When an apology doesn’t mean ‘I’m sorry’

Many, many years ago, my oldest daughter did something that the rest of us considered wrong. She was asked to apologize and she did. Her exact words were “Fine, sorry.”

Though she remembers her apology as sincere, I guess the rest of us didn’t see it that way and forever onwards, the term, “fine, sorry” has been bantered around our house with the implication that the deliverer was not sincere and was only going through the motions because it was required.

An apology isn’t really an apology when it is delivered more to silence the critic than admit any wrong doing. And yes, the value of an apology has a direct connection to the sincerely with which it is delivered. There has to be an awareness of what was wrong in the first place and the intention to do one’s best to avoid the same action in the future. To truly elevate the apology to the level worthy of forgiveness, it is also best to do as much as possible to mitigate the damage caused.

As I read a recent apology made over a trip that a portion of Harvard’s Jewish students made to the grave of Yasir Arafat in Ramallah, I could hear the, “fine, sorry” tone shouting through each word. The apology is too little, too late, too insincere and suggests no attempt will be made to undo the damage and the hurt caused by this insensitive and ill-advised (read here incredibly stupid) trip.

What bothers me about the apology was the need to attack first and only then say, “yeah, oops, it was a bad idea.” But even in that oops, there is criticism. How dare we accuse them of not supporting Israel? Why do you people think they were honoring Arafat?

Wait…they went to Arafat’s grave! They felt it important enough to smile and pose so they could show everyone when they got back.

Hello??? Come on, I want to shout at them. You know, if you visit the grave of someone who murdered hundreds of Israelis, we have a right to wonder.

What the Harvard students (and the head of the charity who sponsored the trip) fail to understand is to many of us here in Israel, right and left, blogger and baker alike, the visit shows the growing chasm between Israeli Jews and American Jews. More, it shows the depth of ignorance that even supposedly intelligent people can display when they fail to put in the effort to learn before inserting their proverbial feet into their mouths.

Why did they think it appropriate to pay homage to Yasir Arafat? That is the question they should be asking rather than attacking us and saying the visit wasn’t what it clearly was. How can you deny that visiting a grave is indeed giving honor to the deceased? Why else do you go to a grave, if not for that reason?

To adequately counter what was done – heads should, figuratively speaking, roll. What idiot thought that visiting Arafat’s grave would help give these students a deeper understanding of the conflict in the Middle East?

There are few things over which Israel as a nation is almost completely united. With the exception of Shulamit Aloni and those who adhere to her misguided and delusional politics, Israelis for the most part remember Arafat for the killer and terrorist he was. The list of attacks he planned and implemented defines who he was and what he did.

And worse, perhaps, than the visit, was the reaction immediately following it. The knee-jerk reaction was to blame Israelis – and Israeli bloggers for misinterpreting the visit. Pardon us here in Israel, but how did going there help these students understand anything beyond what a good search on Google wouldn’t give them?

Here, allow me to assist you.

Yasir Arafat was born in 1929 in Cairo – that’s right. He wasn’t born in Israel (or Palestine as it was called them). Did anyone tell this group that? Yup, the chief terrorist of the Palestinian people…wasn’t even born here.

In 1964, three years BEFORE the so-called “occupation,” he founded an organization called the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), whose professed goal was to liberate Palestine from the occupiers. I’d like to remind these Harvard students that there was no occupation in 1964, or 1965, or 1966, Not even for the first half of 1967 (at least).

After that date, according to quite a large number of Israelis (like me) and experts on international law, there was no occupation following the 1967 war because what was won was historically ours in the first place and more, was the direct result of a war they initiated. So, they lost – we didn’t occupy…they chose war – again and again and again! So, if the occupation, according to Arafat began in 1967 and that’s all the Palestinians want today, why was the organization started in 1964? I never do get an answer to that question…

The fact is, Arafat wanted everything that lies in between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River and to make this crystal clear to these Harvard students, that includes Tel Aviv, Haifa, all of Jerusalem and everything else you saw beyond your visit to Ramallah.

Then…and now, this remains the goal of the Palestinians. Then and now. And that position — from the river to the sea — is what that visit to Arafat’s grave was about. You gave the concept of wiping Israel off the face of the map credibility by visiting one of the chief architects of that plan.

Arafat was not a general of an army who fought against an invading army, but a miserable, slimy terrorist who attacked the weakest among us. Again and again. Oh, he was happy to kill a soldier, but soldiers were armed and ready and so Arafat, sniveling coward that he was, so much preferred our “softer” targets — babies, teenagers, elderly, pregnant women – no one was exempt. This is what you honored.

