption is that we are all moral agents. We all have to make an accounting.


This basic assumption is the most liberating notion ever created. Moral agency is what makes us free. It doesn’t matter how wretched or rich our external circumstances, the fact that the Torah enjoins all of us to take responsibility for our behavior means that as far as God is concerned, we are not slaves and never will be slaves.


The converse is also true.


We are only free for as long as we are capable of accounting for our actions. This means that preserving our ability to properly judge ourselves is the key to preserving our liberty.


This is true not only for the Jewish people as individuals. It is true as well for the Jewish state, Israel.


The question then is how do we do that? As far as Israel is concerned, the answer to this question has become one of increasing urgency over the past generation or so.


Over the past couple of decades, we have seen the world – and more importantly our own elites in Israel – rushing to judge our society and find it lacking seemingly on a daily basis.


Our journalists, professors, judges and generals routinely tell us what is wrong with our society. And each year, their harangues become shriller and angrier.


Indeed it is becoming hard to avoid the conclusion that for our elites, Israeli society is morally irredeemable.


Consider the behavior of our generals in the IDF. Sunday night, after the terrorist attack in Jerusalem, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot spoke at a memorial ceremony for the armored corps. There he restated for the umpteenth time in recent months that the key to defeating terrorism is maintaining the IDF’s values.


Eisenkot and his fellow generals never seem to tire of talking about the IDF’s values and of insisting the IDF is the most moral fighting force on earth.


The problem is that the more they make these statements the more they alienate the public.


It isn’t that the public doesn’t view the IDF as the most moral fighting force on earth. It does. And it also believes that IDF soldiers live in accordance with the IDF’s values – which are also the values of Israeli society.


The problem is that the public doesn’t think that Eisenkot and his generals share its faith in the goodness of the army they command.


For the past seven months, every time that Eisenkot and his generals have invoked the IDF’s values and morality, the only thing that anyone has ever heard is a rebuke of Sgt. Elor Azaria, who is standing trial for manslaughter for killing a wounded terrorist in Hebron, after the terrorist had stabbed another soldier.


The Azaria prosecution was by far the most significant national event of the past year. It exposed the wide and expanding gap between our elites – who rushed to condemn the combat soldier – and the public which gave him the benefit of the doubt.


Based on a video of the incident taken by an employee of the anti-Zionist, foreign government-funded B’tselem organization, the IDF General Staff, the media and Israel’s various and sundry leftist luminaries rushed to condemn Azaria. The decorated combat soldier was filmed handcuffed, being loaded into a military police squad car and removed from the scene.


In the months that have passed since his trial for manslaughter began, the public has learned extensive details about what happened on the ground the day of the incident and since. These details easily lend to the conclusion that Azaria was railroaded by senior commanders who had uncritically accepted the veracity of the B’tselem video.


In other words, the public has learned that whereas the generals denied Azaria the benefit of the doubt, our military brass gave their full faith to a film produced by an organization that has been falsely accusing the IDF and Israeli society as a whole of criminal behavior for nearly 30 years.


Once the public discovered the nature of their behavior, it naturally followed that the more Eisenkot and his comrades speak of the IDF’s values, the less they are trusted.


It didn’t use to be this way. Time was that the IDF’s commanders said next to nothing about the IDF’s morality and its values. They simply assumed them.


They trusted their soldiers and officers. And their soldiers and officers, and the public as a whole, trusted them right back.


There is no doubt that past practices were sometimes excessive. Sometimes soldiers and officers didn’t deserve the trust they received. And actions that should have been disciplined were wrongly swept under the rug.


But our military leaders have gone overboard in their rejection of the old ways. It is possible to give soldiers and officers the benefit of the doubt without giving them a pass. It is possible to accept the basic idea that they are innocent until proven guilty and treat them as innocent so long as they haven’t been proven guilty.


Doing so does not impair our ability to correct and punish bad behavior, it facilitates it.


Eisenkot and his generals appear shaken by the loss of trust they have suffered for their faithlessness to Azaria.


The same cannot be said for our legal elites in the courts and state prosecution.


Consider the legal context in which Sunday’s attack took place.


The terrorist who killed two innocent Israelis was a convicted felon. This past May he was convicted for assaulting a policeman and sentenced to prison.


But then the magistrate’s court judge Hagit Mack-Kalmanovich decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. First, she sentenced the offender to a measly four months in prison for the crime of punching an officer and threatening to kill him.


Then Kalmanovich agreed to his request to delay the start of his imprisonment for five months. He was supposed to enter prison Sunday.


Kalmanovich’s decisions were all the more startling given that this wasn’t the terrorist’s first conviction.


He assaulted the policeman shortly after he was paroled from a one-year prison term for inciting terrorism on Facebook.


MK Yehuda Glick, the human rights activist who survived an assassination attempt in 2014 when a paroled terrorist tried to kill him for championing the right of Jews to pray on the Temple Mount, blasted Kalmanovich in a Facebook post on Monday.


It works out that the same judge who gave the repeat terrorist offender a light sentence and then allowed him to remain free for five months, decided to ban Glick from the Temple Mount based on no evidence of wrongdoing on his part just 10 days before he was shot in the stomach and nearly killed.


Kalmanovich, Glick intimated, falsely found him guilty of endangering the public because she didn’t like his championing of Jewish rights. By siding with terrorists and their supporters against Glick, she legitimized the false claims the Palestinian leadership issued against him at the time. Those claims, that Glick was endangering the Temple Mount, surfaced days before Glick was attacked. They incited his assailant to shoot him.


In other words, Kalmanovich refused to see the good in Glick, and so she misjudged him. And she refused to see the evil in the terrorist she allowed to walk free, and so enabled him to kill innocents.


In both cases, she failed to judge well because she was unable to see either good in a Jew or bad in a terrorist.


The Jewish people and the Jewish state face extraordinary challenges today. Luckily, we can handle all of them. But to do so, we need to be capable of judging ourselves fairly – of loving what is good in us even as we work to correct what is bad.


This is how we will secure our future and this is how we will remain forever free.


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post. 

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