President Donald Trump has issued few apologies and asked for many in the past year. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Apologies and non-apologies in the year of our Trump 5777

There are apologies, there are non-apologies and there are apologies that never were.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are approaching: We are in the season of repentance and its most apt expression, apologizing to our fellow women and men.

The Trump presidency presents special challenges to apology trackers: Donald just doesn’t do them, but he loves them when he gets them. And sometimes he insists he got them when he didn’t.

To be fair to Trump, his ambivalence, if not hostility, toward self-reproach is not unique, and certainly not among presidents. It took Bill Clinton months — until just days before Rosh Hashanah of 1998 — to fully apologize for embarking on, and lying about, his affair with Monica Lewinsky. George W. Bush still blames the Iraq War on bad intelligence. Barack Obama took his time before eventually apologizing to Americans who lost their health insurance despite his repeated promises that they wouldn’t.

Clinton’s apology, at least, included a direct apology to Lewinsky for having called her a liar, and thus met the conditions for “teshuvah,” or genuine repentance, laid out by the Jewish sage Maimonides 900 years ago in his Mishnah Torah: One must seek forgiveness for sins against one’s fellows not from God, and directly from the wounded party. Beg forgiveness directly, Maimonides prescribed, resolve to not repeat your transgression and do what you can to make it up to the victim. Anything less is not a real apology.

In that regard, 5777 wasn’t a great year for Maimonidean apologies. Take a look:

The failing, if not sorry, New York Times

The New York Times

The Midtown Manhattan building that houses what Trump calls “the failing @nytimes,” July 2017. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Trump very much wants to believe The New York Times apologized for its coverage of the election last year. But the Times insists it never apologized.

Trump’s hopes for an apology lie buried in a letter the newspaper posted five days after the election.

“After such an erratic and unpredictable election,” the editors wrote to readers, “there are inevitable questions: Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters?”

Trump read that sentence as a mea culpa.

“The failing @nytimes, which has made every wrong prediction about me including my big election win (apologized), is totally inept!” Trump tweeted as recently as Aug. 7.

The Times has responded by tweeting, “We stand by our coverage,” and pointing to the language of the original letter, “We believe we reported on both candidates fairly during the presidential campaign. You can rely on The New York Times to bring the same level of fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team.”

In a fiery speech in Phoenix last month, Trump still hoped to shake out the nugget of an apology in the Times letter.

“How about this?” Trump said. “The New York Times essentially apologized after I won the election because their coverage was so bad, and it was so wrong, and they were losing so many subscribers that they practically apologized. I would say they did.”

A sorry state of affairs

Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski speaking in Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 7, 2012. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Becoming the most powerful man on earth has barely slaked Trump’s thirst for deference.

“Fake News is at an all time high,” he said on Twitter in June. “Where is their apology to me for all of the incorrect stories???

Michelle Cottle, writing in the Atlantic in February, compiled a partial list of the people from whom Trump and his surrogates had demanded apologies during and since the campaign. They included Sen. John McCain, the cast of “Hamilton,” CNN’s Jim Acosta, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Megyn Kelly and Hillary Clinton.

“If anything, a grudging, coerced apology seems to delight him even more than a wholly voluntary one,” Cottle wrote.

Failing to extract an apology, by contrast, seems to enrage Trump. In June, New York magazine reported that Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner failed in his bid to get MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough to apologize to Trump for his show’s critical coverage of the president. The exchange culminated with the president’s attack on Scarborough’s fiancé and co-host, Mika Brzezinski, as “bleeding from the face” from a facelift.

Sorry, not sorry

Donald Trump, then a presidential candidate, giving an apology message about remarks made in a released “Access Hollywood” tape, Oct. 7, 2016. (Screenshot from Facebook)

Trump’s best-known apology, delivered Oct. 8 between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, was a classic of the sorry, not sorry genre.

It came after the “Access Hollywood” tape showed Trump boasting about sexual assault in 2005.

“I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more-than-a-decade-old video are one of them,” Trump, then a candidate, said in his videotaped apology.

Translation: It was over a decade old, when I was a mere child of 59. Why bother with it now?

“Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am. I said it, I was wrong and I apologize,” he said.

Better; even Maimonides might approve. But Trump wasn’t done.

“Let’s be honest: We are living in the real world. This is nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we are facing today,” he said.

