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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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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.

Ali Jarbawi, a former minister in the Palestinian Authority recently penned an op-ed in the New York Times that attacks and slams the Israeli media using the claim that the Israeli media was “grumbling about the lack of an official Palestinian response” on the death of Ariel Sharon, Israel’s former Prime Minister.  Except of course, the Israeli media is NOT grumbling!

Mr. Jarbawi seems to think that if he can spout whatever lies he can – no one will call him on it.  Let’s take a look at one lie in particular:

Throughout his career he did not take a single positive step toward reaching a political settlement with them to bring about peace. The motivation behind every one of his policies was to force them to surrender.

The Man Who Made Peace Impossible“, The New York Times, Jan 21, 2014

What Mr. Jarbawi ignores are the historical steps which Ariel Sharon took to move the peace process forward.  Steps such as

  • A unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip with removal of Israeli settlers and military personnel while leaving behind an infrastructure which the Palestinians could use to build with,
  • Declaring that the Palestinians should have a state of their own in September 2001, and
  • Endorsing the Road Map for Peace sponsored by the United States, the European Union and Russia

Mr. Jarbawi continues with his faulty accusations by claiming that Sharon unilaterally “broadened the I.D.F.’s attacks against Lebanon into a full-scale war” yet fails to mention that the I.D.F. was responding to continuous shelling by P.L.O. artillery placed in Southern Lebanon – a country that was dysfunctional and lawless due to a raging civil war at the time.  His portrayal of the I.D.F. as the instigator of the war remains far from the truth.

Mr. Jarbawi also notes incorrectly that “[i]n 2000, he entered Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, a holy Muslim site, which triggered the second intifada”.  Unfortunately for Mr. Jarbawi, this is not true.  The second intifada was being planned months before Mr. Sharon ever entered the Al Aqsa mosque.  According to the Mitchell Report (named after U.S. Senator George Mitchell who led the committee examining the cause of the violence that began in September 2000) :

“The Sharon visit did not cause the ‘Al-Aqsa Intifada.’ ”

Mitchell, George, “Al-Aqsa Intifada: Mitchell Report“, May 4, 2001

In fact, according to the then Communications Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Imad Faluji, the violence had been planned in July of 2000 since Yasser Arafat’s return from Camp David when he rejected the offer proffered him by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak.  This fact was later corroborated when Hamas’ Mahmoud Zahar admitted that Arafat had instructed his organization to launch terror attacks against Israel after the failure of peace negotiations. (Toameh, Kaled Abu, “Arafat ordered Hamas attacks against Israel in 2000“, The Jerusalem Post, September 28, 2010)

Another piece of evidence pointing to the planning of the second intifada by Arafat long before Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque is provided by Suha Arafat – Yasser Arafat’s widow – who admitted that Arafat had planned the uprising:

“Immediately after the failure of the Camp David [negotiations], I met him in Paris upon his return….Camp David had failed, and he said to me, ‘You should remain in Paris.’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because I am going to start an intifada.’”

Suha Arafat admits husband premeditated Intifada“, The Jerusalem Post, December 29, 2012

The final point that Mr. Jarbawi gets wrong centers on Sharon’s initiation of the Separation Wall between Israel and the West Bank.  Mr. Jarbawi claims that the motivation for this wall was to force Palestinians to move:

Unable to expel the Palestinians, Mr. Sharon began his plan to “move” them internally by building the separation wall in 2002, which swallowed up approximately 11 percent of the West Bank’s land area

The Man Who Made Peace Impossible“, The New York Times, Jan 21, 2014

However, this was not the motivation for the barrier at all.  With the start of the Al-Aqsa intifada the Palestinians began to send suicide bombers into Israel to carry out terrorist attacks against civilians.  The Israeli government, led by Sharon, decided to build a separation barrier in order to make movement between the West Bank and Israel harder and to reduce (with the ultimate goal of eliminating completely) the number of terrorist attacks in Israel proper.  According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs

between 2000 and July 2003, when the “first continuous segment” of the barrier was built, 73 Palestinian suicide bombings were carried out from the West Bank, killing 293 Israelis and injuring over 1,900. However, from August 2003 to the end of 2006, only 12 attacks were carried out, killing 64 Israelis and wounding 445

Israeli West Bank Barrier“, Wikipedia, accessed January 21, 2014

Ariel Sharon was most definitely a controversial and complicated figure.  He was despised by many, seen as a hero to others and, in the end, felt that what he did was in the best interest of Israel.  There can be no doubt that his record will be dissected and interpreted over and over.  But Mr. Jarbawi’s painting of a blood-thirsty man who made not a single step towards trying to reach peace with the Palestinians is patently false.  And as for the Israeli media grumbling about the “lack of an official Palestinian response” to Mr. Sharon’s death?  I haven’t heard any.

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