Israel & Palestine: Is Forgiveness Possible?
[Barbara Eve Breitman, D.Min, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, spiritual director, co-founder of the Lev Shomea training center for spiritual directors, and member of the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She spoke this Dvar Torah on Yom Kippur morning, 5775 (2014), in Minyan Dorshei Derekh of the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia, PA.]
When I was invited to speak on Yom Kippur, it was still summer and the war between Israel and Hamas was raging hot. As I thought about whether I might have something to say on this holy morning, I realized how obsessed I was, not about geopolitics, but about questions having to do with vengeance, trauma, and forgiveness.
I decided to take the responsibility of this Dvar Torah as an opportunity to think more deeply about this ever-repeated war, very aware I was doing so from the comfort and safety of my home in the United States.
These are my questions:
- How will these people who have suffered so much at each others’ hands ever be able to live together in any configuration of peaceful co-existence?
- What enables people to empathize with the humanity of the ‘other’ after such prolonged violence?
- What can we learn from people who have been able to forgive and partner with their enemies and work for peace?
- Is there any wisdom in Judaism about forgiveness that might be helpful?
- What wisdom might there be for us when we face questions about experiences of trauma and the challenges of forgiveness in less catastrophic circumstances?
I want to begin with basics from the Jewish tradition’s perspective on forgiveness. I recognize that these principles were not meant for conditions of war. But I consult them in order to ground us in a foundation.
Within the tradition, forgiveness is consequent on tshuvah — “turning one’s life in a new direction,” often translated as “repentance.” To become worthy of forgiveness, a person who has harmed another must first engage in a process of teshuvah which entails a number of steps:
1. Acknowledge that one has done something wrong
2. Confess one’s wrongdoings to God and community
3. Express remorse
4. Resolve not to transgress in this way again.
5. Compensate the victim for injuries inflicted and do acts of charity for others.
6. Sincerely request forgiveness by the victim…with help from community or friends…and do so up to three times.
7. Avoid the conditions that caused the offense
8. Act differently when confronted with the same situation.
Once someone has done teshuvah, we are obliged to forgive. At the heart of the tradition is the idea that forgiveness is an obligation and acting on the demands of that duty enables us to live as a community worthy of God’s presence. (See Elliot Dorff in Dimensions of Forgiveness.)
The bonds of community are re-established through action rather than a change in feelings. It is the preservation of these bonds that is central to the traditional perspective. Forgiveness is not the private emotional process we usually think of today. I take from this a valuable principle: forgiveness is a practice. It is a choice and a decision. It is not an emotion.
And yet we know….the practice of forgiveness involves emotional challenges.
What makes it hard to ask for forgiveness?
It is an act of vulnerability. It means giving power to the other person by needing something from them that might be refused. It means accepting our own capacity to do harm. It takes humility and courage.
Why are we motivated to forgive people who have harmed us?
We know we have harmed others and we want to be forgiven when we are the ones at fault. Or we want to get past an incident and get on with our lives, not continue to harbor anger and resentment.
What makes it hard to offer forgiveness?
Offering forgiveness is often the outcome of a painful struggle, with rage, fear, ambivalence, and conflict. Forgiveness involves overcoming feelings of hostility and vengefulness. It involves overcoming feelings of vulnerability. We have been harmed in a way we were unable to avoid, which has compromised our safety. By forgiving, we may put ourselves at risk again.
Offering forgiveness can involve a profound wrestling with good and evil, within our-selves and outside of our-selves. As one writer expressed it: “Forgiving involves facing this most difficult of moral and personal challenges: striving to take the goad from our sides without eviscerating ourselves of our guts—our moral sensibilities, our self respect, our standards of justice and our hope.” (Steven Cherry, Healing Agony: Re-imagining Forgiveness) After extremes of violence and trauma, how is forgiveness even possible?
In a remarkable memoir, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a black South African psychologist who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reflects on her interviews with Eugene de Kock, the commanding officer of state-sanctioned death squads under apartheid rule. After witnessing an interaction at the hearings between de Kock and two black South African women whose husbands he was responsible for murdering, who yet offered de Kock forgiveness, Madikizela wanted to understand how remorse and forgiveness happen after mass atrocity.