Uh-oh. Sounds like he is diminishing the significance of the thing he just apologized for. But at least Trump didn’t say that others have done things that are far worse.

Wait, there’s this:

“Hillary Clinton and her kind have run our country into the ground. I’ve said some foolish things, but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people,” he said. “Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims.”

Trump, moreover, did not apologize to his direct targets: the actress he was lusting over in the audio or the married friend he claimed he had hoped to seduce. Melania Trump, who was already married to Trump at the time the tape was made, said her husband apologized to her. Trump has said he did not.

His daughter Ivanka Trump, the evening the tape emerged, reportedly pleaded for him to make a real apology. He refused. She left the room in tears, according to The New York Times.

Trump recorded his apology on Oct. 8. He won election on Nov. 8.

Atonement for the Day of Atonement

Marchers in Los Angeles protesting President Trump’s order to end the DACA immigrant program, Sept. 5, 2017. (David McNew/Getty Images)

There have been plenty of other apologies in the Trump era.

Jewish social justice activists were miffed when they learned that the March for Racial Justice in Washington, D.C., was scheduled for Sept. 30, which happens to be Yom Kippur. The organizers dithered for a bit, but on Aug. 16 issued a statement saying the scheduling “was a grave and hurtful oversight on our part. It was unintentional and we are sorry for this pain as well as for the time it has taken for us to respond. Our mistake highlights the need for our communities to form stronger relationships.”

The date of the march will not be changed, but related events may be held on that Saturday night or the next day.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, welcomed the apology, saying the organizers “have modeled teshuvah in the past few days.”

Swiss miss

A photo of the pool at the Paradies Arosa hotel in Switzerland. (Screenshot from Paradies Arosa)

A Swiss hotel owner made all the wrong kinds of headlines when she posted signs at her place urging Jews to shower before entering the pool and telling them they could only access a hotel refrigerator at set times. Even Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, chimed in, saying the incident reflected the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Europe.

But the story was somewhat more complicated. Ruth Thomann, who runs the hotel, tearfully told JTA that she meant no offense to Jews and that she merely sought to convey information relevant only to the Jewish guests (who, she said, store their kosher food in the hotel fridge and tend to swim wearing T-shirts and other outerwear, presumably out of modesty).

“I may have selected the wrong words; the signs should have been addressed to all the guests instead of Jewish ones,” she said, adding, “My God, if I had something against Jews, I wouldn’t take them as guests!”

On Target

A Target store in Novato, Calif. (Getty Images)

Target apologized to Israelis when it couldn’t make good on orders after a shipping company offered a brief free-shipping promotion. The U.S. retail giant said it was overwhelmed by the orders from Aug. 18 to 20.

“Due to the much higher than anticipated response to the Borderfree Free Shipping promotion, we are unable to deliver order [number] and had to cancel it. We apologize for this inconvenience,” read the letter sent to  Israeli customers.

‘It’s over for me’

Kevin Myers (Screenshot from YouTube)

An Irish journalist, fired for writing what critics called an anti-Semitic newspaper column, apologized to those he offended — although he insisted his intentions were good.

“I am very very sorry to them, I really mean it, I’m not rescuing anything as far as I can see, it’s over for me,” Kevin Myers said, referring to the two Jewish female BBC broadcasters who were described in his column as hard-bargainers. “I am issuing an apology for no other reason than contrition of the hurt I have caused them.”

Jews, he had written in July, “are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price.”

Said Myers: “I said those words out of respect for their religion.”

Um, thank you?

Flag politics

A Palestinian flag flying in Gaza City in 2015. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

Also in July, a Jewish camp in Washington state apologized after flying a Palestinian flag “as a sign of friendship and acceptance” to visiting Palestinian Muslim and Christian students. Critics of the flag said it was offensive and represented a regime that still incites violence against Jews. Supporters said welcoming Palestinian students on a peace mission was the menschy thing to do.

The critics won the debate.

“We sincerely apologize that we upset some in our CSS and larger Jewish community by introducing the Palestinian flag into our educational program,” Camp Solomon Schechter wrote in a letter to parents and supports. “Camp Solomon Schechter reiterates our unwavering support for the State of Israel as the Jewish homeland.”

The camp’s executive director and co-board president also issued a statement.

