Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner shared her Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on 28 February 2019.
Yesterday, Chris Williamson MP was suspended from the Labour Party following his latest statement that the Labour Party was “too apologetic” and had “given too much ground” in the face of criticism over anti-Semitism. He later apologised and said he didn’t want anyone to think he was “minimising the cancer of anti-Semitism”.
His words and actions reminded me of what Judaism teaches regarding the nature of repentance, apologies and forgiveness. Judaism lays out clear and universal parameters for apologising. True apologies have to be sincere, express contrition and detail what we did wrong. Then, vitally, we need to change our actions.
We saw an example of that a few years ago from Naz Shah MP, who understood the damage of an inflammatory tweet. She gave a “wholehearted apology”, expressing deep regret. She detailed the wrong she’d committed, she named the pain caused to Jews and then started to rebuild relationships by meeting Jews in local synagogues to apologise in person. That was a thorough apology, asking for forgiveness and being given it in response to her brave actions.
Jews particularly ask others for forgiveness before the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. This is so central to Judaism that even if the victim of the wrongdoing has died since the offence, the perpetrator takes ten people with them to the grave of the injured party to ask for forgiveness.
As has been suggested this week, the problem of anti-Semitism can sometimes grow from conspiracy theories – though, paradoxically, in and of themselves, such theories don’t discriminate.
As we saw following 9/11, the same conspiracy theory will demonise and attack all Jews in one breath and all Muslims, the whole of the West, all white people, all black people in the next breath.
All conspiracy theories are deeply dangerous as, like fake news, they chip away at our willingness to trust each other, to trust what we read and hear. Trust and assuming good intentions has to be the foundational value of democracy. Conspiracy theories are dangerous as they threaten our democratic institutions, politics, our media and our legal system.
However, even in the worst accusations, the worst conspiracy theories, there’s always the possibility to apologise and ask for forgiveness and be forgiven. Judaism teaches that there’s always a time for repentance. Even though you are meant to repent every day, if you only repent on the day of your death, your sins can be forgiven. This is the message of redemption and hope that lies at the core of our capacity to reflect on our actions, to be genuinely contrite and to be able to repair our relationships and ourselves.