Do we have to forgive?

Do we have to forgive?

Franklin Lakes shul panel to look at ‘How Are We To Relate To Our Enemies?’

Last April, a bus was bombed in Jerusalem; 21 people were injured, some severely. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Last April, a bus was bombed in Jerusalem; 21 people were injured, some severely. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Enemies. The word sounds almost melodramatic to most of us. Enemies are for movies, or sagas. They’re not real, any more than evil is.

But some of us have encountered real enemies, been face to face with real evil.

Two people who have had that experience — Arline Duker of Teaneck, whose daughter, Sara Duker, was blown up on a bus in Jerusalem in 1996, and Bella Miller, whose experiences during the Holocaust included living in bunkers and selection lines at Auschwitz, and much of whose family was wiped out by the Nazis — will speak as part of a panel that Rabbi Joseph Prouser will moderate as part of his Moral Literacy series on January 12. (See box for more information.)

A third panelist, the Rev. Nathan Busker, the pastor of Ponds Reformed Church in Oakland, will talk about the Christian understanding of how to deal with enemies.

Although he had been planning the panel for some time, it’s unfortunately timely right now, Rabbi Prouser, who heads Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, said. “That’s because of the vitriol and the extent of the hateful rhetoric we heard during this election cycle.” Still, he said, “it is not intended as anything specifically political.”

The panel will consider how we relate to our enemies. “Arline Duker and Bella Miller represent two very sensitive areas of Jewish identity and Jewish concern, in how we relate to those who are our worst detractors and enemies,” Rabbi Prouser said. “From a historic Jewish perspective, they will be quite an effective tag team.

“There is also a great deal of potential in the discussion with Reverend Busker,” he continued. “The Jewish and Christian responses for how we relate to our enemies can be very different, and from a certain perspective, one of the major points of departure between the two perspectives is in discussing questions like what is forgiveness? Is the goal always reconciliation? Is forgiveness sometimes morally objectionable?

“I am eager to hear what Mrs. Miller will say about what crimes are beyond redemption, and how a representative of the Christian religious tradition will respond to that perspective.”

Rabbi Prouser plans to bring in all sorts of sources, from the new book, “Against Empathy,” by Paul Bloom, to Elie Wiesel’s “Sunflower,” to stimulate discussion. He has been thinking about a quote from the writer Maya Angelou — “A wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy. A wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim.” Ms. Angelou was not Jewish, “but this is a very Jewish response,” Rabbi Prouser said. “It’s one that the Jewish community can relate to.”

And then there’s another quote, a little prayer that is anonymous but often attributed to Irish folk wisdom, that he plans to add to the evening. “May those who love us love us. Those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts. And if God doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles. So we’ll know them by their limping.”

Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Rabbi Joseph Prouser

“Because I grew up in the Jewish tradition, I’ve always had the notion that forgiveness is someone taking responsibility for what they have done, and requesting that you forgive them,” Ms. Duker, a psychotherapist in private practice who also teaches pastoral counseling at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, N.Y., said. “In some way, they either make amends or express some regret or remorse. And then the injured party gets to think about whether or not they can forgive. In the Jewish tradition, it is encouraged that if someone makes the attempt, we meet them partway.

“In my life, the idea of formal forgiveness hasn’t been front and center. I don’t walk about holding grudges; I like to have good relationships with people. I don’t have a list of enemies I refuse to forgive. It’s not my thing.”

But her situation is unusual. “Both the Eisenfeld family” — Sara was sitting on the bus with her boyfriend, Matt Eisenfeld, when it exploded, and they both died. The two were deeply in love, and had assumed that they’d marry and live their lives together. When they died, their families mourned together; they have become very close “and I, at some point early in the grappling with the murder of our children, had to figure out how we would incorporate the fact that there were people and groups who were sworn enemies of ours, even though they didn’t know us.

“Their agenda was a terrorist agenda. You just murder. You just kill people. You just do whatever you need to do, for your own ends.” She does not have to go after those people herself, Ms. Duker said. We have armies and spies and governments to do that for us. “But I did realize that I have needed some kind of way of dealing with people who are my sworn enemies.”

She related a conversation she’d had, years ago, not long after Sara’s death, with someone who asked her if she’d forgiven the man who killed her daughter. “I said, ‘Absolutely not,’ and he said ‘You are walking around with all this anger.’

