Is Forgiveness a Facile Solution to The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

Being Realistic About Avenues For Peace

By Professor Paul M. Hughes (University of Michigan-Dearborn)

April 1, 2015          Picture: Finbarr O’Reilly/REUTERS

Picture Description: An Israeli woman (C) and a Palestinian woman gesture at one another during a protest by Palestinian women against Jewish visitors to the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City on October 14 2014 REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly. “About half a dozen Orthodox Jewish worshipers wanted to pass along the narrow street toward the Western Wall and the Israeli border police created a passageway through the crowd of Palestinian women. As the Israelis walked between the shouting protesters I focused on the woman in the center of the scene. When she was right in front of me, she turned and gestured to the Palestinian woman. It wasn’t something done for the camera — I don’t think she even realized I was there. It was only when I looked at the picture afterward that I realized that the Palestinian woman had returned the gesture, which in this part of the world is the equivalent to giving someone the middle finger” -Finbarr O’Reilly.

This article is part of The Critique’s exclusive The Great War Series Part I: Gaza, Isis and The Ukraine.

1. Introduction

Forgiveness has been extensively discussed in the Anglo-American philosophical literature over the past thirty five or so years. Some of that literature focuses mainly on conceptual or definitional questions about what constitutes forgiveness and how forgiveness is to be distinguished from some other modes of responding to having been wronged, such as reconciliation, condonation, and vengeance. And while most of the literature over that period has concentrated on inter-personal forgiveness, some important work has attempted to make sense of forgiveness as a political response to such large scale wrongs as campaigns of ethnic cleansing or past discriminatory practices or policies such as legally enforced racial or ethnic segregation.

In this brief article I discuss whether forgiveness of any sort has a role to play in solving the ongoing and apparently intractable Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I begin with a brief description of what I take to be the consensus account of interpersonal forgiveness in the philosophical literature and whether there are plausible political analogues to this notion. I then inquire into whether forgiveness of any sort can play a central role in resolving Palestinian-Israeli hostilities, what would be required of each group in order for forgiveness to play a fundamental role in ameliorating ongoing tensions or ending the conflict, and whether even meeting the preconditions for forgiveness would still fall short of a strategy for resolution if forgiveness on behalf of either or both parties would violate the demands of justice. I conclude that “political” forgiveness is not a form of forgiveness at all, and that although dyadic interpersonal forgiveness surely plays some role in brokering lasting peace between groups of people whose relations have long been conflictual, other mechanisms, such as political reconciliation, truth commissions, and respect for the rule of law are logically and pragmatically prior to it.


2. Interpersonal Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a multifaceted phenomenon, admitting of such varieties as conditionally or unconditionally forgiving others who have wronged us, forgiving ourselves for having wronged others, being forgiven our sins by God, forgiving the dead, and so on. The main sense of forgiveness is thought by many writers on the topic to refer to a dyadic relation in which a victim of wrong forgives her transgressor for having wronged her, and that this involves a process of overcoming the anger or other hard feelings caused by the wrongdoer.

This, or close variants of it, is regarded as the core interpersonal notion of forgiveness.[1] On this view, justified forgiveness is thought to require repentance or some other form of morally reformative behavior on behalf of the wrongdoer (e.g. attempting to atone or make amends for the wrong) which provides the basis for the victim forswearing or overcoming her resentment or other negative emotional attitude directed toward the wrongdoer. This view also typically regards forgiveness as the exclusive prerogative of the victim of wrong.[2]


3. Political forgiveness

A number of recent scholarly books have attempted to make sense of the notion of political forgiveness, which might be regarded as a political or collective analogue to paradigmatic interpersonal forgiveness. P.E. Digeser has argued that a kind of political forgiveness is possible, but that it is one that is largely shorn of the core subjective elements of interpersonal forgiving. Specifically, political forms of forgiveness do not involve the feelings of resentment or other forms of anger that often accompany having been wronged, as well as the process of overcoming such feelings for morally appropriate reasons.[3]

That political mechanisms for responding to moral atrocities, whether they are called political forgiveness or something else, cannot be modeled on the standard account of interpersonal forgiveness seems to make sense inasmuch as the sheer number of victims and wrongdoers involved in moral atrocities and historical wrongs suggests the impossibility of their ever being able to engage in the dynamics of interpersonal forgiving.