“Camp Solomon Schechter regrets raising the Palestinian flag alongside US, Canadian and Israeli flags on Thursday and Friday mornings …,” the statement said. “We neglected to foresee in such actions the serious political implications and for that lapse in judgment, we are deeply sorry.”

Apologies in the age of #SorryNotSorry

By now, just about everyone knows the art of hashtags — a word or phrase preceded by a # sign used either to tag a conversation so people can easily follow it, or as a sarcastic and often deeply truthful commentary on the statement that had just preceded it. Some hashtags resonate deeply in public consciousness for various reasons, such as #BringBackOurGirls or #BlackLivesMatter, which have helped shape social media activism. Others, such as #FirstWorldProblems, are meant as wry commentary, in this case to acknowledge that what is being complained about is a problem only for the privileged, and not so important when you consider other “real” problems in the world. 

One hashtag on the rise is #sorrynotsorry, a phrase meant to indicate that the apology — the “sorry” — comes because it’s expected of you, but not necessarily because you mean it. Invoking the #sorrynotsorry can be a proudly defiant move when, for example, pointing out something unpopular or in poor or questionable taste that you know will upset other people (real example: “not all babies are cute #sorrynotsorry”). In such a case, it serves as a righteous proclamation that the writer feels justified — perhaps even righteous — for speaking up.

For me, however, #sorrynotsorry reminds me of the High Holy Days. 

Back in yeshiva day school (elementary school through the end of high school), our teachers made it clear that even more important than clearing your record with God in that big Book of Life was making sure you were square with the people around you. So, every fall, students ran around to everyone — their closest friends, mortal enemies and even acquaintances — demanding forgiveness. “Do you moychel [forgive] me?” they’d ask, fueled by a pedagogically imparted imperative to seek forgiveness before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, arrived. If someone wouldn’t forgive you, you had to ask him or her again. After asking for the third time, if you still weren’t forgiven, the onus was no longer on you. 

This “Do you forgive me?” exercise drove me crazy — yes, in part because everyone suddenly inserted a Hebrew word in the middle of an English sentence, but also because it was thrown off casually, and — no matter what high school torture the asker had inflicted on you before that question — you had to say yes. Then the person you’d just “forgiven” would be back to torturing you by lunchtime. When my high school enemy — who regularly made me feel bad about myself — asked me cavalierly, “Do you moychel me?” my mouth said yes because I was expected to, and my heart said, “No, no, a million times no.” Technically, she was saying “sorry” in that moment, but when she went back to insisting that I allow her to cheat off of me during an exam later that same day, her actions said, “Not sorry.” And because this happened annually, my “I forgive you” was really an “I don’t forgive you.” So even though “sorrynotsorry” is now an Internet term, its roots go much deeper, back into all those times we’ve said sorry because it was expected, not because we had considered our actions and realized we were wrong.

Think about the last time you asked someone to forgive you for something you’d done. Or about the last time someone came to you and said, “I’ve been thinking about that thing I said, and I’m really sorry. I hope you can forgive me.” It rarely happens. And I can’t help but blame “Do you moychel me?” a lesson without depth, an educational imperative that didn’t trust us to process the active ideas and intentions behind forgiveness. It became a joke, thereby becoming the opposite of what “sorry” was supposed to accomplish.

In the Internet space and in life, an attitude of #sorrynotsorry undermines the practice of cheshbon ha-nefesh (taking an accounting of our souls), of examining our actions and trying to modify our behavior. It’s an apology backtrack, a proud proclamation that the rules of society don’t apply to us — we’re right, so we shouldn’t have to apologize, not to anyone. 

What might have happened if any of those kids when formulating that question with their throats, tongues and lips had actually put their brains, hearts and souls into it? Maybe it is a lot to ask from children or Twitter users. But I believe there’s a way to explain that “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” are phrases that accompany, but don’t replace, the imperative to plumb the depths of your soul, not just because you’ve been told to, but as part of an overall annual (or more frequent) emotional inventory. 

Perhaps I’m being unkind to my teachers, about whom I will definitely think during the appropriate space in the Al Chet confessional prayers on Yom Kippur. But since we’re speaking of Al Chet, it’s worth noting that this litany of sins we confess and beat our breasts about are a confessional between God and us. Perhaps our teachers’ approach was more about giving us the other half of that recitation: getting us in the habit of speaking words intended to connect us with other people, creating a muscle memory of sorts. Then, when we became adults, we’d know the script and speak the words with intention and contrition. Maybe it was an unsung success; there are likely a good number of us who do just that. 