“I said, ‘I absolutely am not walking around with it. He’” — a Palestinian man named Hassan Salameh, who is in prison in Israel — “does not take up any space in my brain or in my heart. He is someone I have no relationship with. Someone I wish to have no relationship with. He is off my radar.

“I let it go. I do not want to have a relationship with him. I want to let it go. I want to go my own way. I don’t need to deal with him.

“What I really want is Sara back, and that doesn’t do it. Energy would get taken up in revenge, but she’s still gone.”

Mike Kelly of Teaneck, a reporter for the Bergen Record, wrote a book about Sara Duker and Matt Eisenfeld’s death, “The Bus on Jaffa Road.” Mr. Kelly, a very smart and sensitive reporter, eventually got to meet Salameh in prison. Although he is a dispassionate reporter, he was shocked by the man he met. Mr. Kelly asked Salameh why he killed Sara. “She wasn’t the target,” Salameh told Mr. Kelly. “She was there.” When Mr. Kelly repeated Salameh’s words back to him, asking for more explanation, Salameh provided it. “We don’t really think about who is being killed,” Mike Kelly reported him as saying. “She was not the target. The target was Israeli occupation. That was her bad luck that she was on the bus.”

That was her bad luck?

Rev. Nathan Busker
Rev. Nathan Busker

Mike Kelly decided that Hassan Salameh was a psychopath, who lucked into an environment that could make use of him.

“I think that in some instances I could see the humanity in someone else who did something, but there is no humanity in Hassan Salameh,” Ms. Duker said. “Why would I forgive him? It would feel almost foolish. He’s in prison. I don’t want to have a relationship with someone who is so much of a non-human being.

“I look for real people in my life. I don’t have to forgive a psychopath. That makes no sense. Forgiveness and psychopathy have no relationship with each other.”

That lack of relationship between forgiveness and psychopathy is something that Bella Miller knows well. Ms. Miller was born in 1932, in eastern Poland; when World War II started, she was 7 years old.

Ms. Miller was born into comfort; her hometown, Borislaw, which now is part of Ukraine, was “known for petroleum,” she said. “It supplied most of Poland.” About 30 percent of the small town was Jewish, and “my father had a beautiful, elegant store, a clothing store, for children and ladies.”

Then the war started, and the noose around Jews began to tighten. Her father, Egon Friedler, her mother, Serafina, and her older brother, Edek, and young Bella, along with other family members, were able to find hiding places with families who were willing to risk their lives for them — and also were paid well for it. Eventually the Jews were no longer able to find such hiding places, and moved between bunkers in the woods and the ghetto into which they had been forced in the center of town. After a series of terrifyingly close calls, they were caught, herded into the ghetto, and then, in its final liquidation, shoved onto cattle cars and sent on a two-week trip through Hungary and Austria to get to Auschwitz. It was August, 1944.

“They immediately took us off the train, sent men and women separately, and I never had time to say goodbye to my father and my brother,” Ms. Miller said. “I never saw them again.

“They took us to a selection, and Dr. Mengele came near me and said, ‘How old are you?’ My mother spoke fluent German, and she said 15 in German. He looked at me like he didn’t believe it, but somehow he let me go.

“I was tall for my age. If I hadn’t been, I would have died.

“Everyone else, my little cousins, went to the gas chambers. We found later that that’s what the smoke was.”

Bella Miller (Brian Marcus — Still Here Book)
Bella Miller (Brian Marcus — Still Here Book)

Ms. Miller’s mother was tattooed, but then the Nazis realized they’d given her the wrong number, and gave her a second one. Ms. Miller has a tattoo too, but hers is unusually small. “I was the only one who was tattooed then,” she said, so they took more time with it. It was less slipshod.

As the Nazis made the Jews “carry rocks from one side to the other, just to make us work, you could hear the Russians were getting close,” Ms. Miller said. “On January 27, 1945, they liberated us.”

Life still was hard; there wasn’t enough food, and the anti-Semitism the mother and daughter faced as they tried to find somewhere to go was harsh. Eventually, despite the very real lures of Australia, the pair went to the United States; the boat they took landed them in Boston. Soon, they were sent, through the auspices of a Jewish agency, to Omaha, Nebraska. “The Jewish community there was marvelous,” Ms. Miller said.

