Repentance Isn’t Only for Yom Kippur

In Israel, some survivors of terror and criminal attacks seek to understand and reconcile with those who harmed them, not punish them

Yulie Cohen says meeting the man who had wounded her in a terror attack "was like putting together pieces in a puzzle."
Tomer Appelbaum

The quest for personal atonement in the Jewish tradition that culminates on Yom Kippur reflects Judaism’s centuries-old system of pursuing forgiveness through repair and repentance. It also resonates with the increasingly popular tool of restorative justice, which in Hebrew is called “tzedek me’acheh” – the justice that comes from mending what is broken.

Restorative justice is usually defined as the practice of bringing victims and offenders together in voluntary mediated dialogue. That is, of course, most complicated – and rare – when it comes to conflict-related violence.

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In Israel today, restorative justice is taking place both in the spheres of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the criminal justice system – from victims of terror attacks seeking encounters with their perpetrators, to out-of-court settlements in which offenders can personally apologize to their victims and offer reparations for their crimes.

“The human story is what comes out in these situations,” says Shikma Biran, director of adult probation services for Tel Aviv-Jaffa. “In contrast to what happens in the courtroom, here there is the opportunity for the offender to sit down and look the person they have inflicted harm on in the face, say what they did and apologize for it. It is taking active, real responsibility.”

The woman who met ‘her terrorist’…

In the summer of 1978, Yulie Cohen was 22 and a brand-new flight attendant for El Al when members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine sprayed her and her crewmates with gunfire as they got off a bus in London. She sustained shrapnel wounds to her shoulder, a fellow flight attendant was killed, alongside one of the terrorists, and eight others were also wounded.

Cohen returned to Israel, became a documentary filmmaker and had two daughters. With time, she understood that the trauma of that attack never really left her: She was hyperaware, sensitive and jittery in reaction to any sign of danger. For a time, it also left her with a thyroid problem known to be triggered by post-traumatic stress disorder.

Years later, she began to wonder if Fahad Mihyi – one of the terrorists, who at the time had been in prison for 23 years – felt any remorse. She wrote him a letter.

“I had this curiosity: Who was Fahad today?” she explains.

This prompted a journey that she documented in her 2002 film “My Terrorist,” part of a trilogy of autobiographical documentaries she has made.

In the film, set against the backdrop of 2001 suicide bombings, second intifada clashes and the 9/11 terror attack, we see Cohen grappling with how to move forward after she receives what she feels is a heartfelt letter from Mihyi, in which he takes responsibility for the attack and apologizes for his role in it. They eventually meet and she then advocates for his release, which eventually took place.

In an interview at a Jaffa café near her home, Cohen relates what it felt like after meeting Mihyi inside the prison and hearing him apologize in person.

“I was floating in air, really – as if there was no gravity,” she says. “I never had a physical feeling like that before.”

It took her time to be able to articulate why she had such a physical reaction, but now she thinks she understands.

Robi Damelin with Palestinian Bushra Awad. "If you are waiting for someone to make amends, you will remain a victim the rest of your life," says Damelin.
Dan Perez

“The trauma was a burden, of course, and after meeting him everything became so personal and so human. It was like putting together pieces in a puzzle. Suddenly, it was not defined as ‘the trauma’; it was about meeting this person and also seeing the humanity in him.”

Mihyi also asked her to pass on his apology to the other victims and their families.

“I think a person who does not have compassion within him or herself is the one who loses,” says Cohen. “When you are no longer a victim, you can begin to forgive, to see the human being behind the offense and to forgive – with the condition that I need the other person to take responsibility. At least that is how I felt.”

And the woman who didn’t...

Robi Damelin became a prominent name in Israel and abroad for her reconciliation work with Palestinians after she lost her son David to a Palestinian sniper’s bullet in 2002. David, a university student, was on reserve duty in the West Bank guarding a roadblock.

The South-African born Damelin travels the world speaking with Bassam Aramin, whose daughter was shot by an Israeli soldier in 2007, including a Yom Kippur service last year with 3,000 people in New York.

She is also a spokesperson for the Parents Circle Families Forum, a group of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families who believe that reconciliation is a prerequisite to achieving peace.

Still, when her son’s killer was captured, put on trial and sent to prison, Damelin felt put to a test she did not want to take: Could she reach out? Could she try to meet him?

When she did write a letter, reaching out to him through his family, the response was brutal: Packed with vitriol and justification for the killing, there was no apology. Despite that, Damelin says she came to realize that she was no longer a victim.

“If you are waiting for someone to make amends, you will remain a victim the rest of your life,” she says. “I am not accountable for the man who killed David. If I am waiting for him to repent, what does that mean – that I spend the rest of my life being his victim?”

Even though she did not meet the man who took David’s life, she came to know more about him. She found out, for example, that as a young child he had seen his uncle killed by Israeli soldiers, and that two other uncles were also killed in the conflict.

