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Ask forgiveness? Who, us?

By Gideon Levy, Ha'aretz, Sunday, March 26, 2000

Was the Pope's apology enough for us? Did his words suffice for atonement? And why did he not request more explicit forgiveness for the Catholic Church's involvement in the Holocaust?.A whole country held its breath on Friday in anticipation of the speech Pope John Paul II would deliver at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. For a moment, it seemed that the entire fate of the visit hinged on the scope of the forgiveness he would ask of us. Israel demanded that he ask for such forgiveness.

This Israeli passion for forgiveness is related to our greed for love: The whole world, "from Damascus to Kush," always has to love us, unconditionally; the most pro-Jewish Pope ever has to go down on his knees and solicit our forgiveness, as though he were responsible for the sins of the Nazis. Of course, the Jewish people deserve to be asked for forgiveness by the Church, too, but Israel should be a good deal less demanding. There is no forgiveness for the Holocaust.

At the same time, there is great significance to gestures of asking forgiveness, such as the unforgettable bending of the knee of Germany's Willy Brandt, or the very fact of the Pope's moving visit to Yad Vashem. Even in a cynical reality, symbols are fraught with meaning.

Israel's demands for more and more acts of forgiveness would be far more understandable and justified if it, too, was capable of acceeding itself to such requests. If Israel were a little more generous in asking forgiveness from its victims, its own demands in this regard would be not only more understandable but would bear greater moral validity as well. But the term "forgiveness" is absent from the Israeli lexicon.

It has to be emphasized that there was no other event like the Holocaust and that it is absolutely not amenable to comparisons. But that is not to say that it is only for events of the magnitude of the Holocaust that forgiveness should be requested. There are also far smaller injustices that merit this.

Israel accidentally kills about 100 Lebanese civilians at Kafr Kana in Operation Grapes of Wrath. Its official spokesmen are quick to say that Israel is "sorry" but "is not apologizing." Why not, actually? Because for Israel, an apology is equivalent to weakness. What would have happened if the prime minister of Israel at the time had stood up and asked forgiveness, without ifs or buts, even offering compensation to the victims? Would a hair have fallen off our heads if we had asked a simple pardon from the victims and their families? Recall how generous and captivating was the journey of apology undertaken by King Hussein after a Jordanian soldier murdered schoolgirls from Beit Shemesh.

As far as can be recalled, Israel has never apologized for anything, as though it were a state that has never done anything that merits an apology. Not the "small" injustices of the occupation and not the great historic injustice done to the Palestinians. Not one family from the Palestinian "family of bereavement" has received an official apology from Israel. Not the families of the children who were killed, most of them innocent of any wrongdoing, not the families of the children who will remain crippled for life because of the light trigger fingers of soldiers. Not the torture victims, some of them also innocent of wrongdoing, whose lives were utterly changed, and not those who were shot dead at army roadblocks. Not the pregnant women who lost their infants because of the insensitivity of soldiers at roadblocks and not the emergency cases who did not make it to a hospital on time because of a curfew. Not those who were humiliated during needless searches of their homes and not the thousands who experienced false arrest. An Israeli apology? Forget it. A request for forgiveness? Don't make us laugh.

Is there anyone in Israel who seriously thinks that the Palestinians do not deserve an apology? Israel will one day have to set up its own truth and reconciliation commission, like the one in South Africa - particularly for what it has wrought in the last 10 years - as part of a process of internal conciliation and purification. This will be even more necessary with regard to the great historical injustice. We may have been righteous victims in 1948, but on the road to realizing our claim to justice we perpetrated a terrible wrong on another people who had absolutely no connection with our calamity. That wrong continues to bleed in the refugee camps, in the occupied territories and in the Palestinian diaspora, and it will continue to haunt us and prevent the achievement of a genuine settlement. For the most part it is irrevocable; no reparations will atone for it. But Israel is unwilling, to this day, to even acknowledge its existence, not to speak of taking responsibility for it.

An Israeli request for forgiveness from the people who paid a steep price for the injustice that was done to the Jews could generate a turning point in the relations between the two peoples. Unfortunately, no one in Israel is even thinking along these lines. The Palestinian people - 600,000 of whom were expelled or forced to flee from their homes and villages which were then wiped off the face of the earth, whose social and cultural fabric was torn apart almost overnight, who continue to live in refugee camps like the one visited by the Pope - deserve some recognition of the wrong that was inflicted upon them. That has to be followed by an admission of responsibility and a request for forgiveness, just as we demand such acts for ourselves. There is an important moral aspect to this, but also a practical aspect: No true settlement will be achieved without it

(c) copyright 2000 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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