“How,” she asks, “can we transcend hate if the goal is to transform human relationships in a society with a past marked by violent conflict between groups? These questions may be irrelevant for people who do not need to live as a society with their former enemies. But for those of us whose lives are intertwined with those who have grossly violated our human rights…, ignoring the question is not an option.”
I was asking the same kind of questions and though I don’t see the South African situation as historically or politically similar to Israel and the Palestinians, I wanted to learn from her.
Was de Kock too evil or were his acts too evil to be worthy of the forgiveness offered to him, she asks? In a face to face encounter, Gobodo-Madikezela confronts one of the existential crises that arise when a victim of extreme trauma faces a remorseful perpetrator. As de Kock expresses what seems to be sincere grief and remorse over what he has done, Gobodo-Madikizela finds herself feeling sympathy for this mass murderer. At that moment, she instinctively touches his hand … but then recoils. Was she crossing the moral line which allows one to maintain a measure of distance from a perpetrator by actually being able to identify with him? Was she violating her own sense of morality by feeling the human impulse of empathy for this killer?
Reflecting later, she sobs with despair for her suffering as a black woman under Apartheid. But at the same time, she explains she felt a profound sense of loss about de Kock, “(for) the side of him she had touched (that) had not been allowed to triumph over the side that made him Apartheid’s killing machine.”
It is an extraordinary quality to be able to empathize with such an enemy…and, of course, this was only possible once de Kock was in prison and the power dynamic between them had been reversed. When war or oppression is still ongoing, such empathy can be nearly impossible.
One of the most profoundly disturbing dimensions of this summer’s war was witnessing the ever more deeply entrenched dehumanization between Israelis and Palestinians from both sides. Dehumanization made ever more intense as the everyday interactions that used to occur between the two peoples before the Second Intifada have become increasingly rare. That is what happens as violence and vengeance suck people into the cycle of kill or be killed, dominate or be dominated. (Embodying Forgiveness)
Empathy, even for the dead children of the enemy, can become a victim of war, as Bob Tabak’s recently posted Dvar Torah so painfully named. Empathy or even attempting to understand the other seems like treason. This is why peacemakers are often assassinated by their own people.
Sitting with those thoughts, I was moved to discover the words of a Christian theologian, L. Gregory Jones: “It is important to analyze and confront our tendencies in modernity… to see the world either as ‘lighter’ than it is (hence trivializing forgiveness by making it therapeutically easy) or as ‘darker’ than it is, hence believing that forgiveness is impossible or ineffective because violence is ultimately our master.” I stopped in my tracks after reading that sentence. Has violence indeed become our master?
Jones continues: “It is urgent to explore whether there are ways to unlearn and break habits of violence, to stop cycles of vengeance, to cultivate a politics of holiness…. Our commitments to unlearn and break these habits is fragile, even when there is a desire to do so. If such commitments are to be sustained, they require supportive friendships, practices and institutions that enable the unlearning of destructive habits and the cultivation of holy ones………” (Bolding mine)
And so I continued reading to learn more from people who have broken those habits.
Among the books I read was Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. In his introduction to the book , Bill Clinton reports Mandela’s answer to the question of how he was able to make the journey from prisoner to peacemaker and president: “When you’re young and strong, you can stay alive on your hatred. And I did for many years.” Then one day, “I realized that they could take everything from me except my mind and my heart. They could not take those things. Those things I still had control over. And I decided not to give them away. I realized that when I went through that gate, if I still hated them, they would still have me. I wanted to be free. And so I let it go.” “To make peace with an enemy one must work with that enemy, and that enemy (has to) become one’s partner.”
Mandela’s words echo the wisdom of Torah. Just weeks ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote on the biblical injunction “Do not despise the Egyptian because you were a stranger in his land”. “The wisdom of Moses’ command not to despise the Egyptians still shines through today. If the people continued to hate their ….oppressors, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt but would have failed to take Egypt out of the Israelites. They would still be slaves, not physically but psychologically. They would be …… held captive by the chains of resentment, unable to build the future. To be free, you have to let go of hate. That is a difficult truth but a necessary one…..Always be ready, Moses seems to have implied, for reconciliation between enemies.”
