Forgive and Forget

For another empty promise, we are expected to forgive and forget. Even if we would want to, we are not in the position to forgive and forget. A story illustrates this point.

Prof. Shmuel Neumann

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As an indigent graduate student, I was forced at times to hitchhike home, several hundred miles away. On one ride, I was lectured to, by someone with a heavy German accent, on how the Jews of Germany brought it upon themselves, how the poor Germans suffered humiliation and defeat, how the Germans suffered the bombardment in Dresden, and how it is now time to forgive and forget the Holocaust. I escaped that ride at the first gas stop, but have not escaped that worldview.

In a recent poll, more than 70% of Germans are sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust. And now, the United States expects us to forgive and forget the over 1,000 Jews killed and several thousand permanently injured by the so-called Palestinians.

In the latest stab in the back, George W. Bush considers unilateral disengagement from Gaza and northern Shomron to be an insufficient unilateral painful concession, and wants Israel to wait for the Abus (Mazen and Ala) to announce a ceasefire, which will be rewarded with deep Israeli pullbacks and a reconstruction package of 6-8 billion dollars that Israeli taxpayers are expected to contribute to.

For another empty promise, we are expected to forgive and forget. Even if we would want to, we are not in the position to forgive and forget. A story illustrates this point.

Rabbi Israel Kagan, commonly known as the Chafetz Chaim (after one of his most influential works) was traveling on a train, immersed in a religious book he was studying. Alongside him sat three Jews, anxious to kill time by playing cards. The game required a fourth hand, so they asked the unrecognized stranger to join them. Rabbi Kagan politely refused, explaining that he preferred to continue his reading. The frustrated card players refused to take no for an answer. They began to beat the poor rabbi until they left him bleeding.

Hours later, the train pulled into the station. Hundreds of people swarmed the platform waiting to greet the great sage. Posters bore signs of welcome to the Chafetz Chaim. As the rabbi, embarrassed by all the adulation, walked off the train with his bruises, the crowd lifted him up and carried him off on their shoulders. Watching with horror were the three Jews who had not long before accosted the simple Jew sitting in their cabin, now revealed as one of the spiritual giants of their generation. Profoundly ashamed and plagued by their guilt, they managed to make their way through the crowd and reached their unwilling cards partner.

With tears, they poured out their feelings of shame and remorse. How could they possibly have assaulted this great rabbi? They begged for forgiveness. And incredibly enough, the rabbi said no. The man who spent his life preaching love now refused to extend it to people who harmed him and regretted their actions. It seemed incomprehensible. So the three Jews attributed it to a momentary lapse. Perhaps, they thought, it was just too soon for the rabbi to forgive them. He probably needed some time to get over the hurt. They would wait a while and ask again at a more propitious moment.

Several weeks passed and it was close to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Even the simplest Jews knew that they had to gain forgiveness from their friends if they wanted to be pardoned by G-d. With trepidation, the wicked three wrangled an appointment and once again were able to speak to the rabbi. They pleaded their case. Still, Rabbi Kagan said no. He would not forgive them.

The rabbi's son was present as this strange scene played itself out. Puzzled by his father's peculiar behavior, he couldn't contain himself. It was so unlike anything he had ever witnessed before. Why did his father suddenly act so cruelly? Why would he persist in tormenting people who only asked for a simple expression of forgiveness?

The son dared to ask. His father explained: "Do you really think I don't want to forgive these poor Jews before the High Holy Days? If it were only in my power to do so, don't you know that I would have forgiven them when they stood before me at the railroad station? Of course I, Rabbi Kagan, forgive them for what they did to me. When they learned who I was, they were mortified and filled with shame for what they had done. But the man they beat up was the one they presumed to be a simple, unassuming poor person, with no crowd of well-wishers waiting to greet him. He was the victim and only he is capable of granting them forgiveness. Let them go find that person. I am incapable of releasing them from their guilt."

Similarly, I should have reacted to the German driver's suggestion that it was time for us to move on after the Holocaust, and to forgive and forget, by telling him, "I was not the one who was sealed in the gas chambers to die a horrible death. I didn't have my child pulled from my breast and shot in front of my eyes. I was not among the tortured, the beaten, the whipped and the murdered. It is they, and they alone, who can offer forgiveness. Go and find those six million and ask them if they are prepared to forgive and forget."

By the same token, even if we wanted to forgive and forget the atrocities of the so-called Palestinians, we must go find the thousands killed, the thousands injured, and ask them if they are prepared to forgive and forget.

Only victims have standing to forgive and forget; society as a whole has an obligation to execute justice. In Judaism, there is a concept of goel hadam. If someone kills by accident, he is subject to being killed by the decedent's family unless he moves to one of the six cities of refuge. The decedent's family is not expected to forgive and forget. Certainly, if a murder is committed intentionally, the decedent's family does not have the prerogative to forgive and forget; the murderer must be executed.

When a people attacks us, it is our obligation to fight, and if defeated, to remember the casualties and not to forgive and forget. On the tenth of Tevet, we fast and remember the breach of the walls of Jerusalem. On Tisha B'Av, we fast and remember the attacks of the Babylonians and the Romans, and the destruction of both Temples. On the fast of Esther, we remember the attempted genocide of the Jews by the ancient Persians. On the Sabbath before Purim, we are obligated to read from the Torah where it recounts the attack of Amalek. We are instructed to eliminate every last one of them, to erase them from this earth, to remember and never forget.

It is our obligation to remember the Holocaust. It is our obligation to give testimony to the depth of depravity that humans stooped, not just in the Holocaust, but in the pogroms, expulsions, Inquisitions and the millennia of homelessness memorialized by Lord Byron.(1)

Since Hitler, Yasser Arafat was the first to issue an order to kill Jewish children.(2) It is our obligation to remember and never forget the atrocities of the so-called Palestinians. The legacy we are obliged to leave our children is that Jews must never forget; they must stand their ground and never give up ground, so that they have a place on the ground, and not in the ground.


1) "Oh! Weep For Those"
by George Gordon, Lord Byron

Oh! Weep for those that wept by Babel's stream,
Whose shrines are desolate, whose land a dream,
Weep for the harp of Judah's broken shell -
Mourn - where their God that dwelt - the Godless dwell!
And where shall Israel lave her bleeding feet?
And when shall Zion's songs again seem sweet?
And Judah's melody once more rejoice
The hearts that leap'd before its heavenly voice?
Tribes of the wandering foot and weary breast!
How shall ye flee away and be at rest!
The wild-dove hath her nest - the fox his cave -
Mankind their Country - Israel but the grave.

(From Hebrew Melodies, 1815)

2) "Arafat in the Eyes of a Holocaust Survivor" by Solly Ganor;, Nov. 24, 2004.