Ms. Miller already had learned some English, while she was in a DP camp in Germany. “My mother used to give her food to a woman who spoke English, to teach me English,” she said. “My first book in English was Dracula, so I learned English from Dracula.” She made friends, got jobs, got an education, and after two years “my mother decided it was time to move on. We got on a train and went to New York.”

In New York, Ms. Miller went to college, earning a degree in business from Baruch. She met a handsome World War II Army veteran, Edward Miller; the two married in June 1955 and had three children and one grandchild together. Mr. Miller died in 2015.

In 1968, the young family moved to Montvale, where they lived until Bella and Bob moved to Wanaque in 2010.

“My sweetheart grew up in Wyckoff,” Ms. Miller said. “His family were the first Jews in Wyckoff; he was born in Passaic, where his father had two drug stores, but he lost them both during the Depression. But he got a store in Wyckoff.”

That drugstore, Miller’s Pharmacy, is still in Wyckoff; Mr. Miller was its business manager and now his nephew runs it.

So Ms. Miller has a lot of experience that can reflect on her views of how to treat enemies.

Arline Duker
Arline Duker

“I cannot forgive and forget,” she said. “It would be very difficult. They killed one million little Jewish children. The innocence was killed. If we’d had all those people, who knows? Maybe we would have found a cure for cancer.

“Reconciliation? No! How can you forgive something like this? How can you reconcile? There is not a chance. It is beyond objectionable. There are people who still want to kill us. Who is qualified to forgive? The Good Lord. What constitutes remorse? I cannot answer that. It is beyond any answer.

“The Holocaust is beyond forgiveness.”

The Rev. Nathan Busker has not had the same devastating experience with enemies that Ms. Duker and Ms. Miller have had, but he said that we can have enemies “on both the macro level and the micro, and for myself it’s more on the micro level.” He had led a church in Colorado before he moved to New Jersey, and in that congregation he struggled with the enmity of some of its members, “who were looking to inflict damage on me — not physical but emotional and spiritual and vocational,” he said. He learned a great deal, much of it painful, from that experience.

And now, in Oakland, the church he leads is “an open and welcoming community” — which is shorthand for saying that it is open and welcoming to everyone, including members of the LGBT community. That is somewhat challenging for some people; “one person wrote a scathing letter attacking me over that issue,” he said. “So I want to explore that area a little — how sometimes the thing we do to make enemies is unintentional.”

His experience with enemies does show, he said, that “there isn’t one size that fits all.”

Christian theology does call for victims to forgive their abusers, but it’s more complicated than it might seem, he said. “The first misunderstanding that Christians have is that it has to happen immediately. Sometimes it takes time.”

Does it have to happen at all? “I think that we are called to forgiveness, but maybe not when we think it should happen, or when other people think it should happen.

“And we tend to confuse forgiveness with trust,” he added. “I remind people that while we are called to forgive, we are not called to trust. I can forgive a person, but that doesn’t mean that I will turn the keys over to that person. And that means some liberation, and I can move into the forgiveness a little faster.”

In the Christian world, to some extent, the burden is on the victim to reach out to the abuser. “Although I am the victim, I have the burden to go and say, ‘You harmed me. You hurt me.’ We struggle with that as well. When I am hurt, I turn away. I cut you off. But we are called to re-engage.”

Yes, he said, the victimizer has some responsibilities as well. “Eventually the other person is called to come with a repentant heart. There should be some change in them. If I come to them and share my hurt and pain as a fellow human being, they should start to find the empathy that will bring them to realize that what they did was wrong, and to bring change within them.

“Transformation doesn’t always happen,” Rev. Busker added. And, he repeated, it takes time. “I am intrigued by people, when something tragic has happened to them, and right away they are saying, ‘I forgive them.’ I really think that it takes time.”

So — three speakers, three different histories, probably two perspectives, give or take. They’ll discuss, maybe heatedly, but they won’t leave as enemies.

Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey

What: Moderates “How are we to relate to our enemies?” a panel discussion that’s part of the synagogue’s Moral Literacy series.

When: On Thursday, January 12, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: At the synagogue, 558 High Mountain Road in Franklin Lakes

Who else: Arline Duker, Bella Miller, and the Rev. Nathan Busker are the other panelists

For more information: Go to or call (201) 560-0200.

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