“The question is: What does it mean to forgive? Is it giving up your idea of justice? I have talked a lot about this and spoken to rabbis and imams and priests – and I even sat with the Archbishop of Canterbury – but no one could come up with answer relevant for me,” she says.

Damelin had a turning point when she traveled to her native South Africa and met a woman named Ginn Fourie, a white woman whose daughter was killed by the military wing of the African National Congress. She had publicly made peace with the killers during a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing.

“I asked for her definition of forgiving and she said, ‘I have come to understand that forgiveness is a process which involves a principled decision to give up your justifiable right to revenge, to accept it is a violation and a devaluation of self,’” Damelin writes in a passage of a book she is writing in the form of letters to David.

Damelin also met the man responsible for ordering the killing of Fourie’s daughter. He told her that Fourie’s forgiveness had “released him from the prison of his [own] inhumanity.”

Yulie Cohen
Tomer Appelbaum

In her book, she “updates” David on what she learned in South Africa: “My forgiving honors you, my dear one. It also gives me the courage to keep doing the work towards reconciliation, one day at a time.”

Recognizing the good

Across Israel, there are a growing number of nonviolent cases, both in the juvenile and adult system, where the two sides are opting into restorative justice conferencing.

The process allows the victim to ask the offender questions and describe the impact the crime had on them. The offender can offer a direct apology, take responsibility for their actions and offer to make amends through agreed-upon reparations.

This approach is making inroads in Israel’s justice system – in some cases as an alternative to standard sentencing – and it is part of a wider, more therapeutic approach to dealing with crime, its advocates say.

They add that it stands in contrast to the United States, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world and where the focus is on punishment, not searching for underlying issues that may have led a person to a violent or criminal act.

“It has caught like a fire among youth courts, because this is exactly what we mean by doing justice,” says Prof. Uri Yanay, professor emeritus at the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare at the Hebrew University. He researches the use of restorative justice in Israel.

“There are two issues,” he notes: “The type and severity of the crime; and the willingness of the victim to cooperate.

“Many victims say, ‘Let justice be done by the courts alone. I don’t want to be revictimized by meeting again. But those victims who go through the process [of restorative justice] usually say it was healing.”

In 2011, an amendment was passed that, in a first, offered juveniles facing nonviolent, non-drug-related charges the option of restorative justice conferences between victim and offender, rather than have their case sent to court and put on their permanent record.

“It’s different from the usual form of punishment, because here both parties decide together what the offender needs to do,” says Dalia Tauber, founder of the Israeli Center for Restorative Practices, describing how the system works in the Israeli juvenile justice system. “So the victim feels there was ‘tikkun’ [atonement] – which can be expressed, for example, as an apology given in front of the victim’s friends. There is also room for financial reparations, but if the same youth goes on to commit another crime, there is no second chance for this kind of mediation.”

First-time, usually nonviolent adult offenders are also sometimes offered the restorative justice practice of informed mediation.

Biran, the director of adult probation services for Tel Aviv-Jaffa, offers the example of a

25-year-old female university student who lived a crime-free life before cursing and striking a parking attendant as he wrote her a ticket for blocking traffic in front of a hospital. She was facing criminal assault charges.

The judge assigned to the woman’s case contacted her probation officer to see if she might be open to meeting her victim. The woman, who felt deeply ashamed, agreed, but her victim hesitated at first. He had been unnerved by the attack, his face and emotions left bruised.

He eventually agreed to meet the woman, with her probation officer serving as a mediator.

She told him she had been dropping her mother off for chemotherapy treatment and snapped, unleashing her anguish and stress on him. She apologized, took responsibility for her actions and asked how she could make amends.

They came up with the answer together: She would speak to a group of the victim’s fellow parking attendants, who were frequently verbally abused by the public, tell her story and apologize to them as well.

“It was very meaningful to everyone there,” says Biran.

Biran, like all Israeli probation officers, is a trained social worker – a policy that began during the British Mandate period when British judges tried to decipher the stories behind crimes that had taken place.

Experts say having social workers as probation officers helps the courts understand how a person transforms into an alleged offender and, in turn, find better ways to rehabilitate them.

Biran and her fellow social workers serve as mediators in restorative justice conferencing. Lawyers or judges refer cases to them, and the agreed-upon plan for reparations is submitted to the court for approval.

Tauber acknowledges that this process isn’t for everyone, but emphasizes that it can be extremely therapeutic for those who do participate in it.

“Restorative justice gives victims the opportunity to express what they need to move forward,” she says. “It is incredibly empowering. And it’s an opportunity for the offender to understand the gravity of what they did – instead of what normally happens, which is a fixation on defending themselves.

“When you give a person the chance to take responsibility for what they did, you also recognize the good in them – and that can help ‘fix’ the bad,” says Tauber.