The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of ForgivenessThe Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*FYI – Spoilers ahead*
This was quite an amazing book. I read it not really knowing what to expect but now that I have finished it I am rather surprised by the responses some of the individuals who were asked to write a response to Wiesenthal’s question of “What would you do?” if you were faced with a similar situation.

First a little background. The first part of the book is a retelling of Wiesenthal’s experience in a concentration camp where the prisoners are made to work endlessly and relentlessly by their German and German-allied captors (apparently in this case these were Ukrainians who tended to be more brutal to the Jews than even the Germans). The story revolves around the situation where Wiesenthal and other prisoners are brought to a German military hospital (which, it so happens, is situated in Wiesenthal’s former technical school where he was harassed by the other Polish students because he was Jewish) to work and clean up the medical waste. While there a nurse gets him and brings him to an isolated room where a patient is lying completely bandaged from head to toe.

As it turns out the patient was an SS officer who was dying from his wounds. He had asked the nurse to bring him “a Jew” so that he could speak with him and ask him for his forgiveness for the crimes that he had committed against the Jewish people. The SS officer, whose name is Karl, was raised as a Catholic by his parents but joined the Hitler Youth (against the wishes of his parents) and when the work broke out volunteered for the SS which resulted in his estrangement from his father. During his time in the war in the East Karl had witnessed and partook in atrocities against the Jews population. However one particular incident seems to have broken him. This incident occurred when in the city of Dnepropetrovsk in Russia the SS rounded up the Jews, put them all in a building and then set the building on fire. If the Jews tried to get out they were shot. But it was the father who threw his young son out of a second (or perhaps third) story window in order to save him from being burned alive and perhaps with the hope that he would survive the fall and somehow escape (in the end the fall killed the child) which sticks in Karl’s mind and won’t give him peace. Now, however, that he is close to dying the SS officer wishes to make his peace. So, he asked the nurse to bring him “a Jew” to whom he could confess and ask for forgiveness with the expectation that whomever she brought would give him the solace he seeks and which would allow him to die in peace.

However Wiesenthal listens to the officer’s story and is repulsed by the man. Instead of saying he forgives him, Wiesenthal stays silent. In the end the SS officer dies and bequeaths to Simon Wiesenthal whatever belongings he had left (which Wiesenthal rightly rejects).

After the war Wiesenthal goes out and searches for Karl’s mother. He wants to meet her (and possibly his father) to find out what kind of parents could have raised him and why they didn’t manage to prevent him from doing what he did. In the end he finds Karl’s mother and presents himself as someone who knew Karl before his death. He speaks with her (Karl’s father having died during the war) and discovers she has no knowledge of the things Karl did and the crimes he committed during the course of the war. In the end he does not tell her about what Karl told him – about the crimes he committed or the atrocities he witnessed and remains silent about those facts and allows her to continue to believe that Karl was good.

At the end of the story – Wiesenthal asks the reader: “What would you have done?” Would you have remained silent or spoken up (both with Karl and with the mother – although I felt the question was more towards the situation with Karl).

The second half of the book revolves around responses by various thinkers and intellectuals around the world as to how they would have responded to Karl’s desire for forgiveness and whether Wiesenthal should have forgiven him. The responses are varied but generally fall into two camps:

Those who argue not to forgive and
Those who argue to forgive

What’s most interesting about the responses is that the fault line in the responses falls pretty much where you would expect it to: along religious lines. Jews tend to fall in the unforgiving camp – but the reasoning is somewhat varied. In general everyone who falls into this camp argue that in order to attain forgiveness one must ask for forgiveness from those who were wronged. The problem for Karl is that those who could forgive are all dead. In Judaism there are sins between man and his fellow man and sins between man and God. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement provides for forgiveness for sins between man and God. But for sins between man and his fellow man this must be done by reaching out to the victim and asking for their forgiveness. Karl, whether in his arrogance or due to the inculcation of Nazi ideology, seemed to believe that if he just got “a Jew” – any Jew – then he could ask for forgiveness for the crimes and atrocities he committed against Jews through his actions while in the SS. He sees Jews as some amorphous “blob” – one is no different than the other. So, for him it doesn’t matter which Jew gives him forgiveness – any Jew can.

But that is where he is mistaken. He must ask for forgiveness for those whom he has wronged and murdered. But he can’t – because they are dead. Also, in Judaism, true repentance comes to an individual after making a sincere effort to change one’s ways. Karl seems to honestly regret his actions but, given that he’s near death, he has no way of showing that he is truly sincere in this repentance because he will never have a chance to prove it. The only way that could happen would be if he were to be put into a similar position in the future and turns away from that action. So, we have no way of truly knowing is he is truly repentant of his evil actions.

