A pogrom conducted by Jews

You've probably had your fill of atonement for this year. You'd be forgiven if you didn't want to think of Yom Kippur for another 12 months.

But, before we leave it behind, one last thought about what we just did. We stood and, in the Al Chet prayer, listed one-by-one those areas where we had fallen short. "We" is the operative word here, for this is no Catholic confession, alone and in private, but a collective act of atonement. We announce that we will put right what we have done wrong collectively, as a people.

Now, maybe this is just a tired ritual, a parroting of words few of us understand for no higher purpose than to give us the soothing sensation of following tradition. But, if it means anything, then we need to look hard at what we as a people have done.

Plenty of long-time JC readers will groan now in anticipation of my mentioning Israel. "There he goes again", they'll say. "Always banging on about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians." All right, I'll change the record. No talk about the Palestinians this time. Instead let's talk about Israel's treatment of those no one could seriously believe pose a security threat, those who have no record, past or present, of hostility to Israel.

These are people who have thrown no rockets at Israeli towns

I'm speaking of the African asylum seekers who, out of desperation, have fled brutal societies for a chance of survival in the country that boasts of being the only true, open democracy in a region of oppression. These are people who have thrown no rockets at Israeli towns, who have no charter committed to Israel's destruction. So how are they treated?

They are "a cancer in the body" of the nation, Likud MK Miri Regev declared at a Tel Aviv rally in May, a verdict later backed by 52 per cent of Jewish Israelis, according to a poll. Her audience certainly got the message, promptly running riot through the Hatikva neighbourhood - linger for a moment on that name - which is home to many African migrants.

Amid chants of "Blacks out!", the mob smashed the windows of African-owned shops or cars, beating up any luckless migrant they chanced upon. The Telegraph reported on a group that rounded on a black boy on a bicycle, beating, punching and kicking him in the head while the police stood by and watched: "Other witnesses described a gang assaulting a mother carrying a young baby so violently she was forced to drop her child." If that were a Jewish neighbourhood, we know what word we would use: pogrom.

Scan the headlines since and you see the pattern. Earlier this month, the Israeli immigration authorities jailed a newborn baby in a detention facility. They were taking their cue from Israel's Interior Minister who had vowed to make the lives of such asylum seekers "bitter until they leave". Should those refugees object, surely they could demand justice in the courts? Not necessarily.

A new rule due to take effect this month was set to deny many migrants (and Palestinians) access to the courts, until, under pressure, the Justice Ministry threw it out. Meanwhile, an Israeli woman last week posted on her Facebook page a collection of photographs of African refugees in a park, referring to the men as "animals" and labelling the pictures "Night tour in the south Tel Aviv safari".

Which of the 44 sins we listed so earnestly on Yom Kippur do we violate when we know of this and say little or nothing? Take your pick. Our sacred texts tell us repeatedly to welcome the stranger, for we too were once strangers. Why do we bother reciting these words if they no longer mean anything?

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Last updated: 3:45pm, September 27 2012