Parashat Vayishlah

The Path to Reconciliation

How do you keep the past alive without becoming its prisoner?

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Reconciliation Commissions

In our time, in the former Yugoslavia, myths, resentments, and distortions that festered for centuries burst into ethnic cleansing and slaughter. When the Serbs attacked Muslim Albanians in Kosovo in 1989, they invoked as justification the violence perpetrated against Serbs by Muslims at Kosovo in 1389. In the Balkan wars, the unresolved past so poisoned the present that reporters were uncertain whether the people they spoke to were referencing crimes that had happened the day before, in 1941, in 1841 or in 1441.

"How do you keep the past alive without becoming its prisoner?" asks Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman. In national reconciliation efforts, perpetrators of crimes must acknowledge the pain they have caused and promise to cease. The survivors must be given a space to tell their stories and must promise not to seek retribution.

The most famous model for this process is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established in 1995. The TRC spent years hearing public testimony and provided an imperfect but effective path to establishing a civil society. "Nowhere in the history of atrocities have we seen victims and perpetrators sharing a common idiom of humanity in the way that was sometimes observed [here]," said Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a member of the Commission.

The expectation was neither for "encyclopedic truth" nor for "total reconciliation," says Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Commission's co-chairman. Rather, the hope was to provide critical first steps and a "beacon of hope" for other nations trying to come to terms with past conflicts.

The missed opportunity in the story of Esau and Jacob reminds us that the path to true reconciliation must begin with a way to visit the past, the courage to remember one's own pain, and the willingness to hear the other.

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Carol Towarnicky

Carol Towarnicky is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.