Two years ago, this magazine exposed a dark chapter in the life of Nahi Alon, a clinical psychologist who ordered the killing of Palestinians in the Six-Day War. Now he describes the personal journey that resulted, which included emotional encounters with Arab friends and a new approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Published 11:41 23.07.10
"I was waiting for it, I was mentally prepared for something like this to happen," says Nahi Alon, a clinical psychologist who is also president of the Israeli Friends of the Tibetan People organization. "But even so, I went through a hard time in the wake of the article ["Days of atonement," Haaretz Magazine, Apr. 11, 2008], about the killing of Palestinian civilians at my initiative and my order. I didn't know beforehand what it would say, and all kinds of scenarios went through my mind.
"I wasn't afraid for myself: Mostly I was concerned for my two daughters, even if they already knew the story. I was especially worried about the response of Israeli-Palestinian friends with whom I worked, in the framework of organizations engaged in social and public struggles on their behalf. The article could damage our relations. I was afraid they would dissociate themselves from me upon suddenly discovering that the consultant they were working with was a murderer."
In the 1967 Six-Day War, Alon was a company commander in the 202nd Paratroops Battalion. Haim Krafenkopf, a soldier in the battalion at the time, described a nighttime ambush which ended with two bodies and the abuse of a boy.
"We went to an abandoned camp on the edge of Gaza," Krafenkopf recalled, "and were told that people were taking civilian equipment from the place and our aim was to arrest them. Before dawn, two adults and a boy arrived on a cart drawn by a donkey ... The force headed for the three. The two adults took fright and fled into an adjacent building. The force called to them to come out, but they didn't. The force then broke down the door and the two adults started to run. As they were running, our company master sergeant, Daniel Hananya, shot at them. He grabbed a submachine gun from someone, opened the bipod, lay down on the ground and fired."
The incident did not, however, end there. "It was a brutal sight," Krafenkopf added, noting that Alon was the senior commander at the scene. "I remember that one of the bodies was dragged and loaded onto the cart. They were not armed ... It was cold-blooded murder. They were not a threat to anyone.
"Then Hananya grabbed the boy - he must have been about 10 - and started to teach him how to say in Hebrew, 'Thus shall it be done to the person whom Hananya wishes to honor' [from the Book of Esther, where instead of Hananya the words "the king" appear]. The boy spent about 10 minutes memorizing the sentence and then was sent into Gaza with the donkey, the cart and the bodies. I remember the fat body, the man's guts. Nahi just stood there and didn't do anything. He was present throughout the situation, but didn't stop it and didn't intervene. They just abused the boy, the bodies."
Nahi Alon, who lives today on the border of Bat Yam and Jaffa, is the son of the historian and Israel Prize laureate Gedalia Alon. For the past 20 years, he has been teaching Buddhist psychology, specializing in ethics and morality. In addition to his activity involving the Israeli Friends of the Tibetan People, which he founded, he helped create Psycho-Dharma - the Israel Center for Mind-Body Medicine.
"Both of those projects are related to what happened to me in the war," Alon says. "It's clear to me that they are in part the result of a long and continuing personal journey to do tikkun [a term, deriving from the Mishna, meaning to repair or mend] for the deeds I committed. My encounter with Buddhism, while backpacking in India at the age of 42, led me to see the deep illogic of the military and political approach to conflicts. Under the influence of Buddhism, I started to experience agonizing thoughts about the people for whose death I was responsible. That did not 'erase' the blood, but it launched my attempts to rectify things."
In the wake of the Haaretz article, Alon thus embarked on another journey of tikkun.
"It was clear," he continues, "that underlying the public revelation of my deeds was the goal of exposing me as a hypocrite, one who speaks in very lofty terms about nonviolence and peace, but in fact is harboring a secret can of worms. I read what Haim [Krafenkopf] said and it wasn't easy. Part of what he said I did not remember. In general, I have a very poor memory of the distant past. Still, the abuse of the boy seemed completely out of place. The fact that two civilians were shot and killed, and that I thought it was the right thing to do and had justification for it - that's true. But I didn't need the article in the paper to refresh my memory about that. I dealt with it for years.
