So yesterday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. During the afternoon break between the morning prayer service and Neilah, the concluding service, I attended a panel discussion (also at the synagogue). Led by Phyllis Rodriguez, whose son was killed on September 11th and who has since become active in the Forgiveness Project, and including Robi Damelin and Ali (whose last name I don’t remember — I was fasting, people) of the Parents’ Circle – Families Forum, a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization that promotes and works toward reconciliation between those who have lost loved ones in the conflict, and that works toward peace.
In all the bloviating (guilty) about Israel and the Palestinian territories, about policy decisions, and about who has done what right and what wrong, the actual, personal, on-the-ground experiences and ramifications can tend to get a little lost. Yesterday, on the day on which Jews ask for forgiveness from those they have wronged (not to mention from God), Robi, Phyllis, and Ali helped us understand that forgiveness can be world-changing.
Robi’s son was killed by a Palestinian sniper when he was in the Israeli military. Ali’s brother was killed by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint. Ali said that at that moment the pain he felt at living behind a barbed-wire fence and having to pass a checkpoint every day turned into hate. And understandably. But now, through his work with the Parents Circle, he goes into schools with Robi and works with kids of Israeli and Palestinian students to teach nonviolence and the power of forgiveness. I’m not doing Ali or Robi — or Phyllis — justice. They all spoke so movingly about their loss and about the moment when they each chose between hate and reconciliation.
There’s no great point here, no in-depth analysis, no pithy line with which I’ll end this post. Phyllis Rodriguez said yesterday that she doesn’t think we are stuck with the human instinct to anger and violence, though the media may make us think that’s the only way. That instinct is there, but it has a twin — the desire for reconciliation, for taking a tragedy and doing something good for the world. Robi, Ali and Phyllis have chosen the latter; Phyllis advocates against the death penalty and the war in Iraq, and Ali and Robi work toward a two-state solution for Israel/Palestine. Desmond Tutu wrote in a 2004 letter to the Parents Circle that vulnerability is a prerequisite to peace. Maybe that’s part of our problem as a country — we’ve got this pathology that says we can never be vulnerable. But it also means we’re a long way from peace.