"Mistakes were made," is what we're hearing from the Attorney General lately, in connection with the purge of seven officials whose loyalty to the Administration was in question; with the "Bushies" it's either purge or surge. This is not the first time mistakes were made, nor is it likely to be the last. All the more reason to consider this curious phrase. It is neither admission nor an apology. Heard in the past from Bill Clinton, Tom DeLay and Donald Rumsfeld, this nonconfession is suggestive of inefficiency and needless exposure, as if it is meant to say not so much that similar actions will not occur in the future, rather parties will try harder at not getting caught so baldly next time. A DC political guru, William Schneider, asserts that politicians have contributed a new tense to the English language. "This usage," he says, "should be referred to as the past exonerative." Recent events in Israel recall this phrase, too, if elliptically.
Israel's ambassador to Germany last week condemned statements made by Roman Catholic bishops. During a visit to the Ramallah ghetto in Palestine, these German bishops commented on the appalling state of living there; Gregor Maria Hanke and Walter Mixa said some blunt things. Bishop Hanke is quoted as saying, "We see the photos of the inhuman Warsaw ghetto, and in the evening we travel to the ghetto in Ramallah; that makes you angry." Mixa went further, describing the conditions in Ramallah as "almost racism."
I don't see an explicit connection between Warsaw and Ramallah. The former was a staging area, in essence, for people on their way to extermination, whereas the latter is a miserable place from which, to its residents, escape must seem impossible. Nevertheless, a place not being Warsaw does not exempt it from criticism. Shimon Stein sees it differently. The ambassador rebutted the bishops: "If one uses terms like Warsaw ghetto or racism in connection with Israeli or Palestinian politics, then one has forgotten everything or learned nothing."
(The ambassador, in his repudiation, fails to mention what Cardinal Joachim Meisner -another member of the visiting delegation- said in response to seeing the West Bank separation barrier, when he compared it to the Berlin Wall: "I never thought I would have to see something like this ever again in my life.")
The suggestion of taking responsibility for deplorable living conditions within your own borders is provocative, true, but perhaps the ambassador protests too much, for to forget everything and learn nothing is dangerous. If the bishops were to outright call the West Bank a clearinghouse for wholesale slaughter, similar to what the Nazis did in Poland, that would be mischaracterising the situation. Yet can Israel deny that it has built a security fence around the Occupied Territories? Such an egregious action does recall the barrier that penned Jews in Warsaw and brings about similar degradation, loss of hope and disenfranchisement of the youth -as well as spurring a violent resistance. Ambassador Stein misses the emphasis made by the bishops, which is not to say the situations are the same but that the lack of outrage, that a population should exist in such reprehense, is a produce of national neglect. They elucidate Israel's right to sovereignty and call upon it to behave better than Poland did. The bishops have done the opposite of what their critic suggests. They remember and learn: can Israel do the same?
Even were the ambassador to say something along the lines of a past exonerative statement, "Mistakes were made," as neutral as that would be, at least it would acknowledge Israels place in history.