The other camp – which is espoused predominantly by Christian and Buddhist writers – holds that Wiesenthal should have forgiven him as it would have shown Wiesenthal to be the better man and that it would ease Karl’s conscience at the time of his death. The problem I have with this is that it presents a concept of “cheap grace” where someone can commit any atrocity and manner of crime and yet so long as he truly repents at the end and admits his faults he can achieve forgiveness. Some crimes are simply unforgivable – and the crimes which Karl committed were beyond the pale of tolerance by man or God.

The book really makes the reader ponder – what would you do if placed in a similar position. Would you forgive the Nazi?

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Tisha B’Av (translated as the Ninth of Av) is the day in the Hebrew calendar where many tragedies have befallen us.  The First and Second Temples were both destroyed on this day – the First Temple by the Babylonians while the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans.  On Tisha B’Av 135CE the Bar Kochba revolt was crushed at the Battle of Betar. On Tisha B’Av in 1290 the Edict of Expulsion was issued demanding that all Jews leave England.  On Tisha B’Av in 1492 the Alhambra Decree was issued expelling the Jews from Spain.  So many tragedies on this one day and even now, two-thousand years later though we have renewed the land of Israel and govern over Jerusalem we are still incomplete.

Today our separation is enforced by the Waqf which retained authority over the Temple Mount after the Six-Day War at the suggestion of then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.  And today the Waqf uses every means and effort, in coordination with the Palestinian Authority, to undermine Israel’s rightful claim to the Temple Mount and the rights of Jews to visit there – whether they pray or not.

Yet it’s not enough that the Waqf, supported by the Palestinian Authority, does everything it can to negate and erase any claim or archaeological trace of Jewish connection to the Temple Mount.  Today they now are working to extend their authority to the Western Wall (what they call the “Al-Buraq Wall”).  In October of 2015 the Palestinian Authority tried to get UNESCO to declare the Western Wall plaza an official Muslim holy site.  That effort was criticized widely by western organizations.  In April of 2016, UNESCO’s executive council passed a resolution that referred to the Western Wall plaza only by its Arabic name (“Al-Buraq”) and relegated the Hebrew terms to quotations after the term “Al-Buraq Plaza thereby placing a stake in the ground proclaiming UNESCO’s illegitimate position.

In July 2017 three Israeli Arabs from Umm Al-Fahm used weapons smuggled into the Al-Aqsa mosque to attack and kill two Israeli border policemen of Druze heritage.  In response the Israeli government closed the Temple Mount to Muslim prayer for several days before reopening the Mount with enhanced security through the use of metal detectors at the gates to the Mount and security cameras.  After a standoff between the Waqf and the government the security measures came down and the status quo prior to the murder of the two Israeli border policemen returned.

Now the Waqf as well as the Palestinian Authority and their supporters among Israeli Arabs are setting their sights on the Western Wall plaza again.  After the metal detectors came down, the Palestinians rejoiced and celebrated.  Israeli MK Taleb Abu Arar (Joint List) declared that “Jews have no rights at al-Aqsa Mosque,” and “some people are trying to re-write history in order to strengthen their mistaken claim to legitimacy over al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as to the occupied al-Buraq Wall (the Western Wall), which Muslims demand to be returned to our sovereignty [Emphasis Added].”

Now, on Tisha B’Av 2017 the Palestinian Authority’s official news agency, WAFA, claimed that thousands of settlers “raided the courtyard of the Al-Buraq Wall, the Western Wall of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and organized events, prayers and ceremonies on the occasion of the so-called 9th of Av”  (the Al-Aqsa Foundation did something similar in 2012 when thousands of Jews went to the Western Wall Plaza as Yom Kippur approached that year). In addition the Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi decried the visit of over 1000 Jews to the Temple Mount on Tisha B’Av 2017 by claiming that “the number of extremists who stormed Al-Aqsa today stands at a record number that has not been recorded since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967.”

These efforts are not new.  It was Yasser Arafat who pushed the concept of Temple Denial to new heights when he used it as an excuse to scuttle the Camp David peace talks in 2000.  The Palestinians have for years been exclaiming the false narrative that Jews have no connection to the Land of Israel, to Jerusalem and that if the Temples existed at all then they were somewhere either near Bethlehem or in Shechem. Combined with the increasing political machinations of the Palestinians through the United Nations and its sub-organizations the Palestinians are making a full effort to deny our Jewish history, our Jewish heritage, our Jewish connections to Israel and our Jewish connections and rights to Jerusalem.  The goal of their effort is to paint the picture that the Jewish claim to Jerusalem is a fabrication when, in fact, recent archaeological evidence continues to strengthen our claim to not just Jerusalem but to Israel as a whole.  The Jewish claim to Israel, Jerusalem, and Israel as whole is historical and without doubt.  The Palestinians desire to wash away our connections to these places is ridiculous at best and, at worst, scurrilous.

