Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Saying Sorry

After many years and a lot of angst in the community our government is finally saying "sorry" to the aboriginal people for the "stolen generations". It took 11 years and a change in government but, as one of their first duties, the Rudd government will be issuing the apology in parliament tomorrow.

The text of the apology can be found here.

Between the late 1800s and 1969 the Australian government forcibly took aboriginal children from their parents and placed them in institutions and white foster homes. This was supposedly done for their benefit as the thinking of the time was that it would obviously be better for the children to grow up with "white" people rather than their "uncivilised" families. Many of those "stolen" children were quite traumatised by these events as can be understood. One of the many testimonies:

I was at the post office with my Mum and Auntie [and cousin]. They put us in the police ute and said they were taking us to Broome. They put the mums in there as well. But when we'd gone [about ten miles] they stopped, and threw the mothers out of the car. We jumped on our mothers' backs, crying, trying not to be left behind. But the policemen pulled us off and threw us back in the car. They pushed the mothers away and drove off, while our mothers were chasing the car, running and crying after us. We were screaming in the back of that car. When we got to Broome they put me and my cousin in the Broome lock-up. We were only ten years old. We were in the lock-up for two days waiting for the boat to Perth.
The Bringing them Home report was commissioned by the government in 1995 to investigate the claims of indigenous people and was tabled in parliament in 1997. It recommended that the government apologise to the aboriginal people as well as make reparations to those forcibly removed from their families. The apology is finally to be made tomorrow but the reparations are yet to be decided upon.

To me it is a basic right that families should be kept together (with the obvious exception of abusive relationships). Many Rabbis have come out with statements and droshos in the last week to discuss this. I like the article in last week's Jewish News by Rabbi Chaim Ingram (of the Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing) where he looks at this from a Torah viewpoint. From that article:

The eighth chapter of the talmudic tractate Baba Kama deals with issues of choveil - wounding or maiming. Five categories of liability are derived from the Torah: Injury (Shemot 21:24); physical pain(21:25); healing costs (21:19); loss of time (21:19); and emotional pain(Devarim 25:11-12).

The Mishna, having made it clear that "wound for wound" (21:25) means monetary compensation, details every aspect of monetary restitution required on all five counts listed above for various categories of people. Then suddenly, in chapter 7, we find the following: "Although he pays him, he is not forgiven for it until he seeks pardon from him." And how do we know that the injured party should not be cruel (and withhold pardon)? Because it says (Bereshit 20:17): "Abraham prayed to God and God healed Avimelech [who had kidnapped Sarah - thus Abraham demonstrated his willingness to forgive even one who had abducted his wife]".

Rambam (Hilkhot Choveil 5:9) expands further: "One who injures another physically (mazik begufo) is unlike one who damages his property (mazik mamono); in the latter case, as soon as he has made monetary restitution he is pardoned. If, on the other hand, he wounded (chaval) his fellow, although he pays him on all five liability counts [as he indeed must], he does not receive atonement... and his sin is not pardoned until he requests and receives pardon from his victim. The victim should not be cruel by withholding forgiveness; this is not the way of the seed of Israel. But as soon as the offender has asked forgiveness a first time, and [certainly] a second time, and the victim knows he is truly repentant, he should pardon him - and all who hasten to forgive are praiseworthy and beloved of the Sages."
In Hilchot Teshuva (2:9), Rambam extends the requirement of asking pardon to one who robs another and derives benefit from the stolen goods causing his victim anguish.

What, though, of one whose victim has died? Rambam makes it clear (Teshuva 2:11) that monetary restitution should be made to the heirs a generation (or several) down the track. However, as far as asking pardon is concerned, Rambam pointedly does not make that an option. Instead he says that the offender must supplicate publicly at the victim's grave.

It would seem that, by implication, the requirement of monetary restitution would apply equally to the heirs (inheritors) of the offender. Nor is it difficult to extrapolate fiscally from the sphere of the individual to that of society. After all, the wealth of a nation survives its administrators. The notions of trans-generational Holocaust "compensation" and Aboriginal lands restitution would appear sound from the Torah standpoint. Moreover, even the concept of trans-generational national confession to God has a Torah precedent. "Aval anachnu va'avoteinu chatanu - but we and our ancestors have sinned" is the phrase with which we introduce the viddui (confession) on Yom Kippur. We will not be held accountable for our ancestors' misdemeanours only if and when we renounce them.

However, the major question is: may the child of a victim extend vicarious pardon for wrongs done to his parent? Do the descendants of a generation of victims have the right to grant forgiveness for crimes perpetrated on their grandfathers and grandmothers? From a Torah standpoint, there appears to be no indication that they do. Maybe for this reason one may be excused for expressing the view that "sorry" can sometimes sound like the most inadequate word in the English language.

Yet that does not detract from the validity of every small step in the right direction.