09/12/2013 01:45 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

Reflections on the Day of Atonement

This Friday at sundown marks the beginning of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. In my faith, it is also called the day of atonement. On this day, Jews all over the world spend the day fasting and reflecting on our lives and deeds. It is a day of repentance.

There can never be forgiveness if we do not first admit our mistakes. Five years ago we surprised the world and elected our first black president. We thought we had finally turned a corner in the issue of race. Yet, polling shows that racism actually increased during Barack Obama's first term in office.

Racism is a sin for which we have never atoned. It is a grave injustice that must be addressed before we can ever truly move forward as one nation.

I organized a petition drive that called on the United States Congress to pass a resolution of apology. A reporter asked me at the time, "Why is this so important to you, Mr. Douglas? You're not black."

"But I'm a Jew. My people were slaves several thousand years ago in Egypt." While he was writing, I couldn't resist: "And you know, I'm still waiting for an apology from Egypt."

I was very disappointed that the resolution of apology did not pass the full Congress. I still am. Because since the end of the Civil War, racism continues -- even flourishes - in many parts of our nation.

The decision to include slavery in our new nation was morally wrong.

A month before he was assassinated, President Lincoln said, "Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery, I fell a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."

Since then, we've had 150 years of lynchings, segregated water fountains and lunch counters, fire hoses and dogs unleashed on civil rights activists and now, in 2013, new voter registration restrictions aimed directly at African-Americans.

Apologies are not excuses for bad behavior, but they are a good start on the road to repentance.