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In my recent post on forgiveness, I wrote about the film Forgiving Mengele. This documentary follows Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of the inhumane experiments of Dr. Mengele in Auschwitz, who decided to forgive Mengele as part of her own healing process.

Eva is a woman who is strong in her convictions about the importance of forgiveness. She went to meet with some Palestinians at the Peace Research Institute for the Middle East in the West Bank as a way of:

testing [her] ideas of forgiveness in different situations to see if somehow we could stop this vicious cycle of revenge.

In addition to some Palestinian historical consultants and teachers, she met with Sami Adwan, a Palestinian Professor of education, who had been active in the Fatah Movement and imprisoned in an Israeli jail for five months. He spoke about how he used to hate all Israelis, seeing them as a source of [his] suffering and how his only interactions with Israelis had been in interrogation rooms. Later, however, he had opportunities to meet with Israelis as equals. He went on to say:

I don’t know if I’m reaching the point of forgiveness, but I am reaching the point of understanding. I found out that Israelis are willing to listen to the other side. The Palestinians are eager to tell their stories.

In my post on Stories as a Means to Enhance Mutual Understanding and in my book, Repairing the Quilt of Humanity: A Metaphor for Healing and Reparation, I discuss the value of stories as a vehicle for creating mutual understanding. I see telling stories as a key to healing and reconciliation. Stories provide a context that helps us understand other perspectives; they can help us see through others’ eyes or step in their shoes. I had anticipated that Eva’s meeting with these Palestinian individuals would be an opportunity for mutual understanding. I was saddened and disappointed, therefore, when that did not come to pass.

Eva was visibly uncomfortable during the meeting and, at times while others were speaking, she even rolled her eyes. Toward the end of the meeting, in response to hearing a story, she said:

“I don’t have any comment on that. I feel very sorry that he suffered but I don’t want to hear eight, nine stories of how much suffering they have done. I think that is unfair. I don’t think it has anything to do with the books we are trying to discuss and I didn’t want to hear his story. I know his story and everybody’s story.”

Prof. Adwan aptly responded by stating:

“That doesn’t get us anywhere. Unless you are willing to hear my story, unless I am willing to hear your story, there will be no meeting point. I would listen to your story ten times. … I myself I don’t want to continue to see myself as a victim. I need this chance to grow from my situation to feel free like you are free now.

Clearly Prof. Adwan and I saw this meeting as a great opportunity. Eva, however, experienced the meeting as:

an unbelievable barrage of your people did this.. I felt threat. I was at their mercy and that is a very uncomfortable feeling . And there were times when the thought went through my mind, ‘here I am in Palestinian Territory, with Palestinian people, and what if they kidnap me?'”

She described the meeting as:

“really very disappointing. I was very troubled. I feel that the idea of forgiveness cannot really happen while people are fighting for their lives. Yes, I understand that they don’t know what else to do besides getting angry. The problem was that it was not a very comfortable position for me to be in. I could not cope with it. It was very very hard, they are hurting, they are angry and it was more than I could deal with.”

I am not judging Eva or her reaction. It is understandable, particularly for an Auschwitz survivor, that a situation in which she felt that she was being attacked (even if that was not the intention of the individuals she was with), would bring on a fight-flight reaction. This incident merely highlights how difficult it is for people who feel that their survival is threatened to be able to hear others speak from a different perspective.

While it is never possible to create “safe” spaces for dialogue, in instances in which all parties have deep-seated, strong emotions, it is vital to create a space in which individuals can feel “safe enough” to hear others’ stories. It is possible that in the meeting Eva participated in, there was not enough ground work from the start to create that kind of space. It is also possible that because of Eva’s enormous strength in other contexts, it was assumed that she would be strong enough to be able to hear these stories without becoming defensive. But none of us can be strong in all contexts,. Our empathy and potential for forgiveness can be eviscerated by fear. Fear is the real enemy. As I wrote in an earlier post, fear is the root of all evil. Ironically, that post was about the friendships developed between an Israeli boy, injured by a Hamas rocket, a Palestinian Muslim girl, injured by an Israeli missile, and their families in the hospital where the children were living while they received ongoing long-term treatment.

How can we see past our fear to find our common humanity?