In the last chapter of Desmond Tutu’s No Future without Forgiveness, he describes being prevented in the 1990s from entering to Israel because he had spoken out about the fate of the Palestinians. Fear of insight and help has long rigidified the Israeli government and encouraged a hopeless, militarist and oppressive course. But after the transition to majority rule in South Africa, Tutu could go to Israel and many wanted to hear him. In this chapter, Tutu discusses a story about Elie Wiesel, the great Nazi hunter. For some reason, Wiesel had been invited to the deathbed of a German concentration camp guard who was, facing his own mortality, stricken with remorse. He told Wiesel of his sorrow at the crimes he had committed and asked him for forgiveness. Wiesel said: “it is not for me to forgive you. Those whom you murdered would have to forgive you.”
Tutu disagrees with Wiesel. The latter should have forgiven the man. It is only we in the present who can forgive, who can heal the world. There must be remorse on the part of the person who committed the evil. More important, the evil must have been stopped and until then, one might add, nonviolent noncooperation or violent resistance must coerce those who do the evil until they can no longer do it, My seminar on nonviolence recently had an interesting discussion of the sharply coercive element in serious mass nonviolence; one stops, but one does not kill the oppressor; that is a unique strength of nonviolence if it is a vigorous enough movement to put the oppressor out of business while leaving him alive; that combination gives the soul of the oppressor a chance, however rare (Mayor West of Nashville once upon a time, face to face with Diane Nash,* had such a moment, but it is not usual) to reconsider, to come forth.
Perhaps it is a problem for a Nazi hunter – one can never ferret enough of them, one can never bring back the dead or in some abstract sense, achieve justice. Perhaps he could never forgive the man in front of him because he could never forgive himself, never avenge enough, never bring back the dead. But the idea that only the dead can forgive is a dead idea. The spirits of those who are gone live on in us: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
In the present, people heal the world. Free South Africa is an oppressive place particularly for the poor and the young. Yet the dignity of what was achieved in overthrowing apartheid – in all that heroic resistance – and setting up the Truth and Reconcilation Commission, whatever its flaws or limitations – has become a light to the world, a nonmurderous way out of the most terrible conflicts. It is a gift that black South Africa, oppressed by a Nationalist Party that loved the Nazis and Arthur Jensen and American segregation – gave to not only their oppressors who were willing, faced with a vast movement, to cede a decisive portion of their power peacefully, but as a model, to everyone. There have been many nonviolent initiatives and leaders in Palestine (Father Elias Chacour comes to mind), who point an alternative way to that of Hamas and others who murder civilians and innocents and strengthen Israeli reactionaries. And there are the courageous Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, and the radical part of the peace movement which had a demonstration of 1000 in Tel Aviv the first night against the Israeli slaughters in Gaza (one thinks of Uri Avnery, who has been a leader for recognition of the Palestinians and a decent peace since the founding of the state of Israel). Among Palestinians and Jews there need to be many more, to stop the oppression of the Israeli government, to permit a permit a political settlement (at least a two state solution though a one state solution with equal basic rights for all citizens would be more ideal) and allow these cousin peoples, who grew up side by side often in friendship in the British occupied-Palestine once upon a time, to forge a new relationship.
*At a demonstration at City Hall, a black reverend had spoken in anger to the Mayor. But Diane Nash asked if as a man, Mayor West thought it was right that blacks shopped at these stores but were not served at the lunch counter. As a man, he answered, it was not right. That statement by the Mayor in response to the sit-ins took the life out of racism there. It led abruptly to desegregation of the lunch counters in Nashville. It is an emblem of what mass nonviolence, at its best, can accomplish.