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September 18, 2014 | 23rd Elul 5774

Truth and Reconciliation

Galilee Diary #544, August 3, 2011
Marc Rosenstein

[Jeremiah dictated his prophecy to Baruch the scribe, who brought the scroll to the royal court]. ...And Yehudi [brought it and] read it in the ears of the king, and in the ears of all the princes that stood beside the king. Now the king was sitting in the winter-house in the ninth month, and the fireplace was alight before him. And it came to pass when Yehudi had read three or four columns that he cut it with the penknife and cast it into the fire that was in the fireplace, until all the roll was consumed in the fire...
         -Jeremiah 36:21-23

For twenty years, our educational center has been operating "Neighbors," a program that offers tour groups the opportunity to meet with Arab teenagers from villages in our area. For the Arabs, this is a chance to improve their English, broaden their horizons, and help to undo widely held stereotypes. For the Jewish visitors, it is a chance to meet the non-Jewish part (20%) of the Jewish state in a direct, authentic, and personal encounter - and indeed, to have their stereotypes undone. This July, over 30 busloads of visitors participated in the program. The standard format is to open with a background lecture tracing the history of the Jewish people's relationship to the Land of Israel, the Zionist revolution, and the development of the relationship between the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs in the course of the past century. Then the guests meet for an hour or so with a group of Arab teens, in one-on-one or small group conversations led by a facilitator who helps structure the conversations as they move from a focus on the personal and the cultural to more difficult questions of identity and "politics." We get high marks from the guests and their counselors - and the Arabs - for the balance of our approach, and our good-faith attempt to be objective and not to preach a political "line," either left or right.

One day recently a neighbor happened to walk by the room where an introductory lecture was taking place, listened for a few minutes, and later complained to a member of our staff, "Why do you tell them about what we did to the Arabs, and not about what the Arabs did to us?" We didn't take the comment seriously, because we know that we cram a lot into that hour, and do indeed talk about both sides' behaviors - but if you only listen to five minutes of it, you don't really get the whole story. And yet, the comment was, for me, a sad reminder of the state of public discourse in this country. People don't listen to the whole story, don't want to hear the whole story, and have built an identity and a moral stance on this refusal. Our own moral failings are neutralized, justified, attenuated, by our sense that after all, we are the victims here. Any attempt to suggest that the other side might also see themselves as victims is perceived as betrayal. And as long as we are under attack, we are not responsible for the situation. Whatever we do - "they made us do it."  And of course, this feeling is one thing we have in common with the Palestinians.

A few years ago we showed the documentary "Long Night's Journey into Day," a powerful and beautifully made film about the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa after apartheid. It explores the dilemmas that arose in that process, in which both black terrorists and white state terrorists publicly confessed and asked forgiveness for their acts. In the discussion after the screening, the first comment was: "Well, that has nothing to do with our situation here!" Meaning, I guess, that we have nothing to confess, and no possibility to forgive. It seems to me that while the South African process had its deficiencies (and its critics), and raises questions about the relationship between systematic justice and personal forgiveness, it has much to teach us. It forced the sides to listen to the whole story, and place themselves and their own behavior in a moral context more complex and ambiguous than the easy retreat into the moral high ground of absolute victimhood.

We have no Nelson Mandela. It seems we will continue to pick which five minutes of the story to hear, and it will sound good to us, but there will be no truth, and no reconciliation.

 

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