Musalaha’s women’s leadership committee recently decided to discuss forgiveness at their annual fall women’s conference. In the last year, it was evident that this issue should be addressed. In past women’s meetings, some Israeli women felt that when they asked for forgiveness for Israeli acts of aggression against Palestinians, the Palestinian women did not respond by asking for forgiveness for Palestinian acts of aggression against Israelis. Consequently, the Israelis felt they were taking an important step in furthering their relationships, but they were not getting a response from the Palestinians. The Palestinian side, on the other hand, constantly felt that their daily struggles were being challenged and disbelieved; in their minds, the Israeli side was being purposely naïve. As a result, some of the women were questioning their commitment to the process, which is common in the third stage of reconciliation. Others felt stuck in the process and were asking, “Where do we go from here?” In this context, we held our women’s conference this past November.
Musalaha Director Salim J Munayer and Maala Thomas taught at this weekend. They began the conference with a session on Matthew 18, focusing on the parable of the unthankful servant in the context of the kingdom. The amount that the king forgave the servant is equivalent to the monetary value of a lifetime’s work. It is with this same generosity that we need to forgive others. The consequences of unforgiveness are a strained relationship with God, and a breaking down in our relationship with others. Unforgiveness also causes a weakening in the moral and ethical fabric of society. In our mixed sessions, we spent time praying for one another, confessing unforgiveness in our own lives, and comforting one another as we shared each other’s grief and difficulties.
We spent time discussing what forgiveness is (a unilateral decision, an intentional process) and what it is not (a feeling, forgetting/avoiding, exoneration/excusing). We also discussed the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Reconciliation entails the restoration of trust and a commitment to a relationship where both sides are willing to be vulnerable and allow the relationship to grow into something different than it was in the past; forgiveness can occur without reconciliation, but reconciliation cannot occur without forgiveness.
We also discussed intergroup forgiveness, redeeming violence and suffering, confronting issues, and bearing one another’s burdens. We spent time examining conflict situations in other parts of the world, particularly in South Africa and Northern Ireland. Afterwards we listened to testimonies of women in our group who have gone through the process of forgiveness in their own lives.
We then began to discuss intergroup forgiveness with each other, as we were divided into two groups of Israelis and Palestinians for separate discussion. We asked the Israelis to write how they have been hurt by the Palestinians, and then we asked them to write a list of how they think they have hurt the Palestinians. We asked the Palestinians to do the same – to write how they have been hurt by the Israelis, and how they think they have hurt the Israelis. Both sides honestly took time for self-reflection and self-criticism, and came up with long lists of hurts and offenses. We then brought the women back together to discuss this. Both sides brought up the issues of safety and security; both sides acknowledged the fear of the other. The Palestinian side expressed hurt at the imbalance of power, the misuse of Scripture for political purposes, the distortion and de-legitimization of Palestinian identity, and of land confiscation, among many other things. The Israeli side perceived that they hurt the Palestinians by treating them like second class citizens politically, socially, and through a flawed justice system, by being unwilling to listen to or believe their stories and history, and by confiscating property, to name a few. The Israeli side expressed hurt at the fear they live in due to Palestinian aggression, by the lack of understanding of their interpretation of Scripture, by Palestinian maps that make no mention of Israel’s existence, and by the fact that anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are not denounced in Palestinian society, among other things. The Palestinian side perceived that they hurt the Israelis by violence, through challenging Messianic Jewish theology, for those living in Israel refusing to declare their Israeli identity, and by downplaying the Holocaust, to name a few. It was striking to see that, many times, each side had correctly articulated how the other side had been hurt by them. This session was eye-opening, and the women were sincere and honest with each other, and they truly heard and acknowledged one another’s hurts.
On the other hand, it was obvious through the lists and discussion that there are still areas of misunderstanding between the two sides. For example, the Israeli side did not address the severity of the conflict on Palestinian identity; likewise, the Palestinians failed to understand what it means for Israelis to send their children to the army, and the sacrifice the mothers feel. It was clear that this session was helpful, but it was also clear that there are still areas of growth.
This conference was a breakthrough for our women. The women felt heard and better understood, and they felt their hurt was acknowledged. This does not mean that they necessarily agree with each another, but that they learned to better listen to one another. The other side’s acknowledgment of one’s hurt is part of the forgiveness process, and it helps in the healing process. They left excited by the furthering of their relationships and the newly found openness they achieved as they were vulnerable with one another. The women are taking this teaching back to their own congregations, as they saw the fruits of acknowledgment and forgiveness in this conference. It was a huge step in our journey of reconciliation, and we truly feel that we were able to better understand and live out Colossians 3:13-15, “Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace.”
By Salim J. Munayer