On Forgiveness: the Israeli Palestinian Conflict, Henzel and Gretel and me

Can we forgive those who hurt us and those most dear to our hearts? This question has been on my mind for a while, both personally and politically. Like so many questions that linger in my mind, it emerged to the surface when I was invited to two conferences the same week: one dealing with healing hatred in political conflicts[1] and the other dedicated to forgiveness[2].

Forgiveness. In both conferences, many of the speakers emphasized the religious and spiritual aspects of it; they spoke of forgiveness as a divine decree. Not being a religious woman in the conventional sense of the word, I found myself thinking how I found the strength to forgive. It was not easy; it required relinquishing the position of the victim.

It is not easy. Every time I read the story of Hensel and Gretel I could not fully comprehend how the children – who suffered such terrible abuse from the wicked witch and had to burn her alive to save their skin – could forgive their father for sending them off to the dangers of the woods, simply because he was too weak to defend them. The children’s willingness to forgive their father troubled me. As I read the story to my own daughter, I felt deep anger and contempt towards the father. I could not understand or empathize with him, let alone forgive him.  Nevertheless, Hensel and Gretel forgave him; they wanted their family back.

As a woman living in a conflict zone I find myself thinking: where does forgiveness come from? Where in our souls is it born and alive?

A wise woman once told me that we forgive to free ourselves from the burden of the pain we carry. As long as we do not forgive, it continues to poison our soul. Hence, we offer forgiveness to care for and save ourselves; so that we can move on, free from the perpetrator’s grip on our minds and our lives.

I must have known this all the time. When I chose to forgive, it was because I was tired of carrying the load of painful memories that kept pulling back to the past and kept me from living my present and dreaming of the future.

Forgiving did not erase the memories; I keep them stored in that little attic in my heart and visit them when I can. The same attic houses the monsters I vanquished.  However, as liberating as forgiveness was to me, I could only forgive on my behalf; not for my son nor for my elderly parents who took me in when I arrived one night at their home, so tired of crying.

Henzel and Gretel. Illustration by Daniel Gouri De Lima

From the personal to the political

Can we forgive in someone else’s name? Well, I think not. However, if I am right, how is collective forgiveness possible? Can we ask for forgiveness in someone else’s name? Again, no. Then how is collective repentance possible? Let me be clear about where I am getting at; how can two nations caught up in a violent conflict seek or offer forgiveness? It seems unfathomable for people to forgive military occupation, exile or losing their loved ones in a bombing or knifing attack; how can one even begin to forgive those who demolished his home, or those who launched a Quassam missile that killed his little boy.

This is how we live our lives, year after year; caught up in a bloody vicious cycle of occupiers and occupied; killing and being killed; hurting and hurt. Parents are burying their little children and children growing up without their father or mother. Homes are demolished and destroyed. The beloved land cries and it seems that mercy and compassion do not dwell in our part of the world.

Can we heal hatred and foster a culture of reconciliation between Israel and Palestine? Can we bring back mercy, compassion and hope to our region? I believe we can and we should. However, it requires from us – from all of us – to relinquish the position of victim. And it is difficult. Excruciatingly difficult.

If my last statement disturbs you or makes you angry; or if think that it is a post-modern f**t that ignores or denies the extent of suffering, I urge you to keep reading.

It is difficult to let go of victimhood because the suffering and loss are so terribly real. It is difficult because our political leaders are turning our collective traumas into bargaining chips in political negotiations. They are turning the Holocaust, the Nakba and the wars into repetitive narratives of victimhood and revenge. They feed the flames of hatred and fear instead of doing the right thing; finding the courage to say: “enough! Nothing justifies any of this”.

We, the civilians on both sides of this bloody conflict; we who pay the daily price of hatred, fear and violence; we, too, are collaborators. We dig our heals in the quick-sand of political ideologies; we repeat the same tried and tested statements and slogans and speak the language of interests, instead of voicing our deepest needs. Those who seek to perpetuate the conflict speak of annexing the West Bank; those who seek pragmatic solutions speak of separation, and a small minority still speaks against the occupation and for a just peace and is the target of all the hatred that is not directed at the “enemy”.

Nothing new can grow on this barren land of hatred.

To forgive is not to forget. We never forget those we loved and lost. We never forget the place that was our home, nor our yearning to come back to it. To forgive is to preserve the memories and to let go of them as the first and single thing that guides us and informs our actions.

To rekindle compassion and spark hope, it is time for us to take responsibility; for our future and that of our children and for the babies yet to be born. Responsibility for this good and beautiful earth that is so tired of wars. Responsibility for the olive trees exhausted of being uprooted. Responsibility for the polluted coastline of Gaza. Responsibility towards our fellow human beings.