Rabbi Sacks continues: “No less surprising is Moses’ insistence: “Do not despise an Edomite because he is your brother.” Edom, he reminds us, was the other name of Esau. The earlier stories from the book of Genesis seem to imply that the enmity between Jacob and Esau would be eternal. Why then, asks Rabbi Sacks, does Moses tell us not to despise Esau’s descendants? “The answer is simple. Esau may hate Jacob. It does not follow that Jacob should hate Esau. To answer hate with hate is to be dragged down to the level of your opponent. When….I asked Judea Pearl, father of the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, why he was working for reconciliation between Muslims and Jews, he replied with heartbreaking lucidity: “Hate killed my son. Therefore I am determined to fight hate.”
And this is what I discovered to be the distinguishing and shared characteristic of people who have been able to partner with the enemy and do the hard work of peace-making: not to see the one who inflicted violence and trauma on them as the enemy, but rather to see the enemy as hate itself. So simple. So profound. So seemingly impossible. But there are people who do it.
Several years ago, a Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish probably changed the course of Operation Cast Lead and the bombing of Gaza in 2009. Dr. Abuelaish was born and raised in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza. He went to medical school in Cairo, studied obstetrics and gynecology in Saudi Arabia and did his residency in Israel. He spent years working in Israeli hospitals where, he has said, patients were always surprised to find a Palestinian doctor delivering Jewish babies. He travelled through check points daily to work and was widely respected by many Israelis.
On January 16, 2009, only 5 months after his wife had died of leukemia, Dr. Abuelaish’s home was hit by a bomb during Operation Cast Lead. Three of his daughters, aged 13, 15 and 21, were killed; another daughter, was seriously injured, a niece died and a fifth girl, another niece, suffered catastrophic injuries. Right after the shell struck, he ran to the room that had been hit. “I saw my girls drowning in a pool of blood,” “I saw their body parts… all over the room.”
Desperate for medical assistance, he called his friend Shlomi Eldar, a presenter on Channel 10 in Israel who happened to be on air at that moment. The doctor’s agonized cries for help in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic were broadcast live throughout Israel. Within an hour, with the help of his Israeli friends, his injured daughter and niece were evacuated from Gaza. Then Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, also heard the broadcast. Two days later he announced the ceasefire.
Dr. Abuelaish has written a powerful book called I Shall Not Hate. In an interview he was asked: But how is it possible that you do not feel hatred after what has happened to you? “There is a difference between anger and hate, he explains. “Anger is acute but transient; hate is a poison, a fire which burns you from the inside. ….It is important to feel anger in the wake of events like this, anger that signals that you do not accept what has happened, that spurs you to make a difference. But you have to choose not to spiral into hate. All the desire for revenge and hatred does is drive away wisdom, increase sorrow and prolong strife… …I realized that I had two options …: I could take the path of darkness or the path of light. If I chose the path of darkness, of poisonous hate and revenge, it would be like choosing to fall into the complications and the depression that come with disease. To choose the path of light, I had to focus on the future and my children.”
Even if the enemy has not expressed remorse, this letting go of hatred is a form of forgiveness that is an innovative gesture, breaking open the logic of vengeance and cycles of violence.
The organization Bereaved Families was founded by Yitzchok Frankenthal, an Orthodox Jewish business man from Bnei Brak. Frankenthal’s 19 year old son Arik was returning home from his army base on a weekend pass when he was abducted by Hamas terrorists and never returned. In 1995, Frankenthal and several bereaved Israeli families founded the Parent’s Circle Family Forum. In 1998 the first meetings were held with a group of Palestinians families from Gaza who identified with the call to prevent further bereavement through dialogue and reconciliation. The connection with the group in Gaza was cut off as a result of the second Intifada, though the work of the organization continues.