"For example," Alon says, "11 years after the incident I asked to be tried by the judge advocate general, thus putting an end to my career-army service. From that point of view, the exposure did not bring back feelings of guilt, because I had already coped with them. But even though when I read the paper that day I knew I had done all I could in the way of tikkun, I knew that, this time, the terrible deed that accompanies me had become a public issue."
Much happened as a result, he says in a soft, calm voice. "First of all, I went to speak with Israeli-Palestinian friends, who were totally surprised by the article. My intention from the outset was not to evade them. I met with them, men and women, people in midlife - all proud and determined fighters in the struggle for Arabs' rights in this country. Some had read the article, and I told those who hadn't the main points. I said it was important for me to tell them the events in full and for them to examine for themselves if they wished to go on working with me. I knew it was a harsh story, and I did not want to soften it. I also did not want to apologize, act self-righteous, explain that 'I had no choice' or that 'things like that happen in war' or that 'I was young.'"
At the time the article appeared, Alon was an adviser on nonviolent struggles in a local organization that promotes Palestinian rights. One Jaffa resident, who heads a group that fights for Arab rights in mixed cities, was utterly taken aback by the piece.
"I have a gut instinct that it will be better if I do not reveal my name or that of the organization I was working for," she says. "When Nahi told me about the article, I was terribly surprised and flustered. I had known him for three years and never imagined that this was part of his biography. Whenever I meet with [Jewish] Israelis I always wonder about their military past, about where they served and what they did. This time it was especially complex. Suddenly I discovered that someone I was working with had murdered my brothers."
It was "surrealistic," she continues emotionally. "On the one hand, Nahi and I are partners in creating a shared life between Jews and Arabs. We talk about coexistence and attend demonstrations together. But on the other hand, in one fell swoop comes this old story from Gaza. When he started to tell me what happened there, I have to admit I did not want to hear too much. Sometimes it's preferable not to know. I understood immediately that he was telling me something very heavy, horrible, not some trifling matter. It was obvious it might end the ties between us. I needed time to digest the situation. We only spoke a few days later. It was a very dramatic moment in our relationship. In the end, I can say that I felt that the situation then was forced upon him: He was forced to murder.
"I was not the one who had to forgive him," she emphasizes. "It's the people he hurt who have to do that. I thought mainly about the reality we live in, which destroys people psychologically and morally. I thought about how young people are sent on missions that turn them into criminals. I thought of Nahi as a young man who went to war. In the end, I understand that people change and believe in tikkun olam [repair of the world]. I believe in taking responsibility for one's deeds, especially the terrible ones. Nahi did that: It's not by chance that he preaches nonviolent struggle. In our conversation, he laid the black truth on the table. I feel, with all my anger, pain and frustration at what he did, that there was something healing in our conversation."
Mohammed Marzuk, from Kafr Kara, a Galilee village, is willing to speak about Alon, but admits that he finds it extremely difficult. A social-political activist who organizes encounters between Israelis and Palestinians, Marzuk is concerned about how his comments will be taken by the public.
"I have known Nahi for two years. We met within the framework of a struggle I am leading for mixed Arab families, Israeli and Palestinian, who have been hurt by the Citizenship Law," he says. "When Nahi told me about his past, I was shocked. It was in complete contrast to his image as a human being, as an activist who draws inspiration from nonviolent struggles. It was painful to listen to. My first thought was that I was sitting across from a murderer. A person who ordered his soldiers to shoot unarmed civilians is a murderer. There is no other way to describe it."
Even now, Marzuk says, the situation remains complex. "Even as a Palestinian," he notes, "my place is different from that of those who were murdered and their families. I can conduct the dialogue with Nahi and even accept his healing process. Despite that, the bad feeling has not disappeared. Even now, when I meet him, I immediately think about what he did; it always resonates. On the other hand, his contrition, the responsibility he took for the deed, the fact that he does not deny or repress it, that he does not try to offer explanations, that he says the deed is part of him, that he will not forget what he did - all those things opened up a space between us.