We all are tired of wars; except those who benefit from them.

It is time to awaken compassion and hope. Forgiveness will follow, eventually.

[1] https://ia-sc.org/healing-hatred/

[2] https://internationalforgiveness.com/jerusalem-conference.htm

Four Stories of Hope, Persistence and Leadership

Last week I spent a while inside a hole in time. In the early hours of Saturday morning I flew to Washington DC and on Wednesday I was already back in Israel, enveloped in the warmth of my family, everyday life, work, home and activism.

I traveled to DC in for the JStreet National Conference, as a representative of Women Wage Peace, to speak at a panel sponsored by the JStreet Women’s Leadership Forum. The conference this year was organized in the theme of “Defending Our Values, Fighting For Our Future” – a strongly appropriate title given the public and political climate since the election of Trump as president. 3,500 participants from all over the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority came together to think, listen and voice ideas about how to keep moving toward a two-state solution in a time when no politician in Israel or the US persist in this.

I came to the conference to express a gendered, critical view, a perspective which is not sounded enough even in the progressive Jewish left. I came because I believe that In times like these, it is critical that we work closely together to promote our shared values of peace and democracy and hold courageous and vital conversations about resistance and hope

As a story teller, I was constantly looking for stories I would want to cherish and take with me. Here are 4 short stories and an epilogue.

Lens

The panel I participated in, sponsored by the Women’s Leadership Forum, was titled “Change makers on the Ground in Israel”. I talked about Women Wage Peace, and why I am so committed to this movement. I told the listeners that we view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a powerful inter-sectional gender lens.

The audience, mostly women, were nodding in agreement and understanding. The attentive faces told me my words were welcome and relevant. I hoped my message would trickle and resonate outside that room and was overjoyed when my friend and collaborator Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, echoed my words in a panel that took place the following day in the plenum.

I did come out feeling that we still have a long way to go until women from diverse communities are equally represented in formal negotiations and in civil society efforts to end this conflict. However, in order to demand that of our elected officials, we must implement principles of inclusion and diversity in our own spaces. The gender lens is not a “prop”, it is a way to examine our political reality fully and comprehensively, without overlooking the perspectives, needs and assets brought to the table by 51% of the participants.

Hope

I also talked about the significance of hope and the notion that we cannot live without hope. During the conference, speakers kept stating that “despair is not an option”, which is very true. Despair, in the sense of apathy, indifference and resignation is, indeed, not an option.

But sometimes we’re moved to action by a sense of desperation and urgency, driven by the feeling that we have nothing to lose. Alongside that, there must be hope. Hope in the sense of believing in future good even when it seems despairingly remote and impossible.

Hope means insistence on believing in that good even when it seems we got dealt a lousy hand this round. Hope is the stuff from which the greatest stories about the human ability rise above hardships and challenges, above the doubts and disregard are made of. Do not mistake hope. It is not a “nice feminine quality”. Hope is a radical idea that sees far and beyond. Hope, if you will, is a very serious business.

Seriousness

In my last day in DC I got to meet Congresswoman Barbara Lee for the 13th District of California in the Democratic Party. Lee was elected to congress for the first time in 1998 after a long and impressive career as a civil rights activist, a member of the Black Panthers and a Senator in California State Senate.

I admit I was nervous before the meeting. This was my first time meeting a Congresswoman, not to mention a woman who is a model of brave leadership, determined and committed to justice and equality through and through.

We had 15 minutes together. I told her about my work in the Dafna Fund and about Women Wage Peace. I spoke of the magic that was created in the Palestinian and Israeli women’s march Qasr Al Yahud, on October 19th, 2016. I told her about the tears and joy of women who had only met for the first time, falling into each other’s arms in an embrace that spoke closeness and faith in partnering for peace. As I spoke with a trembling voice, I knew she understood.

congresswoman-barbara-lee

Determination

All the while, I kept getting updates on current affairs in Israel: the State Comptroller’s report on the 2014 Operation Protective Edge and the winds of war stirred in order to distract public attention from the high ranking political officials’ oversights that cost us in dear life.

From time to time I stole a glance at my email and IM messages from Israel. I read the Letter of the Mothers, which my friends at Women Wage Peace had written and watched as they stood firm outside the Ministry of Defense, demanding the defense cabinet to take responsibility for the Comptroller’s report and act immediately to end the conflict by resuming negotiations to reach a mutually binding peace agreement.

I saw, in the pictures of my friends’ faces, the hope, determination, persistence and willingness to lay everything aside and rise again and again to act in favor of the only logical solution that will end the bloodshed, suffering and loss that is binding us in a forcible grip for too many years.

Written in Jerusalem, in deep appreciation to our dear partners of the JStreet Women’s Leadership Forum.