Robi Damelin, whose 28-year-old son was shot by a sniper while serving in the Israeli army, and who works for the Family Forum, says the first words that came out of her mouth when she learned of his death were, “Do not take revenge in the name of my son.’ Robi travels around the world with Palestinian partners to promote dialogue. One of those partners, Ali Abu Awwad, born in 1972 on the West Bank, was given a 10 year prison sentence as a teenager for throwing rocks but was released 4 years later after the signing of the Oslo Accords.
In 2000, during the Second Intifada, Abu Awwad was shot in the leg by an Israeli settler and his brother Youseff was killed by an Israeli soldier at a check point incident. Together with his mother, Abu Awaad became a member of Bereaved Families Forum. He reports that he was shocked at his first meeting when he saw an Israeli parent cry: “I never believed that Israelis could cry. I saw that they could be victims.” David Shulman, a professor of Humanistic Studies at Hebrew University describes Awwad as one of the leaders of a new generation of non-violent resisters in Palestine, and quotes him as saying:
“The Jews are not my enemy; their fear is my enemy. We must help them to stop being so afraid – their whole history has terrified them – but I refuse to be a victim of Jewish fear anymore”.
Ali Abu Awwad has been on tour this fall in the USA with Orthodox Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, a passionate Zionist settler who says he has been transformed by his friendship with Ali. [A few days after Yom Kippur, during the Sukkot festival, Abu Awwad spoke in two Philadelphia congregations under the rubric “Spread Over Us the Sukkah of Shalom.” The Shalom Center initiated and co-sponsored his presence. — AW, ed.]
I cannot begin to figure out the geopolitics of the Middle East. But I understand human relationships. I do not know if I would ever be capable of the kind of forgiveness exemplified by these remarkable people, but I know I want to learn from them. At a moment in history like this, on this Shabbat Shabbaton [as Yom Kippur is called — restful and reflective Sabbath to its own exponential height], I want to take seriously that forgiveness is a powerful Jewish practice.
I want to take seriously that hope is an ethical position, not an emotion.
I want to take to heart Sharon Salzberg’s words on faith: “The power of faith doesn’t mean we’ve annihilated fear, or denied it, or overcome it through strenuous effort. …. It means feeling our fear and still remaining in touch with our heart, so that fear does not define our entire world, all we can see or do or imagine.”
I want to leave you with the words of two poets. The first is an American Jew, Rabbi Tamara Cohen.
No Pain Like My Pain (Lamentations 1:12) - for Tisha b’Av 5774/ 2014
That’s how it feels Dear God.
That’s how it felt to the lamenters exiled and Temple-shorn.
That’s how it feels to each grief-wracked mother, father, sister, son.
הביטו וראו אם יש מכאוב כמכאובי
“Look carefully and see if there could possibly be pain like my pain, like the one bestowed by You upon me.”
No pain like my pain,
No exile like my exile,
No land like my land,
No desolate city like my desolate city.
No heart like my aching heart.
No rage like my rage.
No fear like my people’s fear.
No genocide like our genocide.
No humanity like our humanity.
No right like our right.
No wrong like their wrong.
No pain like my pain.
Immediate and raw and righteous.
Ancient and true and etched in our genes by history’s injustices.
Dear God, help us look closer so that we may see —
our children in their children,
their children in our own.
Help us look closer so that we may see:
You — in the bleary eyes of each orphan, each grieving childless mother,
each masked fighter and camouflaged soldier raising his face to the sun, as if on his back he carries his entire people’s dignity.
Dear Exiled and Crying One,
Loosen our claim to our own uniqueness.
Soften this hold on our exclusive right — to pain, to compassion, to justice.
May Your children, all of us unique and in Your image,
come to know the quiet truths of shared pain,
In Sh’Allah. Ken yehi Ratzon.
May it be Your will.
And may it be ours.
And this is from “Jerusalem” by a Palestinian American, Naomi Shihab Nye.
I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
people getting over it.
Once when my father was a boy
a stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Later his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.
A child’s poem says,
“I don’t like wars,
they end up with monuments.”
He’s painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.
There’s a place in my brain
where hate won’t grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.
It’s late but everything comes next
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