"I feel that the dialogue around tikkun bears a very human dimension. Agreements between representatives of the national movements are important, but there is a deep layer, based on dialogue, which aims at repair and taking personal responsibility for horrific deeds that were committed."
Over the years, the idea of tikkun at the personal level has become one of the main spheres in which Alon is engaged as a Buddhist teacher, although the notion of tikkun in the political sense developed mainly through conversations with his Arab friends.
"The exposure [of my deed] created an opening for dialogue which proved to me that the existence of a brutal history does not oblige a breaking down of relations, that people who belong to the injured side can continue to work with those who hurt them," Alon relates. "I understood that ancient history need not be an obstacle. The fact that I hurt my friends and their nation, that I performed immoral acts, does not necessarily have to bring enmity in its wake. My attitude toward my past can in fact lead to continued dialogue.
"I can say that the personal experience of confronting this complicated situation encouraged me to believe that it was possible. I grasped that if certain conditions were fulfilled, it would be possible to maintain human relations and working ties even with the shadows of the past being present."
These revelations prompted Alon to write - in conjunction with Prof. Haim Omer, a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Tel Aviv University - an article about ways to resolve political conflicts. In addition, a book they co-authored in English, "The Psychology of Demonization: Promoting Acceptance and Reducing Conflict," with a foreword by the Dalai Lama (2005; also in Hebrew ), deals with the ways in which enemies, seeking to win and to be right, escalate their struggle and prevent the possibility of dialogue.
"This time," Alon says, "in the wake of my experience with my Palestinian friends, we found that a serious obstacle to tikkun is that people expect that acts of this sort, that they perform, will necessarily lead the other side to respond with symmetrical acts."
According to Alon and Omer, it is understandable that people sometimes think a failed dialogue between parties in a conflict is due to a lack of good faith, to destructive motivation or the other side's innate aggressiveness. In their view, however, a major cause of such failures is the way people think about conflicts and how to resolve them.
Alon: "People are ready to take a rectifying step if the other side reciprocates, but that doesn't work. When a person who wronged someone asks for forgiveness, he expects that he, the wrongdoer, will be forgiven. When the wronged side refuses to forgive, despite being asked to do so, the person who did the wrong might be deeply disappointed. The result is that a genuine request for forgiveness is liable to evolve into a vicious circle of new insults. In many cases, the expectation of mutuality has caused the collapse of fruitful negotiations."
Experience has taught Alon that mutuality in negotiations is not a necessity. Indeed, rectifying a situation need not be the final result of such talks, but they still might produce a breakthrough.
"We know it is possible to progress in the process of tikkun without being dependent on the agreement of the other side," he explains. "After I drew conclusions from my conversations with Arab friends, we put forward a number of principles for action which will lead to a significant lessening of the weight of the conflict. Accepted thinking posits obstacles to dialogue between rivals. I believe in an approach that can overcome the obstacles and move the parties forward to help resolve a situation. Underlying this approach is a mutual, compassionate outlook, meaning that one can take responsibility for wrongs and rectify them unilaterally, while also understanding that the conflict is a tragedy that happened to both sides - that it is not a case of the wicked versus the good."
One section of the article Alon and Omer wrote a few months ago, entitled "Taking Responsibility from a Position of Strength" [in Hebrew at http://pdharma.wordpress.com/2010/06/19/111/ ), presents an imaginary speech delivered by the prime minister of Israel ahead of the opening of peace talks with the Palestinians.
"The speech exemplifies our approach to mending the damage caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he notes. "We are not making a political proposal with specific plans. The distinctiveness of our approach is that it is grounded in basic assumptions and modes of action which differ from conventional thought. It is based on the understanding that we can believe in the rightness of our path, yet also accept that the other side believes in the rightness of its struggle.
