Truth and Reconciliation

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 10 May 2018

Way back in the last century, I remember coming to a meeting here which was addressed by Abba Eban, that wise Israeli politician – if that’s not an oxymoron. I don’t remember exactly what he talked about – I assume it was the peace process or the current state of Israeli politics – but I do remember two of his marvellous throw-away lines. One was about his education in England: “I learned,” he said, “the qualities of truth, honesty and fair play – things which have been such a handicap in my life in Israeli politics.” More serious, though, was the other one: “people make peace when they have exhausted all other possibilities.”

I don’t know if the leaders of North and South Korea have exhausted all other possibilities but the picture of them walking hand-in-hand on the border between their two countries was lovely, full of promise of something better. Nobody, of course, can say where, if anywhere, it will lead and cynics are already dismissing it as empty gesture stuff.

Yet, thinking back to Abba Eban’s talk here, or of watching – with tears in my eyes – as Rabin and Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, the hopes for some sort of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians seem not just far away, but to almost have vanished.

I think back to my days at West London Synagogue Junior Membership in the early 60s, when we had discussions about South Africa and wondered how it would all end. Many thought there would be some sort of bloodbath: the blacks would reach such a point of anger, despair and frustration that they would rise up against the white minority. And many whites thought the same and began to leave South Africa – all of them, apparently, ending up here as members of this synagogue!..….

One of the amazing things about the end of apartheid, therefore, was that it didn’t end like that. In very large measure that was due to the statesmanship of people like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and others; they displayed a breadth of spirit which enabled them to reject bitterness and revenge as their guiding principle, even after a lifetime of apartheid and all that it meant.

They knew that the blacks wouldn’t accept a non-violent handover of power if the whites didn’t somehow acknowledge what they had done under apartheid; but they also knew that the whites would resist the handover of power every step of the way, if they thought they were going to be subject to Nuremburg-style war crimes trials.

So the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 1996 in an attempt to resolve that apparently irresolvable paradox. Like other such commissions elsewhere in the world – the South African one wasn’t the first – it was tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoing by a government in the hope of resolving conflict left over from the past.

The end of apartheid meant the end of a sort of ‘civil war.’ Victims and perpetrators would have to go on living together in a very different relationship, building a new South Africa. The real conundrum was how to manage that new relationship?

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions work on the basis of ‘restorative justice’: bringing victims and perpetrators together to talk to, and listen to, each other in the hope, the belief, that doing so might repair the harm and indicate a way to move forward. It stands in contrast with ‘retributive justice’: you put the perpetrators on trial and punish the guilty with death sentences or imprisonment, as in the Nuremberg Trials or currently with the International Court in the Hague.

Perhaps the real questions the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was grappling with were something like, “what do you do with memory? What does ‘justice’ mean in these circumstances?”

Extremely bitter enemies do manage to live together. After 1945, Poland and Germany, Germany and France; Israel and Germany from the early 1950’s. But what about within the same country, as in South Africa? What do you with those who commit atrocities against their own population? Is it possible for victims and perpetrators to find a way of living together? – something that he Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Parents’ Association is attempting.

After 1945, France said “we’ll take our major leaders – the Lavals, Pétains and so on – put them on trial and punish them, but that done, we’ve dealt with our shameful past. Now we can move forwards.” The prevailing mythology was that somehow every French man and woman had been in the Resistance. Only in the 1970’s did the truer, more nuanced, picture begin to emerge. But even now, over 70 years later, it remains a divisive issue.

East Germany provides another model. The Stasi, the secret police, enlisted hundreds of thousands of ordinary Germans as informers, collaborators, spying on family, friends and colleagues. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the Stasi files were more or less thrown open. Some appalling things emerged: parents and children had informed on each other; as had husbands and wives. Friends and neighbours proved not to have been such good friends and neighbours after all.

Men like Mandela and Tutu, with a few of the white population, created a structure whereby memory was honoured, but didn’t necessarily follow a punitive model, with the perpetrators being executed or imprisoned. Research showed that participants did believe the Commission to have been effective but to varying degrees.

“Forgiveness,” explained Desmond Tutu, “does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what has happened seriously and not minimising it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence.” He laments the fact that so many whites denied any sense of guilt. “Those who do not consciously acknowledge any sense of guilt are in a way worse off than those who do. Apart from the hurt it causes to those who suffered, the denial by so many white South Africans even that they benefited from apartheid is a crippling, self-inflicted blow to their capacity to enjoy the fruits of change …. When we look at some of the conflict areas of the world, it becomes increasingly clear that there is not much of a future for them without forgiveness, without reconciliation.”

And, similarly, must some sort of process like that not also be part of an overall peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians?

The real question about memory transmutes, therefore, into: “what do you do with the ‘mythology’ on which you grew up, the things you believe about yourself which have guided and nourished you, provided you with a sense of your identity and therefore the identity of the ‘other’ – the one who is the ger, “the stranger who lives among you” from our sidra.

While the ‘other’ remains ‘other’ and, therefore, not like me, I will never be able to see the common humanity which links us. Reconciliation can only take place when I no longer see the one opposite me as different from whom and what I am

One observer of the Truth and Reconciliation process said that “it enabled the citizens of South Africa to begin to understand why people participated in such grotesque actions and what must be done to prevent such things from happening again….. for the TRC, justice is about uncovering what really happened, about establishing reality in all its conflicting perspectives. This essential form of justice would not have been found in the work of adversarial court cases, but required an amnesty process.” (Colleen Scott, “People Building Peace.”)

Hardly surprisingly, not everybody was happy with the Commission. Some of the victims and some of the families of those murdered argued that the culprits should be punished or victims should receive compensation – some acknowledgement by the whites of what they had inflicted. Tutu and others argued that ANC people also had to confess to crimes they had committed. Questions of ‘moral equivalence’ were raised: was a human rights violation committed by a black African fighting for freedom ‘less,’ in some way, than the beating and torture that South African police inflicted on blacks?

A 2000-year old rabbinic adage has it that whoever shows themselves merciful where they should be pitiless, in the end becomes pitiless when they should have been merciful. (Tanchuma, Metsora 1)

The TRC worked because people were able to tell their stories, what they experienced, even the perpetrators. Of course they were the ‘guilty’ ones; yet they, too, were brutalised by apartheid, as, I imagine, was everybody who lived under that system, to some extent or other. And while there is a factual truth that needed to be made public, the emotional truth of what people experienced needed to be heard. The establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recognised that this was, perhaps, the only way South Africa could have moved forwards without civil war breaking out.

Wherever such things occur, the record must be made clear – however unpalatable, whatever the circumstances. There is a lesson here for Israelis and Palestinians for that time when they, too will begin to move towards some different modus vivendi. But without that truth, without people telling their stories, everybody in a conflict knowing something of the factual and emotional truth of what the ‘other’ experienced, can true peace ever become a reality? Then the one who is seen as ‘the other,’ ‘the stranger’ can be seen in a different light – but only then.