Monday, January 28, 2008

Arun Gandhi apology and resignation

Arun Gandhi has resigned from the peace institute he headed at the University of Rochester.

He issued an apology a few days after his original column -

I am writing to correct some regrettable mis-impressions I have given in my comments on my blog this week. While I stand behind my criticisms of the use of violence by recent Israeli governments -- and I have criticized the governments of the U.S., India and China in much the same way -- I want to correct statements that I made with insufficient care, and that have inflicted unnecessary hurt and caused anger.

I do not believe and should not have implied that the policies of the Israeli government are reflective of the views of all Jewish people. Indeed, many are as concerned as I am by the use of violence for state purposes, by Israel and many other governments.


This is the point that I found most offensive in his remarks - the conflation of the actions of the state of Israel with all Jews, indiscriminately. If he wishes to condemn the actions of Israel, I have no problems with that, and may agree with him in some instances. But on the other hand, even if Jews don't agree with me or with him, that still does not mean that they are guilty of the inciting to violence that he accused us all of.

I do believe that when a people hold on to historic grievances too firmly it can lead to bitterness and the loss of support from those who would be friends. But as I have noted in previous writings, the suffering of the Jewish people, particularly in the Holocaust, was historic in its proportions. While we must strive for a future of peace that rejects violence, it is also important not to forget the past, lest we fail to learn from it. Having learned from it, we can then find the path to peace and rejection of violence through forgiveness.


It is certainly a feature of contemporary American Jewish life that the Holocaust does sometimes become the core of people's Jewish identity - I think that this is damaging to people who do this. How can something as horrific as the Holocaust be the foundation of a positive identity? The Jewish tradition is ancient and rich - this is what we should be learning about and transmitting to the next generation. But unfortunately, it is not possible to ignore the Holocaust and its continuing impact on Jews, even those in the third generation after the events of the Shoah.

I do have a fundamental theological disagreement with Arun Gandhi, about the role of forgiveness. According to traditional Jewish thinking, if someone offends you in some way - injures you physically, steals from you, defames you - then there is no requirement to forgive that person for the offense. If, however, the perpetrator comes to you and asks for forgiveness, and offers compensation for your losses, then it is incumbent upon you to forgive that person. If you refuse to do so, then the Jewish court (beit din) can offer the perpetrator forgiveness on your behalf. But the perpetrator's repentance and compensation are integral parts of the process of forgiveness.

How, then, can Jews forgive the perpetrators of the Holocaust? Those who committed the crimes have not come to the Jewish people either individually or as a group to ask for forgiveness, nor have they offered compensation. Adolf Eichmann had to be dragged out of his hiding place by the Mossad - he didn't turn himself in with statements of regret and remorse. If you watch the movie "Shoah" by Claude Lanzmann, he interviewed utterly unrepentant Nazis.

And then, who is it that has the right to give forgiveness? The millions of dead cannot offer forgiveness, because they are gone. The survivors of the killing? Well, have the perpetrators asked their forgiveness? I haven't heard of any such cases. The children of survivors? They are not the ones who directly suffered at the hands of the Nazis? The Jewish people as a whole? How can we offer forgiveness on behalf of others who might not agree with us?

I think that individual forgiveness can be an important part of engaging in a nonviolent struggle against oppression - by someone who has decided to take on that responsibility. But I don't see how Arun Gandhi or anyone else can ask "the Jews" as a people to grant forgiveness.

We certainly cannot blame Germans who lived after the Second World War of complicity in crimes committed before their birth - but I see no reason to forgive those who destroyed one third of the Jewish people.

2 comments:

  1. Rebecca wrote:
    This is the point that I found most offensive in his remarks - the conflation of the actions of the state of Israel with all Jews, indiscriminately

    Deane:
    I quite agree, Rebecca. Arun Gandhi made a false generalisation about the views of all Jews. I am glad he noted his error and corrected himself.



    Rebecca also wrote:
    I do have a fundamental theological disagreement with Arun Gandhi, about the role of forgiveness. According to traditional Jewish thinking, if someone offends you in some way - injures you physically, steals from you, defames you - then there is no requirement to forgive that person for the offense

    Deane:
    (Without even wanting to be 'traditional') there is -- on the other hand -- this rather interesting idea about forgiveness:

    "Before we can ask forgiveness of God, we must first forgive God, who should know better, for all the hurts we have suffered in this life--we must first forgive Him and keep loving Him--with all our hearts and souls--even when what He does drives us crazy."
    - Dov Taylor, Rabbi, Congregation Solel, Highland Park, Illinois, Founder and Director of the International Torah Corps, 1965-84, Visiting Scholar at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in 1992, Daniel Jeremy Silver Fellow at Harvard in 1999.

    "This piece of infinity, as we live it now, I can carry it all on my shoulders without being crushed by the weight and I can now forgive God that the situation is no doubt the one that it should be. That one can have so much love as to be able to forgive God!"
    - Etty Hillesum, Westerbork Concentration Camp (July 1942, died Auschwitz 30 Nov 1943)

    "If we stand on trial today, why isn't God on trial for all that is wrong in our world? The answer is that we need to forgive God, just as God prays that God needs to forgive us."
    - Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell, Yom Kippur 5763

    "When asked to forgive others we are, in a certain sense, being asked to forgive God himself. . . ."
    - Cardinal O'Connor, St. Patrick's Cathedral (28 Feb 1999)

    "Forgiveness then becomes a process of letting go of whatever we thought others have done to us, or whatever we may think we have done to others."
    - John Kessel, 'Hearts Do Not in Eyes Shine' Asimov's SF Magazine (Oct 1983)

    "Now I turn to the phrase 'forgiving God'. We know that we, especially the Jews, often make God appear before a court. After the Shoah, there were scenarios in which some Jewish communities called upon God to appear and to respond, to account for his misdeeds. But even without these theatrical and sometimes unbelievable scenarios, we are constantly trying to judge God. Even if we forgive him, even if we think finally that we cannot judge God, nevertheless the movement to evaluate God ethically, trying to understand the will and the strategies and designs of God, is a way of judging him. Finally, the believers are those who think that they do not have the right to judge, that 'a priori' they forgive God for whatever God does. I am not sure that all the believers do that constantly. The people who have faith in God - since faith is not certainty and since faith is a risk - are also the people who are constantly tempted not to forgive God, tempted to accuse or to denounce God. That is part of the risk of faith. I am sure that we are constantly struggling with the temptation to judge God, constantly."
    - Jacques Derrida

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  2. Thank you for the quotations on "forgiving God." I especially like what Derrida said (and it's one of the most comprehensible remarks I've ever read from him!). Yes, this is of course a constant question for a believer. Elie Wiesel wrote about this a few years ago in a New York Times op-ed, reflecting on the harsh judgement on God that appears in his book Night. See my comments in Elie Wiesel.

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