|Isidor Kaufmann, "Day of Atonement" (painted ~1900)|
It's a typical late summer Jerusalem day: intensely hot and sunny, but much quieter outside than Fridays usually are, here. The sun is soon going to descend and 25 hours of introspection and fasting will begin.
A close and dear friend who serves as a wonderful educator and a community rabbi shared some thoughts and questions with us about forgiveness earlier in the month. Most people know it's one of the themes that characterizes this day, and it's one on which he and many Jewish leaders will be delivering sermons tonight and tomorrow.
He asked for some comments from us about the idea of dealing with people who have hurt you, as he put it, "to the point of no return". The response that follows is from Arnold.
In February 2005, I was an invited speaker at an international gathering of victims of terrorism in Bogota, Colombia. Right after checking into my hotel, several messages were handed to me from TV news reporters asking to do on-camera interviews. I did several. Colombians have had a long, bitter and ongoing experience with terror. It is based on a lethal combination of politics and drug trafficking. I knew next to nothing at that point about how it had impacted on the lives of ordinary Colombians. I came face to face with aspects of that impact time after time in the course of the following two days and learned much.
For the interviewers, I felt safe about giving answers that reflected on my own family's life and our experiences. Our daughter Malki's murder in a Hamas terrorist attack in 2001 has caused me to do a lot of reflecting about how terrorism changes your society and you.
At the end of one of these sessions, after the cameras had stopped rolling (if that's what digital devices do), the young, attractive journalist asked me to comment on something a prominent visitor to Bogota had said to her and the cameras just a few days earlier. He was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize. As the reporter conveyed it to me, his message to the Colombians had been: I am willing to help bring the Colombian authorities and the rebels to the negotiating table, but it must be clear that forgiveness by the victims must be part of the process. What, the reporter asked me, did I think of that as a formula for peace in the Israel/Palestine conflict? Could it work?
I said I have a deep resistance to the idea that you ever sit down at the negotiating table with terrorists. (I can expand, but will skip that part.) I said the conflict had less to do with the fact that there is no state of Palestine than with the fact that there is an Israel: existing, vibrant, thriving. Then I added, with some heat, that the Middle East conflict would have an entirely different character if the terrorists were ever to seek the forgiveness of their victims. In fact, I said, if we ever get to that stage, then most of the conflict will be behind us.
The reporter smiled warmly and said she felt the same was true of the Colombian situation and that Tutu's advice was not very welcome.
Later that same year, I was asked by Israel's Foreign Ministry to meet with a visiting Christian delegation here in Jerusalem. This turned out to be a deeper, much more meaningful encounter for me than the exchanges I had with reporters in South America. In fact, it has flowered and continued up until the present. The group is connected to an unusual US-based Christian group with its origins in Germany. Since I have a genuine regard for the individuals, I will skip some details. Their group's philosophy mainly focused on violence in United States schools and urban settings and on the redeeming power of forgiveness. In bringing a dozen or so members to Israel, it seems they wanted to address a much larger issue. (My impression is this visit persuaded them to focus their energies in other places, though I might be wrong.) Their message to the parties at conflict here involved encouraging what I would call radical Christian forgiveness. I addressed them over a dinner at their hotel. We inevitably got to the little matter of Israel and the Arabs, and one of them delivered a not-unexpected suggestion. Their suggestion but my words, since I don't have a record: the Jews and the Israelis ought to develop a deeper willingness to forgive and this is bound to produce good results. As victims of a deep injury, recovery will come to us only when we allowed ourselves to forgive the other.
I believed then, and am more convinced today, of the sincerity of these people. At the same time, I sincerely wonder at how they arrive at their practical solutions. I think I answered with care. As I recall now what I said eight years ago, I described what had been done to Malki and the other victims in the Sbarro massacre. I referred to the replica of the death scene that had been mounted at An Najah University soon afterwards, as an especially odious form of celebration. I spoke of the ongoing glorification of the killers, the bombers, the shooters, the stabbers by all parts of Palestinian Arab society.
I said the matter of forgiveness posed a practical difficulty for me, to which I had no answer, and it was this. Malki was the middle child of our seven. Assuming I find a way to forgive what was done to her, where does that leave me when it comes to protecting my other children, my wife, my home? Is forgiveness an ongoing repetitive process, I asked rhetorically, something you have to do over and again, weekly or daily, knowing that the terrorists who have never expressed anything remotely resembling regret are busy at this very moment preparing their next attempted murder?
Where does forgiveness fit into the ongoing war that, I believed then and am certain about today, is being waged against us and our children and our children's children's children? And has been for generations?
I said we haven't reached an intermission when the various sides take stock, review their plans and prepare an alternative approach. We are in an existential crisis, with the emphasis on personal existential danger. I said it would be unthinkably irresponsible for Israelis to lower their guard, knowing what we know about the theological drivers behind the appalling death industry they have cultivated. Bottom line: their proposed approach just cannot work.
Our discussion did not converge on a shared hashkafat olam (outlook on life), but I am pleased to say we parted as friends, and have an active and rewarding ongoing dialogue.
For all who observe the Day of Atonement, Gmar Hatima Tova and our wishes for a meaningful and effective fast day.