Can we forgive those who hurt us and our loved ones? 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 last summer: one dealing with healing hatred in political conflicts and the other dedicated to forgiveness.
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.
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.