Yom Kippur: The Holiday on the Road to Peace

News Abroad

Mr. Chernus is a Jewish historian and a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a writer for the History News Service.

Jews have been observing Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, every year at this season for two and a half millennia. In each historical era, the day has taken on new meanings. All of those meanings are now reflected in the Jewish community's ambivalent view of the Middle East conflict. This year, if Jews confess that they, as well as Palestinians, have done wrong and must atone, it could mark a major step toward Middle East peace.

Yom Kippur was first celebrated in biblical times by the priests of the Temple of Jerusalem on the Temple Mount, where two Muslim mosques now stand. It was a ritual for cleansing the Temple and the whole Jewish people of impurity.

The Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the first century C.E. A movement to rebuild it has become a rallying point for far-right Jewish nationalists, who are willing to desecrate the sacred mosques. That could provoke all-out war between Israel and the whole Muslim world. Not too many years ago, the idea was widely seen as a lunatic fringe notion. Now it is part of the mainstream debate in Israel, indicating how far to the right the mainstream has expanded.

The later history of Yom Kippur has influenced both ends of the current political spectrum. After the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis made Yom Kippur a day of self-scrutiny, a day to repent of sins against all of God's commandments, ethical as well as legal. The rabbinic prayers, still used in most synagogues today, were phrased in the first person plural. The Jewish people as a whole confessed ("WE have sinned"), asked God to forgive them, and resolved as a group to do better in the coming year.

The modern state of Israel benefits from this sense of communal responsibility. It claims to act in the name of all Jews everywhere. Jews around the world generally respond by supporting Israel's policies, especially toward its Arab neighbors. However, the holiday's message of ethical obligation raises disturbing questions for some Jews, as they watch Israel's army of occupation caught up in a seemingly endless spiral of violence.

In the 19th century, Yom Kippur took on new meanings that reflected this tension between national solidarity and moral sensitivity. The Zionist movement generally saw Yom Kippur (like all Jewish holidays) as a way to reinforce sentiments of national solidarity. The religious meaning of the day became secondary and optional. So did the ethical self-doubts so central to the rabbinic view. For most Zionists, the fact that Jews were oppressed and needed a place of refuge justified anything that would build a strong Jewish state.

The liberal Jewish religious movements of the 19th century produced a quite different view. They focused on Judaism as a way to embody universal principles of moral conscience. On Yom Kippur, liberal Jews stood in solidarity with all humanity, resolving to live by the norms of goodness that all people share.

This strand of Judaism has been especially sensitive to Israel's military violence. Growing voices on the Jewish left have questioned the ethical as well as practical wisdom of Israeli policies. The scenes of tanks flattening houses in Jenin and other West Bank towns this spring gave new strength to those voices of moral protest.

The existence of a Jewish state, wielding political and military power, has heightened the ambiguity embedded in Yom Kippur's history. Most Jews want to embrace the feeling of group solidarity that goes back to biblical times, now reshaped by the currents of modern nationalism. At the same time, many want Judaism and the Jewish state to embody global ethical principles.

So this Day of Atonement ("At-one-ment") finds Jews asking: Are we called to be "at one" with our fellow Jews in Israel, who seek peace and security? Or are we called to be "at one" with all humanity, including the Palestinians, and to repent of violence done against the people of the Occupied Territories?

Striving to blend these two impulses, but not knowing how, the Jewish community is confused. The way out of confusion is to recognize that an occupying power at war can never be secure. The best way for Jews to help Israel's quest for secure peace is to be "at one" with the Palestinians, who are calling for an end to occupation and a viable state in the West Bank and Gaza.

But "at-one-ment" demands a painful first step. Jews should atone by acknowledging not only the wrongs done by Palestinians, but also the wrongs done by Israel. On Yom Kippur, the Jewish community should confess that it, too, has sometimes tolerated and even supported abuses of power. That is the best next step in the evolution of Yom Kippur, and the best step toward Mideast peace.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Billy - 12/8/2002


Alec Lloyd - 9/17/2002

I know of no greater contrast than the humanity and compassion evidenced by the Israeli people and the brutality and murderous barbarism shown by the Palestinians.

For the Israelis, life is sacred. They take military actions only in the direst of need to preserve their immediate security. For this reason they sent infantry into Jenin rather than bombing it from 15,000 feet. Were they truly as brutal as the author implies, they would have far less compunction about killing Palestinian civilians.

Furthermore, their treatment of the Palestinian people is exemplary. No sooner has a firefight subsided than Israeli medical personnel are on hand, offering aid to their former enemies. Even terrorists, wounded in the act of trying to kill innocent Israeli women and children receive full treatment.

When Palestinians objected to the fact that some of the blood their wounded were give may have been of Jewish origin, the Israelis promptly conducted a blood drive amongst their Arab citizens to ensure that even the most bigoted desire on the part of the Palestinians is met. Contrast this with the Palestinian penchant of using ambulances to smuggle bombs.

The Israelis do not target civilians, but civilians are inevitably hit because the militant terrorists use them as human shields, a despicable practice condemned by all of humanity. Israel is criticized for killing a terror mastermind who uses human shields, yet the Palestinian tactic of specifically targeting non-military targets is somehow not relevant.

In the grim catalogue of human events, it is hard to imagine a people with more justification to meet atrocity with atrocity. Palestinian murder-bombers coat their pellets with cyanide to increase its lethality. They rejoice in the death of babies and their snipers have proudly picked off infants in their mothers’ arms. The cult of death now flourishing there dreams of the death of every Jew, praises the killing of infants and glorifies the self-destruction of their own youth--so long as they take one of the “dog Jews” with them.

Israel does not resort to lynching Palestinian sympathizers, while to sell land to a Jew is a capital offense in Palestinian territory. Indeed, a large percentage of Palestinian dead in the current war were so-called collaborators who dared to question the wisdom of sending teenagers to blow themselves up at pizza parties.

By contrast, the Arab opposition in the Knesset is alive and well—and free to disagree with government policy.

Thus on one hand you have a tolerant, democratic, multicultural state engaged in a mortal struggle with a death-worshipping, murdering quasi-dictatorship. Even now, Israel craves peace, prays that the Palestinians will accept something less than the utter extermination of the Jewish people—even as their children are slaughtered in the streets. Jews are often viewed as embracing the Law of Moses rather than the Love of God, but I know of no greater exemplar of the ideal of Christian forgiveness than Israel.

We all have much to atone for, be we Jew or Gentile. But let us also keep our moral clarity and remind ourselves that earthly perfection is not a prerequisite for a just cause.