The sound of a newlywed’s world falling apart rung out over Israel’s national cemetery on Sunday. On this hill where, just nine days earlier, the 93-year-old Shimon Peres was laid to rest with a most dignified ceremony after a full life, it was the burial of a young man murdered in his prime.
Yosef Kirma, a 29-year-old policeman, married his beloved Noy in the spring. She dreamed of raising a family with him. Instead, hours after he was killed by a terrorist on Sunday morning, she found herself watching as he was lowered into the ground. Looking so young that she could be mistaken for a high school student, Noy Kirma tried to deliver a hastily-written eulogy, but could hardly be heard because of her crying.
She had struggled to write a tribute, she admitted, because her heart is “shattered into pieces.” When she got to the end of her notes, and declared her undying love for her husband, she looked bewildered.
Kirma was killed by a terrorist who was on the run after opening fire at a Jerusalem light rail station. In this first prong of his attack, the terrorist, a Jerusalem Arab whose name is under gag order, fatally wounded Levanah Malichi, a 60-year-old mother and grandmother who worked in the Knesset cafeteria until her retirement in 2010. Her funeral was also held on Sunday in Jerusalem.
After the last part of the attack, the terrorist fled to the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. There, police officers shot and killed him, but it soon became clear to locals that he had critically wounded two Israelis before his death. An eyewitness who was on the scene tells me that he saw and heard some of the locals cheering. “They were saying ‘Allahu Akbar’ and there was lots of whistling,” he said. It didn’t take long after the attack before the perpetrator attracted praise on social media, before crowds gathered to chant in his honor outside his home, and before Hamas lauded him as a “hero.”
And so, I approached Yom Kippur with the wails of Noy Kirma still echoing in my ears and my mind occupied by the insistence of too many people in this region that violent wrongdoing requires no atonement and actually serves a higher purpose. It’s hard to spend 25 hours focused on the theme of forgiveness having spent the preceding three days reporting on this unsettling story.
But as much as the city of Jerusalem can deflate you and leave you disillusioned and downbeat, it can at the same time fill you with optimism. In the hours before Yom Kippur I started to think about a very different type of occurrence, one seen in Jerusalem just after Rosh HaShanah.
A handful of young offenders from Ofek Prison, near Netanya, filed into the president’s residence along with government officials, police officers and dignitaries. There, the offenders spoke movingly about the effective process of rehabilitation that they are going through. One inmate performed a personal monologue from the prison community theater project, based on his personal experiences. President Reuven Rivlin spoke about forgiveness.
The event was unprecedented. And the impetus came from the Jewish calendar and from Jewish values.
Rivlin told the gathering: “It is not by chance that we are holding this meeting on the subject of forgiveness specifically now, in the days of repentance between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. These are days of soul searching for all mankind. It is not easy to ask for forgiveness, true forgiveness from the heart. And no less easy than asking forgiveness is to grant forgiveness. And yet, a society without forgiveness is an inhumane society.”
He spoke of the great responsibility he feels as the one Israeli who has the power to grant pardons and — crucially for some of Israel’s rehabilitation projects that integrate former offenders into workplaces or the army — clear criminal records. “While the authority to pardon is a responsibility of unparalleled magnitude, it is also a distinct merit,” he said. “It is a responsibility in the sense that it gives the convicted the ability not to fulfill or complete their sentence as given.
“And it is a merit, a privilege, to award a second chance for normal life — unblemished — for those who deserve such. The privilege is to offer a new path, a different path, for those whose self-reflection brings them to recognize their deeds and their consequences.”
It was inspirational to see a president show such openness to young offenders spurred by the values and themes of Yom Kippur; to have him so adeptly take the ancient ideas of remorse and forgiveness and give them such relevance to real challenges facing Israeli society.
It’s not the first time in the High Holy Day season that he has given a real relevance to the idea of repentance. At Peres’ funeral, Rivlin adopted a humility rarely seen in Israeli politics. A right-winger who himself spoke harshly of the Oslo peace process that Peres championed, Rivlin said that people went too far.
Standing next to the casket he declared: “Shimon, I unashamedly confess, on the eve of the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShanah, at your graveside among the graves of the leaders of our nation, [that] your forgiveness must be asked. … It was permitted to disagree with you. Your opponents had a duty to express their opinion. However, there were years in which red lines were crossed between ideological disputes and words and deeds which had no place.”
When politicians here try to invoke Jewish values to speak about the issues of the day it can so often sound shallow, or just seem that they are dropping a few traditional phrases to score points with the public. Rivlin has shown real leadership by speaking of repentance at the funeral of a political opponent and then by holding the young offenders’ event and by leading it with meaningful reflections on the responsibility and the merit of granting forgiveness.
The poet Chaim Nachman Bialik famously wrote that Jews will have “a normal state when we have the first Hebrew prostitute, the first Hebrew thief and the first Hebrew policeman.” Did he ever consider the next stage — that is, when the Hebrew thief and the Hebrew policeman gathering together at the Hebrew president’s home discuss rehabilitation and forgiveness in honor of the holiest day in the Hebrew calendar?
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.