If you’re going to make a policy then you need to provide the documentation and the framework by which people can be compliant to that policy.

I’m an Israeli citizen…and I’m proud of that.  I’m proud that my son is serving in the IDF in an elite unit and that my daughters have expressed their desire to do likewise.  This story starts when my younger daughter and I went to the consular section of the Israeli embassy in Washington D.C. to register her as an Israeli citizen.  By law, you’re supposed to register a child born to an Israeli parent (I’m Israeli…my wife isn’t – though we’re both Jewish) within 30 days of the birth.  Well…suffice it to say I didn’t know about that until recently and it’s been 14 some-odd years since my younger daughter’s birth.

Anyway – back to the story…we went to the consular section of the embassy to register her as an Israeli citizen and to apply for her Israeli passport.  There was an earlier visit the same week where we were told that the birth certificate which we brought needs an apostille (it’s a document that should accompany official documentation like birth certificates based on a treaty that a whole bunch of countries signed on to – if you’re really interested in the nitty-gritty details, see here).  I got the apostille for the birth certificate and, confident that I had everything we needed to get the paperwork done, we went back to the embassy.  We get to the embassy early (first in line) and go inside.

While reviewing the paperwork the consulate staff member asks me “Do you have the confirmation from the hospital?”

I look at her a bit dumbfounded and ask “What?”

She then repeats the question: “Do you have the confirmation from the hospital that your daughter was born there and that she is indeed your child?”

I still not quite sure I understand her.  I replied “Isn’t that what the birth certificate is for?”

To which she replies “Yes, but we also require confirmation from the hospital or the doctor that your wife actually gave birth and that this is the child of that birth.”

Ok – I’m still not quite grokking what she’s saying…I mean, why doesn’t the birth certificate suffice in that regard?  She continues by saying that people might come with the appropriate documentation (birth certificate, passports, forms, etc.) and the child is not actually their child but is actually the child of someone else.

I’m still not sure why the birth certificate isn’t sufficient.  It has my daughter’s name, my name, my wife’s name – isn’t that sufficient?  No…apparently not to the Israeli government.  Now, in their infinite bureaucratic wisdom, they also want confirmation from the hospital or my wife’s doctor (in this case the OB/GYN) to provide additional documentation attesting to the fact that my wife actually did give birth and that the child is actually our offspring.  As the embassy’s website states, they now require (emphasis added):

The original birth certificate, verified with an apostille stamp in countries that are signatories to the 1961 Hague Convention, or presentation of a certificate verified by the relevant authority in that country, as well as documentation from the hospital or maternity ward that the mother in fact gave birth and that the said child is in fact her offspring.

Given that this occurred 14 years ago – I’m guessing that the hospital may not be so helpful in getting this documentation to me and I can only hope that the doctor is still alive and actually remembers this specific birth.  Also, what format should said documentation take?  A letter?  A form to be filled out? If it’s a form, what relevant information is necessary?

What we have here is a failure to create a working policy (see how I slid in my Cool-Hand Luke reference 🙂 ).  Given that I work as an Information Security Manager for a large organization (a very large organization) I am well familiar with the idea of creating a policy and all of the supporting materials that need to go along with it: a framework for compliance (that’s called governance), exceptions, documentation…small things like that.

What has happened here, though, is that the someone, somewhere in the Israeli government, has created a policy but failed to provide the governance framework or the documentation that should go along with that policy.  In other words, this was probably a knee-jerk reaction to a specific issue and the policy formulated but nothing more than that.  This is a case of a policy that has no details regarding compliance.  If you’re going to do that then you should expect this kind of failure.

Now, admittedly, I could easily be a corner case.  I mean, yes, I waited 14 years before trying to register her with the Interior Ministry.  But, to be fair, I did this very thing two years ago for my older daughter – back when this policy was not in place – with nary a problem.  Sometime in the past two years the Israeli government decided that Israeli citizens registering children for citizenship without actually having given birth to those children was a serious enough problem that they needed to enact this policy.  And that they enacted this globally.  I could understand if they had chosen to enact this policy in Russia, Eastern European countries, and third-world countries, but they chose to do so even here in the United States where I would suspect this problem doesn’t really occur that often.

So, now, to meet the requirements of a policy that I think is a) pretty stupid and b) so badly implemented because there are no governance controls around it, I am calling the hospital records office and trying to get them to understand what I need.  My wife is calling her OB/GYN and trying to get them to understand what we need.  Hopefully one of us will succeed and our daughter will be able to claim her Israeli citizenship.

November 2018
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