Other mechanisms for bringing wrongdoers and their victims together again, such as the establishment (or re-establishment) of democratic rule of law, truth commissions, and reconciliation schemes may be more promising efforts to broker morally effective responses to historical wrongs or to ongoing political conflicts. In my view, the use of the label “political forgiveness” to refer to some or all of these mechanisms is at least misleading, and often enough just a misapplication of the term forgiveness.

In their essay Political Economy of Forgiveness, Peter Boettke and Christopher Coyne argue in favor of what they take to be a political form of forgiveness but which is arguably something else altogether. At the beginning of their analysis, Boettke and Coyne cite the example of a South African widow who publicly forgave the racist murderer of her husband as an instance of what must transpire between wrongdoers and their victims to effect successful regime shifts from totalitarian (or racially unjust) societies to democracies.[4]

Acknowledging that “such a dramatic act of forgiveness is rare” they go on to assert that “this capacity for forgiveness is an act of profound practicality” for it is essential to “learning how to live with one’s enemies and to build a future together.” Deploying the central economic concept of “opportunity costs,” Boettke and Coyne argue that the focus of economic analysis is about future choices, and not at all about the past, which is unchangeable.

On this view, forgiveness is “practical” in the sense that it is a way of forgetting about a past that cannot in any way be altered and focussing instead on the future which is in the process of being created and defined. As the heading of one of the sections of their essay puts it this is a “To forgive is to forget” conception of forgiveness. There are, though, two serious problems with this analysis.

First, if the instance of interpersonal forgiving with which they began their discussion is, as they claimed, a “rare” act, then how can such forgiving be a significant, practical aspect of brokering the peace between victims and perpetrators of large scale moral atrocities within a nation or between different States? The infrequency of such interpersonal forgiveness suggests rather that establishing peace between conflicting groups or paving the way for future cooperation between them requires other mechanisms better suited to addressing the institutional and political failures that enabled those conflicts and atrocities in the first place. In short, theirs is not a “forgive and forget” model of interpersonal forgiveness at all, but a call for self-induced moral amnesia as a step in moving forward in life.

Second, why suppose that since the past is unchangeable the best bet is to forget about it? It is a truism that forgetting about past injustice or other wrongdoing is often a way of enabling future injustice and wrongdoing. Most philosophers who write on the topic would say that forgiveness is not a matter of forgetting at all, with some arguing that forgiving involves re-configuring (not forgetting) the past. Though this may be an elusive and obscure idea, other mainstream accounts of interpersonal forgiveness rely heavily on the idea that before a wrong can be successfully and morally renounced wrongdoers must, as noted in the previous section, engage in specific behaviors that signal or enact their ownership of the wrongful action(s) and their efforts to amend or atone for them.

Finally, what Boetkke and Coyne are proposing is more akin to political reconciliation than it is to forgiveness. This is made clear when they note that the way forward for perpetrators and victims of horrific wrongs requires an ethic that “balances retribution, vengeance, and reconciliation” with regard to wrongdoers since other options, such as an uncompromising demand for retribution or justice, will undermine the ability of a society to achieve a peaceful future.

It might be thought that forgiveness of some sort could itself be a form of political reconciliation. Something like this seemed to be at the heart of the South African Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) effort in the late 1990’s. Indeed, the title of Desmond Tutu’s well known book No Future Without Forgiveness seems to imply as much.

Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation: Truth & Reconciliation Commission

However, one problem with an attempted political reconciliation modeled on interpersonal forgiving is that, as Colleen Murphy has convincingly argued, it places the burden of initiating the reconciliation process on the victims of wrong rather than on their wrongdoers. This is so since in standard cases of interpersonal forgiveness the victim must be prepared to accept whatever moral work the wrongdoer engages in (e.g. apologizing, repenting, trying to atone, etc.) yet the larger legal and political structures that defined the context in which the large-scale wrongdoing occurred remain unchanged.

In short, reforming the context in which Palestinian-Israeli hostilities occur on the basis of interpersonal forgiveness between individual wrongdoers and their victims is a misguided bottom up strategy that places much of the initial burden of such an effort on the victims of wrong rather than on the perpetrators, and which also ignores the institutional and international contexts in which that wrongdoing occurred and continues. There cannot be meaningful interpersonal forgiving or genuine and lasting reconciliation in contexts which allow for or even foster ongoing conflict and human rights abuses.

For these reasons, then, interpersonal forgiveness is not a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, nor is it reasonably thought to be the foundation of a political reconciliation, either.


4. Forgiveness and Justice

It might be argued that the real problem of thinking that interpersonal forgiveness might be at least a partial solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not that such forgiveness cannot be the starting point of the socio-political changes necessary for lasting peace, or that there simply is no collective analogue to forgiveness that makes sense.

“Reforming the context in which Palestinian-Israeli hostilities occur on the basis of interpersonal forgiveness is a misguided bottom up strategy that places much of the initial burden of such an effort on the victims of wrong rather than on the perpetrators”

The problem rather, is that forgiveness is incompatible with the demands of justice, and the conflict has been and continues to be grounded in intractable views about historical and ongoing injustices between Palestinians and Israelis.

In the face of injustice, as with any wrongdoing, people are often torn between conflicting moral intuitions, on the one hand insisting on seeking justice for wrongdoers, and on the other hand proffering forgiveness. Some thinkers have argued that political reconciliation efforts are inconsistent with retributive justice (Tutu, 1999) and thus that to forgive perpetrators of injustice is itself a form of injustice, of failing to give wrongdoers what they deserve.

Others have urged that some wrongs are “unforgivable,” in the sense that they are so horrible that they ought not to be forgiven.[5] If the longstanding and ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict has involved tremendous moral wrongs or injustices that many on both sides regard as incapable of being atoned for, then part of the conflict is itself this belief that there is nothing that wrongdoers can do to deserve forgiveness and, thus, that it would be unjust to forgive them.

The question in the title of this essay asks whether forgiveness may be a part of a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There are obviously no easy solutions to this conflict, and so the idea cannot plausibly be that if only members of the conflicting groups would open their hearts and let forgiveness reign then everything would be fine and peace would be at hand.

“If the longstanding and ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict has involved tremendous moral wrongs or injustices that many on both sides regard as incapable of being atoned for, then part of the conflict is itself this belief that there is nothing that wrongdoers can do to deserve forgiveness and, thus, that it would be unjust to forgive them”

Forgiveness of the interpersonal variety is not an easy resolution to any conflict, because it isn’t typically “easy” to forgive wrongdoers. And the means by which political conflicts may be at least partly resolved, by, for example, utilizing truth and reconciliation processes, may be too abstract and impersonal to achieve what genuine interpersonal forgiveness seems to require.

Whether or not interpersonal forgiveness in contexts of large-scale wrong and ongoing hostilities is or is not unjust (and this remains a controversial and unsettled issue) even the many philosophical and political analyses of political reconciliation that have focused on conflicts between groups of people within the same society may have little to offer regarding conflicts between different political states. There is no common past that requires mending between Palestinians and Israelis so that they can move together as one society into a peaceful future.


5. Conclusion

Forgiveness by itself does not seem to be a plausible mechanism for solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and in that sense is indeed a “facile” solution, though this does not rule out forgiveness of some sort as part of an ultimate solution. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one with deep historical roots, one that has resisted numerous diplomatic efforts to find a resolution.