I could write of Maalot – when Arafat’s terrorists murdered 21 children; of Munich when Arafat’s missionaries of death murdered 11 athletes. I could write of the massacre of 21 Israelis on a coastal highway; of Leon Klinghoffer, the crippled American Jew murdered on the Achille Lauro. I could write for hours and still not fully explain the evil of that decrepit man. The planner, the murderer, the terrorist – all this was buried in that grave where these students went.

What those students and the picture of them smiling and posing by his grave did reminds me of an incident that happened about 10 years ago in Poland. I had gone with my older daughter to Poland and a contingency of high school girls from around Israel. As I stood near the gates of Auschwitz waiting for our group to assemble and begin seeing the concentration camp where millions perished, I watched as some South Korean tourists approached some of our Israeli girls — the ones holding Israeli flags. Wouldn’t it be cool to get a picture with those pretty girls and the Israeli flag, the Koreans must have thought and so they asked the girls to pose for pictures.

The girls stood there smiling as two Koren men stood near them and a third took their picture before switching places so that the photographer could have his picture taken too.

Standing on the side with my daughter watching this, I knew it was wrong and I could imagine those men going back to Korea and showing off pictures of their tour and the beautiful, smiling Israeli girls. I didn’t want to embarrass the Koreans, so I quietly said to the girls in Hebrew. “Did you forget where you are? You are in Auschwitz. This isn’t the place to pose for pictures. Do you want them to have pictures of smiling Israelis here in Auschwitz?”

The girls looked around them and realized how inappropriate it was, Auschwitz is a place of death not smiles; Arafat’s grave is the place of a killer not a place for Jewish students to pose.

If that group of Harvard Jewish students had asked me, I would have said something similar to them. Look where you are, or where they are taking you. How can you be there? Do you want this picture posted on Facebook? Apparently, their education was so lacking…they did.

To be clear — it is their right to go to Ramallah. But if they do, they have to accept it is our right to be disgusted by them – and their homage. So long as they (and their parents and those who thought up this ill-advised trip) live in the United States, they have no right to expect anything but our utter disdain for what they did in going to Ramallah.

And if they are sorry… if… I suggest more than a half apology. I suggest they visit the graves of the people Arafat murdered.

Go to David Hatuel, whose pregnant wife and four daughters were shot at point-blank range and explain to him about your curiosity to learn the other side. Apologize to him.

Go to Limor Har-Melekh, whose husband Shalom was murdered before her eyes. She was pregnant when she too was moderately wounded in the attack. You can explain how you didn’t mean to honor Arafat when you meet their daughter, who thankfully survived the operation to remove her from her mother’s womb, even as they removed the bullets that were fired into her mother’s body.

Go to Arno Herenstein, who was seriously wounded and his wife Yafit was murdered, when Arafat’s terrorists entered their home and attacked the unarmed couple. Apologize to him because he and other victims like him forever live with what Arafat and his murderers did.

There comes a moment in each person’s life when you have to grow up and take responsibility. No one forced those young people to go to Arafat’s grave. Each and everyone of them walked onto that bus and into that building. Each one chose to stand beside that grave and have his or her picture taken. When I was 16, I went on a tour and didn’t feel comfortable with where the group was going and so I took a break and stayed behind. Don’t tell me that every one of those students couldn’t have done the same.

What I heard in the apology that was issued was our families infamous “fine, sorry” apology. Israel stands ready to see whether this was a sincere apology or not.

And a final note to Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, whose organization sponsored the Harvard College Israel visit. Israel’s bloggers were right in expressing the outrage of our country. You attempted to discredit us by warn against “the dangers of bloggers and others who use the power and reach of the internet to distort meaning.”

It is the job of journalists and bloggers to make others aware. There was no distortion in the reporting of this event. Your charity sponsored a trip to a killer’s grave. Rather than attack the messenger, I suggest you ensure that Harvard’s Jewish students never again make the mistake of paying homage to a killer of our people, at least not while they are traveling on your ticket.

Your “fine, sorry” apology not only encourages them to do so again in the future, it gives us every right to question your commitment to Israel. Personally, I hope your organization will take the time to write a note of apology to all those hurt by the actions of this group.

These families have suffered enough — they didn’t deserve what your charity did to them.

About the Author
Paula R. Stern is CEO of WritePoint Ltd., a leading technical writing company in Israel. Her personal blog, A Soldier's Mother, has been running for more than 5 years. She lives in Maale Adumim with her husband and children, a dog, too many birds, and a desire to write her thoughts and dream of a trip to Italy, Scotland, and beyond.