Intractable Conflict and Forgiveness

I rarely engage in conversations about Israel…that do not either implicitly or explicitly raise the issue of history. One of the ways in which we seem to ground our various ideological commitments is through a commitment to a ‘start date’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For such a young country, there are numerous dates that have attained near-absolute significance to various parties to the conflict.

And yet, whenever I have heard anyone propose a way forward, a way to end the conflict, a prerequisite has always been forgiveness for past wrongs. While this takes great courage, it is also quite clear that it is a necessary first step. However, it is very hard for most of us to truly forgive and let go of all of the pain that the conflict has caused us, internally and in various spheres of moral concern that we inhabit.

With such obstacles, I find it very helpful to start by working through how I would forgive someone that I do not harbour any deep resentment for. That is why a line in the tachanun prayer, a prayer traditionally said twice a day where Jews admit and ask forgiveness for our sins, stood out to me.

When speaking to God, who — on a good day — we do not harbour any resentment towards, or feel any pain from, we come at forgiveness from a healthier place. Further, we know we have done wrong, which is much harder to admit in a conflict that is so raw and has such high stakes. In the context of tachanun, we ask God, near the end of the prayer:

אל תזכר לנו עונות ראשונים, מהר יקדמונו רחמיך, כי דלונו מאד – תהילים עט:ח

“Do not reminds us of our earlier sins — speedily bring forth your compassion — because we are lowly” (Psalm 79:8)

This one verse captures so much about what forgiveness requires. We must admit we are wrong, so wrong that we do not truly merit full restitution. We must simultaneously call on the Other’s deep wells of compassion, pleading that they overrule any inclination to strict justice that our past misdeeds might deserve.

In a conflict that has claimed so many lives, any single one of which is compared to the destruction of the entire world by the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:9), we must take this verse as our motto. We must seek to enter into relationship with the Other(s) in such a way that we can both ask for forgiveness as we do in tachanun — and be ready and willing to grant that forgiveness when it is asked of us.

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