Trauma and Reconcilation: Some (scattered) thoughts on Encounter Point

Here are a few more scattered and hopefully better than mediocre thoughts about Encounter Point. In the documentary we meet several Israelis and Palestinians who join the Bereaved Families Forum, a group in which Palestinians and Israelis who have lost family members in the conflict advocate nonviolence and reconciliation together. One of these people is Robi, profiled on the film’s website:

In 2002 a Palestinian sniper killed a group of Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint. Robi’s son David was one of them. Robi is haunted by the loss of her son, and the knowledge that he was posted to defend an Israeli settlement in occupied Palestinian territory to which he was politically opposed. After David was killed, Robi joined the Bereaved Families Forum. She speaks in support of Israeli/Palestinian reconciliation throughout Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and internationally. Robi says that all of her work is aimed at furthering understanding between the Israeli and Palestinian people.

Towards the end of the film, Robi learns that the sniper that killed her son and subsequently became a folk hero was arrested by Israeli authorities. She decides to reach out to the family by writing a letter with the intent of meeting both the family and the sniper himself, all of whom were quite willing to meet her. This is both moving, but also gestures towards a sophisticated ethical position. Throughout the film we hear both Palestinians and Israelis expressing similar positions, namely, “we don’t have to forgive in order to reconcile.” On the way out of the theater I overheard the people in front of me talking to each other, one of whom suggested that the film documents a Christian ethic of love thy neighbor, turning the other cheek etc. This seems very wrong to me. In fact, I’d venture to say that such an ethical position has little to do with Christian ethics. Now, the documentary itself conjured up a number of themes/concepts dealt with by Derrida and Levinas. Not least, encounter, hospitality, forgiveness, trauma and ethics. First off, I think the distinction between reconciliation and forgiveness is parsed out nicely by Derrida. In Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, Derrida writes:

Forgiveness is not, it should not be, normal, normative, normalising. It should remain exceptional and extraordinary, in the face of the impossible: as if it interrupted the ordinary course of historical temporality…forgiveness forgives only the unforgiveable.

Throughout his discussion of forgiveness, Derrida is at pains to point out that we must shouldn’t confuse forgiveness with any of the “therapies of reconciliation” current in the world, for instance, the project of reconciliation underway in South Africa, (or, in this case, I suppose we could add the conflict in Israel–therapeutic? perhaps). Derrida continues and notes that although both of these processes attempt to stave off knee jerk vengeance by substituting for it a “work of mourning,” they nonetheless are engaged in producing confusion between the order of forgiveness and the order of justice. Forgiveness, Derrida says, can’t always be separated from the conditions of say, the political order, but it can never be reduced to such an order. This leads Derrida to a consideration of the sovereign, the State, and forgiveness. He writes:

What counts in this absolute exception of the right of grace is that the exception from the law, the exception to the law, is situated at the summit or foundation of the juridico-political… As is always the case the transcendental principle of a system doesn’t belong to the system. It is as foreign to it as an exception.

Ultimately, Derrida notes the forgiving act is one without power, in other words, separate from/outside of the sovereign. For many of the people involved in the Bereaved Families Forum, forgiveness is impossible, but reconciliation is not. Largely, I thought of Levinas’ concept of hospitality, (Levinas’s concept of forgivingness is tied too much I think to the notion of sin and he generally prefers the term “pardon” in light of his critique of ethical theodicy) taken up by Derrida in Adieu. I think it’s rather uncontroversial to suggest that Levinas’ philosophy is as a whole, a “treatise of hospitality” as opposed to say, thematization, the totalizing action of ontology and conceptualization that reduces otherness to sameness. For Levinas, ethics is itself, on the one hand, the infinite responsibility of unconditioned hospitatiliy. Again, here’s a quote from Derrida (this time from Adieu):

The impossibility is necessary…this possible hospitality to the worst is necessary so that good hospitality can have a chance, the chance of letting the other come, the yes of the other no less than the yes to the other.

This sense of hospitality comes to be expressed by Levinas as trauma in Otherwise than Being:

The one affected by the other is an anarchic trauma, or an inspiration of the one by the other, and not a causality striking mechaniacally a matter subject to its energy. In this trauma the Good reabsorbs, or redeems, the violence of non-freedom. Responsibility is what first enables one to catch sight and conceive of value.

While I understand that Levinas is trying to avoid a sort of cause and effect type of relation with trauma, at the very least, the traumatic opening that bestows the good isn’t entagled in relations of power. And here is where we can reconnect with Derrida’s notions of forgiveness and reconciliation described above. Here it would be most appropriate to invoke Levinas’ term the Saying, which renders witness to the other. The very fact that the traumatizing exposition that opens right away in a greeting where the “I” is claimed to be elected by the other seems to me to be nicely expressed by the work being done by the Bereaved Families Forum. Is it not trauma that ultimately opens and orients each side towards the other? This is rather problematic in terms of Levinas because it tends to psychologize his notion of ethics as a “working through” trauma. Now, I don’t want to sound too too Pollyanna, but does not such an understanding of trauma and forgiveness subvert knee jerk reactions of hatred and vengeance? Yet, we would also have to ask if it always more ethical. It seems to me, and I have to end now because of time constraints, that the positions offered throughout Encounter Point are of the most sophisticated and ethical kind, borne out of nothing less than a “yes” to hospitality.

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