This week, the Prime Minister of Canada made a dramatic statement in Parliament: he apologized to the indigenous peoples of his country for the injustices done to them for generations by successive Canadian governments.
This way, White Canada tries to make peace with the native nations, whose country their forefathers conquered and whose culture their rulers have tried to wipe out.
Apologizing for past wrongs has become a part of modern political culture.
That is never an easy thing to do. Cynics might say: there is nothing to it, just words. And words, after all, are a cheap commodity. But in fact, such acts have a profound significance. A human being – and even more so, a whole nation – always finds it hard to admit to iniquities performed and to atrocities committed. It means a rewriting of the historical narrative that forms the basis of their national cohesion. It necessitates a drastic change in the schoolbooks and in the national outlook. In general, governments are averse to this, because of the nationalistic demagogues and hate-mongers who infest every country.
The President of France has apologized on behalf of his people for the misdeeds of the Vichy regime, which turned Jews over to the Nazi exterminators. The Czech government has apologized to the Germans for the mass expulsion of the German population at the end of World War II.
Germany, of course, has apologized to the Jews for the unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust. Quite recently, the government of Australia has apologized to the Aborigines. And even in Israel, a feeble effort was made to heal a grievous domestic wound, when Ehud Barak apologized to the Oriental Jews for the discrimination they have suffered for many years.
I believe that peace between us and the Palestinian people – a real peace, based on real conciliation – starts with an apology.
In my mind s eye I see the President of the State or the Prime Minister addressing an extraordinary session of the Knesset and making an historic speech of apology.
On behalf of the State of Israel and all its citizens, I address today the sons and daughters of the Palestinian people, wherever they are.
We recognize the fact that we have committed against you a historic injustice, and we humbly ask your forgiveness.
The burning desire of the founding fathers of the Zionist movement was to save the Jews of Europe, where the dark clouds of hatred for the Jews were gathering. In Eastern Europe, pogroms were raging, and all over Europe there were signs of the process that would eventually lead to the terrible Holocaust, in which six million Jews perished.
All this does not justify what happened afterwards. The creation of the Jewish national home in this country has involved a profound injustice to you, the people who lived here for generations.
We cannot ignore anymore the fact that in the war of 1948 – which is the War of Independence for us, and the Nakba for you – some 750 thousand Palestinians were compelled to leave their homes and lands. As for the precise circumstances of this tragedy I propose the establishment of a Committee for Truth and Reconciliation composed of experts from your and from our side, whose conclusions will from then on be incorporated in the schoolbooks, yours and ours.
We owe you an apology, and I express it hereby with all my heart.
I trust that our two states – Israel and Palestine, living side by side in this beloved but small country, will quickly come together on the human, social, economic, technological and cultural levels, creating a relationship that will not only guarantee our security, but also rapid development and prosperity for all.
Together we will work for peace and prosperity throughout our region, based on close relations with all the countries of the area.
Committed to peace and vowing to create a better future for our children and grandchildren, let us rise to our feet and bow our heads in memory of the countless victims of our conflict, Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians – a conflict that has lasted far too long.
Such a speech is, to my mind, absolutely essential for opening a new chapter in the history of this country.
In decades of meeting with Palestinians of all walks of life, I have come to the conclusion that the emotional aspects of the conflict are no less – and perhaps even more – important than the political ones. A profound sense of injustice permeates the minds and actions of all Palestinians. Unconscious or half-conscious guilt feelings are troubling the souls of the Israelis, creating a deep conviction that Arabs will never make peace with us.
I do not know when such a speech will be possible. Many imponderable factors will have an impact on that. But I do know that without it, mere peace agreements, reached between haggling diplomats, will not suffice.
The public apology by the Canadian Prime Minister is not the only thing we can learn from that North American country.
Forty-three years ago, the Canadian government took an extraordinary step in order to make peace between the English-speaking majority and the French-speaking minority among their citizens. That relationship had remained an open wound from the time the British conquered French Canada some 250 years ago. It was decided to replace the Canadian national flag, which was based on the British Union Jack , with a completely new national flag, featuring the maple leaf.
On this occasion, the Speaker of the Senate said: The flag is the symbol of the nation s unity, for it, beyond any doubt, represents all the citizens of Canada without distinction of race, language, belief or opinion.
We can learn something from that, too.
Uri Avnery is a journalist and peace activist. He is the founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.