- My Terrorist
I was watching Yulie Gerstel's video "My Terrorist" when my son came in to tell me that another suicide bomb had just killed some twenty men, women, and children in a Haifa beach restaurant. There could be no more dramatic, poignant background to the task I was undertaking—to write about Gerstel's film for the readers of Nashim. As volunteer medics hurried the wounded into ambulances, amid reports that the terrorist was a woman, I pondered the questions posed by the film: Can victims of terrorism come to forgive the perpetrators? Should they? Is it psychologically or morally possible? Does gender have anything to do with all this?
Yulie Gerstel tells an honest and unusual autobiographical story that is embedded in chapters from the history of Israeli society and the Middle East conflict. On a bus in London in August 1978, an Arab man shot at four Israeli stewardesses, one of whom was Gerstel. One of her friends was killed, while she herself suffered "only" minor wounds in the arm and lingering post-traumatic effects upon body and soul. Twenty years later, by now a mother of two young girls and a peace activist in Israel, she was drawn to search out "her" terrorist, to try and find out why he had attacked her and what he might think about all this in retrospect. When she discovered that he was still incarcerated in England, she began a correspondence with him and went to visit him in jail. Eventually, she was persuaded that he had changed, and she decided to help him obtain parole by writing to the court that she had forgiven him for what he did.
A delicate, fragile dialogue between the terrorist and his victim represents in a nutshell many of the feelings, attitudes, and dilemmas of an Israeli individual facing the ongoing hostilities in our area. How is one to proceed in a [End Page 281] non-violent mode of interaction with our enemies? Is there a chance of trust developing between Jews and Palestinians? Who is the true victim in the current political situation? How does the occupation educate terrorists? Who can and should break the cycle of violence and revenge? Can one build a life for one's children on foundations of fear, anger, hate, and suspicion? And what is the alternative? These and other questions underlie the project of this film.
While the main story line indicates a clear answer to these basic dilemmas, one that condemns violence and extremism and preaches forgiveness and compassion, the narrator leaves margins for uncertainty in her depiction of the complex world in which we live. She does not hide her immense fear for the safety of her daughters, or the emotional difficulty of maintaining a relationship with "her" terrorist after September 11. She confesses that throughout the years, she has been unable to visit and console the parents of her friend who was murdered in the attack that she survived. She gives voice to a bereaved mother whose attitudes are completely different from hers, who prays daily for the death of "her" terrorist, the one who killed her daughter. They cry together. These shadows make Gerstel's story all the more credible.
And yet, in these difficult times, I am not convinced that we, the survivors of terrorism—like Gerstel herself—have the moral right to forgive on behalf of those who perished, or even of their immediate family members, whose loss can never be repaired. A similar dilemma has been discussed in depth with regard to the Holocaust, its victims, and attitudes towards Germany. Can the survivors be the forgivers? Perhaps the survivor analogy is better applied to the parents of the other victim, the young woman murdered in the same attack. And, in fact, they refuse to join in Gerstel's actions or even to meet with her. Yet we Israelis certainly have some responsibility for the present terror, too. One way or another, there can be no black and white perspective on this highly complicated picture.
In sum, Gerstel has produced an honest, multi-layered picture...