Forgiveness: President Rivlin vs. President Bolsonaro

Monday, April 15, 2019 |  Tsvi Sadan

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said on Thursday to a group of Evangelical pastors in Rio de Janiero concerning the Holocaust that “we can forgive, but we cannot forget … those that forget their past are sentenced not to have a future.”

Outraged, Israel President Reuven Rivlin tweeted in response that "we will never give a hand to those who deny the truth or try to cause it to be forgotten, not by individuals nor organizations, not by head of parties nor by heads of states. No one will enjoin the forgiveness of the Jewish people, and no interest will buy it.”

What Rivlin was actually saying was that Brazil's president is no less than a Holocaust-denier. Bolsonaro's response to Rivlin was just as harsh. Careful enough not to point a finger directly at Rivlin, he nonetheless included the Israeli president among "those who want to push me away from my Jewish friends.” What Bolsonaro was actually saying, if I understand him correctly, was that Rivlin's promoting his own narrow political agenda over the interests of Israel.

One may indeed wonder why Rivlin was so hasty to level such a severe accusation against so great a friend of Israel. There are two possibilities I can think of: Either Rivlin didn't think it through before tweeting, or he is trying to discredit Bolsonaro, who is viewed by Israel's left as racist, misogynous and a homophobe. If it's the latter, which I think it is, it means that, as Bolsonaro insinuated, Israel's president has capitulated to a progressive agenda that poses a threat to Israel and her allies. And that's just as breathtaking an accusation as Rivlin's suggestion that Bolsonaro is somehow denying the Holocaust.

That being said, in responding thus to Rivlin, Bolsonaro certainly did nothign to alleviate the tension. And by later clarifying that "forgiveness is something personal," the Brazilian leader left open the possibility of forgiving those who unrepentedly wiped six million Jews of the face of the earth.

Given the Christian context in which Bolsonaro spoke, it's likely that he was thinking of Jesus' words, "for if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." Now, in certain Evangelical circles influenced particularly by Father Peter Hocken's idea of forgiveness, these verses have come to mean that forgiveness can be extended not only to people who sinned against you, but also to people who sinned against others.

In his book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, Simon Wiesenthal explores this possibility in depth, and reaches the inescapable conclusion that even as a Holocaust survivor, he has no right to forgive a Nazi criminal who had nothing to do with him personally. To the confession of a dying SS soldier who had participated in the burning of 300 Jews, the best Wiesenthal could offer him was silence.

Therefore, for Bolsonaro to even contemplate the possibility of personally forgiving Nazi criminals is moral monstrous, and far more egregious than Rivlin's narrow political agenda. One can only hope that for the good of all, someone will take the time to summarize The Sunflower for Brazil's president, who after all is a genuine friend of Israel.

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