"Such understanding," Alon continues, "makes it possible for leaders to take action at the political level, but in a way that does not contradict their political credo. They can take responsibility from a position of strength, without this bringing in its wake surrender to additional demands or to extortion.
"A case in point is Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. He made the breakthrough to peace with Israel by means of a saliently unilateral move, which he made from a position of strength and a deep sense of the rightness of his way. He declared that he would visit Israel and waited for agreement, but this was not the result of negotiations. His visit to the Israeli Knesset was a prodigious act of mental tikkun. With a unilateral move, he opened up a whole world."
Alon does not feel it is naive and simplistic to think that a mental step, such as Sadat's, will pave the way to the end of the conflict. On the contrary: In his opinion, implementing principles such as those he has cited can bring about a true revolution in the dynamics of the conflict. His basic argument is that a statement made with intentionality, accompanied by practical steps, accompanied by a desire to take responsibility and resolve a situation, carries greater weight than one may think.
"The usual discourse is one of mutual accusation," he notes. "But instead of accusing or being contrite - we suggest that the prime minister say the following: 'Our struggle is just, we did what we were forced to do. It is clear to us that we caused wrongs and we want to take responsibility for them, without feeling guilt for the conflict. By contrast, in historical circumstances, faced with a choice between a prolonged conflict and yet another attempt at our destruction, we could only fight until we overcame those who were threatening us."
Just as happened to you in 1967?
Alon: "Yes, only I think it is also necessary to emphasize that we hoped that firm acts of self-defense would deter the other side from persisting in its actions, but many times this proved futile. Today we understand that the very use of our strength and the very fact that we succeeded in the struggle contributed to the conflict's escalation. Escalation can also be a tragic consequence of just struggles."
Let's say Israel were to adopt your approach. How would the government have reacted immediately after the navy's interception of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara?
"We should have said that it was not our intention to harm peace-seeking civilians, even if they violate our laws. That we very much regret the outcome, that we believe that most of the participants were nonviolent and were pursuing peace, that we appreciate their intentions even if we are against their actions. At the same time, we know that some of the participants came with intentions of violence and that some of the organizers belong to groups hostile to Israel. The former should have been released quickly, without attributing responsibility for the violence to them. We should have declared that we would examine impartially the sequence of events that led to loss of life and injuries among the flotilla participants, and that we would publish the results of the inquiry with due speed, openly and courageously.
"We should have said that we would analyze the responsibility that devolves on each side and not hesitate to assume responsibility for our mistakes, if such there were. Even if heavy responsibility devolves on the flotilla participants who acted violently, we as a sovereign state assume responsibility for the safety of the participants from a position of strength."
Those might come across as empty statements. Does your approach offer anything operative as well?
"Our approach holds that good intentions must be backed up with deeds. If the approach I am proposing were adopted, the Israeli side would, for example, establish a fund to ensure a modest financial grant to the [flotilla] casualties and their families, to facilitate their rehabilitation. That decision would stem from humanitarian responsibility and would not amount to taking blame per se for the tragedy that befell people. We would also propose, in cooperation with international institutions, opening within a few weeks a terminal on land, through which supplies could reach Gaza from states, institutions and organizations around the world. Also that a supervisory mechanism be put in place to ensure that no combat materiel would pass through the terminal. It would be a clear statement: We know that some will exploit the situation to deceive us and send in hostile items, but we are strong enough to cope with those risks."
Apart from conversations with your friends and writing the article, were there other results from publication of your personal story?
"We decided to set up in our school a program for people who feel they acted improperly during their military service - a place in which soldiers can talk about what happened to them and undertake practical steps of tikkun. A recently published study about combat soldiers from the Gaza sector during the second intifada confirms that a not-insignificant percentage of them, including female soldiers, feel they acted improperly.
"I am certain there are many people like me who want to rectify a wrong they did, but not in a psychological way, because this is not a psychological problem. It is an ethical problem. I believe that many people who did things that are not consistent with who they are experience pangs of conscience, which they have no idea how to cope with. Having been in that place in the past, I know it's possible to help them."
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