A recent New York Times editorial described the efforts of John Kerry and previous Secretaries of State to broker peace agreements in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict noting that Kerry and his predecessors have often wearied of the ceaseless “tit-for-tat retribution” that has for so long characterized that relationship and been an obstacle to progress.

BBC Hard Talk: Kerry Urges Broader Israel-Palestinian Talks

One point repeatedly made by politicians outside the Middle East is that the participants to this conflict have to want to resolve their tensions. As evidenced by a recent New York Times editorial (Saturday November 7, 2014, p.A23) the Israeli’s at least seem not to be interested in considering a two-state solution, insisting that Palestinian sovereignty is incompatible with Israeli security.[6] It’s difficult to imagine that the Palestinian people would react to this with anything less than outrage and outright rejection, further cementing the impasse.

In his new book Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami writes that:

“One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss.”

This is a truth about how people (often) affect one another, not a mere logical point about how forgiveness, re-acceptance, reconciliation and other modes of coming to terms with interactions characterized by wrongdoing presuppose that wrongdoing.

Interpersonal forgiveness might be part of a larger less personal and more political form of reconciliation necessary for lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but whatever mechanisms might bring about a resolution to this ongoing crisis, those involved must want it. And nobody else can do that for them.

Footnotes & References:

[1] For the main lines of this view see my article “Forgiveness” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(2014), especially section four “Forgiveness as a Process of Overcoming Anger.”

[2] The idea that only the victim of wrong has the appropriate “standing”to forgive is a persistent assumption in the philosophical literature on the topic, though that notion has recently come under criticism by Glen Pettigrove in his “The Standing to Forgive”(The Monist 92.4, October, 2009:583-604.).The consensus view of interpersonal forgiveness also typically involves the idea that forgiveness is not owed to wrongdoers as a matter of right or duty. This view is not, however, universally embraced, and there are some who believe that victims of wrong sometimes have a duty to forgive wrongdoers if wrongdoers engage in appropriate behaviors that signal, or enact, their moral transformation.

[3] P.E. Digeser, Political Forgiveness (Cornell University Press, 2001). See also D. Shriver, Jr., An Ethic For Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics (Oxford University Press, 1995, Benjamin Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, (Doubleday, New York, 2000), and Linda Radzik, Making Amends: Atonement in Morality, Law, and Politics(Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4] “Political Economy of Forgiveness,”Peter J. Boettke and Christopher J. Coyne. Social Science and Modern Society 44.2 (2007): 53-59.

[5] There has not been any effort in the literature to distinguish conceptual, empirical, and normative senses of what it means to say that some wrongs are unforgivable. Perhaps the inability of the dead to proffer post-mortem forgiveness to their wrongdoers is an instance of logically impossible forgiveness (though that may depend on the plausibility of proxy forgivers doing so for them), and it is clearly that case that some people cannot psychologically forgive some wrongs done to them. The idea that some wrongs are so horrific that it would be morally wrong to forgive them is another sense of the notion. My guess is that in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict all three of these are part of the debate about whether forgiveness is possible between the perpetrators and victims of the wrongs committed in the ongoing struggle between the two groups.

[5] Naftali Bennett, the Chairman of the Jewish Home Party and Israel’s Minister of Economy, argues that the two-state solution has become irrelevant, and that an alternative model for peace that allows for greater Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank could include political independence. But this alternative plan will not allow for a Palestinian State, Palestinian control of its borders, or for a Palestinian military.

Paul Hughes
Paul Hughes
Paul M.Hughes is professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. His areas of specialization include moral philosophy, philosophy of law, and political philosophy. Professor Hughes has published articles and reviews on forgiveness, temptation, personal autonomy, and affirmative action, amend other topics. He is currently working on a series of articles on temptation and moral character, as well as an annotated bibliography on forgiveness for Oxford University Press.
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