Teaching Palestinians and Israelis about Forgiveness


Forgiveness is central in Christianity and also in reconciliation.  In the past, people from a non-Christian heritage had strong negative reactions to teachings on forgiveness as they felt others were imposing a Christian ideology on them.  Many Christian and Jewish scholars discussed forgiveness as it is related to the Holocaust, and in Israeli Jewish society there emerged a saying, “Never forgive, never forget.” While forgiveness used to be a religious discussion outside of academia, it has now moved into academia as scholars are studying how forgiveness relates to the well-being of humans individually and in society.

Recently I was invited to give two lectures on forgiveness based on the research we have conducted for Musalaha: A Curriculum of Reconciliation.  I talked to one a group of Palestinian Christians, and to another group of mostly-religious Israeli Jews from Bar Ilan University.

Addressing Judaism from a Christian versus a Jewish perspective is fascinating, and both the Christian and Jewish groups were challenged by our discussions.  In Judaism, forgiveness is required conditionally in particular situations.  In contrast, Christianity argues that forgiveness is unilateral and unconditional.

In Judaism various schools of thought dictate who to forgive, what it means to forgive, and when to forgive (Yom Kippur and one or more other times throughout the year).  Rabbinical schools have various stipulations regarding the type of offense that requires forgiveness.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are overlapping in Jewish teachings, as generally, you forgive if the other person changes their ways; this approach does not assume that relationships are restored (as we do in reconciliation), but rather it seeks to rectify the situation to maintain social order.  In Jewish sources, forgiveness is considered important inter communally, namely between one Jew and another Jew, but the same rules do not always apply between a Jew and a non-Jew.  The universal obligation to forgive, a Jewish teaching of Jesus, is not embraced by much of the rabbinic literature.

In my lecture, I shared with the Jewish group about Isaiah 53 and the centrality of atonement as it relates to forgiveness.  Then we turned to Matthew 18 and looked at how Jesus instructed his Jewish followers to forgive as they have been forgiven by God.  The students had great questions, and we had a fruitful discussion on these subjects.

When I spoke with the Palestinian Christian group, I shared about forgiveness from the Sermon on the Mount, and we discussed how forgiveness is integrally related to the person of Jesus. The audience, many of whom come from traditional churches, were familiar with Jesus’ teachings about loving our enemies and forgiveness, but they kept asking, “If I forgive, does that mean I let go of my rights and my desire for justice?” It is a good question and a common one for Palestinians.

This question reveals a common misunderstanding between forgiveness and reconciliation. We discussed this further.  In our work we emphasize what forgiveness is and is not.

We discussed how reconciliation is a mutual act where both sides move toward each other, and it includes forgiveness, but it also includes accountability and restoration. Forgiveness, on the other hand, can take place even if the other person is unrepentant.  It does not mean that we necessarily feel happy afterward, or that we forget the wrongdoing or excuse the sinner, but it does mean that we go through an intentional process where we change our attitude toward the offender and let go of our desire for revenge.

These two lectures were very encouraging to me.  In both groups, we looked at a number of studies on forgiveness between groups in conflict, from Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both groups found it enlightening to see how important forgiveness is in conflict resolution and reconciliation. It is an opportunity to move from a place of pain to a place where we take our hurts to God.

–Salim J. Munayer