When words are hollow, they nevertheless contain a space of potential at their center. It’s up to us to take the words requesting forgiveness, consider them seriously and speak our lines with intention so that “sorry” means something deep and true, something that would never be followed by “not sorry.” 

Esther D. Kustanowitz, a contributing writer to the Jewish Journal, is a writer, editor and consultant with nearly two decades of experience as a Jewish nonprofit professional. She is currently the editorial director of GrokNation.

Your Letters

Political Correctness

Jane Ulman’s attempt to deconstruct the story of Purim is another revolting exercise in political correctness (“Viva Vashti,” March 5).

Those who really care about the plight of women need to concentrate their energies on dealing with some very horrific realities: There are countries where women are enslaved — both as labor slaves and sex slaves, killed at the whim of a family member, denied the most basic human rights and even brutally mutilated. Except for a few lonely and courageous voices, there is very little protest over these heinous situations.

Oops, I forgot. Forgive me. Please don’t call the politically correct thought police! We are not supposed to be “judgmental” about other cultures; we are only allowed to trash our own Bible and our own sanctums.

Rabbi Louis J. Feldman, Van Nuys

Jewish Exceptionalism

For more than 60 years, Jewish voting patterns have defied one of the rules that govern most voters: People vote for their own economic interests.

The Los Angeles Times exit poll still shows Jewish exceptionalism. Looking at Proposition 56, a measure to lower from 66 percent to 55 percent the majority needed to pass tax bills, we find strong evidence of Jewish exceptionalism. Forty-seven percent of Jews voted for Proposition 56, compared to: 33 percent of Anglo Catholics, 42 percent of Latino Catholics, 27 percent of white Protestants, 41 percent of black Protestants and 35 percent of Asians. Jews are still more willing than other communities to pay for government programs to help others.

The economic self-interest rule of American politics seems to be trumped by an older Jewish rule: “There will never cease to be needy people in your land, which is why I command you: Open your hand to the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Rabbi Allen S. Maller, Temple Akiba of Culver City

Both Sides

Thank you for publishing William S. van der Veen’s letter to the editor, “Gaza Withdrawal” (March 5). I appreciate that you print both sides of an argument and feel that this higher standard which you set for yourself makes for a more educated public. Once again, thank you.

Dick Wrigley, via e-mail

Carin Davis

I have been reading Carin Davis’ columns all year. I greatly admire her writing style and use of humor. Carrie Bradshaw has nothing on her. Keep up the good work.

Jackie Taus, via e-mail

Different Reasons

There is a difference between Queen Esther marrying a non-Jew and a Jewish person nowadays intermarrying (“Keeping Jews in the Flock,” March 5). Esther was on a mission to save the Jews at that time. A Jew nowadays who intermarries does it for personal reasons.

Name Withheld Upon Request, Los Angeles

Retraction Sought

You owe an apology to me, my children, friends and associates (“What Jews Need to Know About Jesus,” Feb. 20). Since I attempt to be observant, I suppose my family is what is called “ultra-Orthodox.” Without sources, Jack Miles indicts all of us who, he alleges “called for the execution of Yitzhak Rabin.”

I suggest a prominent retraction at your earliest opportunity so that I can continue reading your paper and recommending it to others.

David J. Leonard, Los Angeles

Editor’s Note:

Jack Miles’ only point with regard to the murder of Yitzhak Rabin was that some Israelis applauded the deed and others decried it. The label applied to those who applauded it was a secondary matter and could have been left out altogether.

That said, in the ever-changing political landscape of Israel, not all of the ultra-Orthodox are also ultranationalist, but some have been. Charedim (black hats, Chasidic communities) are ultra-Orthodox. Chardalim (knitted yarmulkes, settler communities) are in general both ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist. The two groups are distinct, but some of their views overlap.

In retrospect, Jack Miles’s reference to “Israelis who called for the execution of Yitzhak Rabin and who applauded Yigal Amir when he did the deed” would have been more accurate had he not identified them by any label or else characterized them as either “ultranationalist” or “ultra-Orthodox, ultranationalist.”