Healing the Present, Healing the Past

By Azriel Cohen Shared at the Hiroshima Commemoration Ceremony in Plum Village, August 7, 2001 .

Last night, a young man from Germany at the Hiroshima Commemoration in the Upper Hamlet shared with the community how he observed anger arising within himself, when the Israeli-Palestinian group shared that the trauma of the Holocaust was still a source of deep suffering for the Jewish people, and that it affected the situation in the Middle East. He decided to look deeply into the anger that was within himself, and he discovered that though he was born a long time after World War II he himself was still not healed from the wounds of that war. He had ancestors who were actively involved in the Nazi regime. He turned to the community and declared that he personally wanted to do something that might be healing and to somehow find a way to apologize to all the Jews who had suffered. He asked the community to breathe mindfully and  support him while he bowed his head to the ground in silence.


I was deeply moved by what he did. When my turn came up to share my reflections on the experiences of the Israeli-Palestinian group, I offered the following story to this young German man:

My only other time in Plum Village was five years ago. The most moving experience I had was on my last day. At our last Dharma discussion of the retreat, a young woman who I did not know shared with our group a very deep pain that she had in her heart and soul. She was German and was tormented by the possibility that her ancestors had somehow played a role in perpetrating the atrocities of the Holocaust. Though she was third generation after the war, and though she had no certain evidence that anyone in her family was involved, she was haunted by the deeds of her grandparents ' generation. She was obsessed with discovering the truth and finding a way to heal from it. She read every book she could find on the Holocaust, saw films and spent time in archives combing through information to see if any of her relatives were mentioned. Through her eyes she shared her pain and suffering echoed in her voice.

After the circle was finished, I went over to her. I said, "Amelie, I'm named after my grandfather's little brother, Azriel, who was killed in one of the concentration camps during World War II. The last time my grandfather saw his brother was when he was a little boy, so he was unable to ever tell me much about him." Both of us had tears in our eyes, realizing that here we were three generations later, the two sides facing each other. Both of us realized that if there was anything whatsoever that we could do to contribute to healing what had happened, it would be by getting to know each other as humans. I had no plans to go to Germany during my travels through Europe, but I decided to visit Amelie at her parents' home near Munich. We went together to Dachau, one of the more well-known concentration camps and we spent six hours in total silence, walking and just being. The next morning I departed, and though that was the last time we saw each other, the experience will forever be with me.

Last night, during the ceremony commemorating Hiroshima, the young man from Germany and I walked arm in arm carrying candles under the open starry sky. I realized how in the present we can impact on the healing of the past and what seems to be beyond us, and that each of us, in our own little way can contribute to peace if we find  peace within ourselves.

Azriel Cohen helped to organize the group of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis who have come two times to practice in Plum Village together.

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International Intervention and a Peoples' Peace Conference

Proposals Offered by Thich Nhat HanhNovember 2001

An International Peacekeeping Force

I would like to know your reaction and what the reaction of the people in the Middle East would be to the idea of the international community taking over the problem as an international problem.

The situation is comparable to that in a house where two brothers are fighting with each other and causing a lot of damage. A fire breaks out and the water pipes are broken and so there is a big risk. The family comes and some members hold one brother back to stop the fighting. Other family members try to put out the fire, fix the water pipes, and so on.

That is the idea. The international community takes over and the security council can  propose that UN peacekeeping forces be sent to the area to prevent further violence and to allow the peace process to become a reality.

There are many things we can do. Countries from all over the world, especially those that can afford it, can send peacekeeping forces over there as members of the UN. And at the same time, both sides can try to refrain from taking further action. The UN peacekeeping forces can take over the role of peacekeeper and prevent further violence. And others can try to do things to extinguish the fire and to repair the water pipes. Reporters sent by the UN can come and report on the real situation so that it becomes a process of education for the whole world. We have allowed the situation to get worse and worse because we do not understand. We should be corrected in our understanding. If there is hunger, dying and sickness, that should be reported, and the world will have to respond.

Such a situation would give us the chance to create moments of peace and happiness in our daily lives. Individuals and families need that. We all need peace and happiness in order to nourish ourselves, in order for us to be able to go further.


The international peacekeeping forces would have the role of a temporary peacekeeper. They would help to promote a process of mass education in the world, a process of getting out true information to educate the world and to find the real roots of the suffering. The whole international community, not just a few nations like the U.S.A. or the U.K., would have to take responsibility for the area. But, we cannot rely solely on the peacekeeping forces sent over because their role would only be for a temporary period of time. We also need to continue looking deeply to develop long lasting paths of peace and co-existence for the peoples involved.

Will the reaction be favorable to this kind of proposal?

Reactions of people from the group:

"Many Jews are afraid of and don't trust others. I am named after a relative who died in the holocaust. I grew up with neighbors and friends who lost relatives in the holocaust. I grew up with the education that we, the Jews, were persecuted for two thousand years. After two thousand years the Jews feel that they cannot trust anyone. There is a strong resistance to intervention from the outside. There is suspicion towards whoever is not Jewish. There is fear of anti-Semitism, of evil intentions. I don't know how to take care of it but it creates difficulty with agreeing to an intervention from the outside."

"I remember the experience of the intervention of the UN in Lebanon. Many times they did not prevent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Lebanon. For example, there was a case in which three soldiers were kidnapped by the chizbala. The UN had a videotape of them, proving the identity of the soldiers. The UN refused to give the videotape to the families of the soldiers. It caused great difficulty to the families who couldn't prove that their sons were dead, even though they got the information that they were dead. I feel that it is not fair. I feel that the UN does not use their force in a just way. "

"There is de-humanization and pain inflicted on both sides. Still there are people who have lost their dear ones but wish for peace and not revenge so that others would not have to go through the same suffering. I live in Neve Shalom, which is a mixed community of Palestinians and Jews. I feel that we can live in harmony with each other, in co-existence, and I feel pain about the idea of dividing the land. We can live together as equal people in the same state. I think that through dialogue we can answer the needs, fears and distrust of both sides. In Neve Shalom there is a mixed school in which both Arabic and Hebrew are taught. We try to accept and respect each other and not to change each other. When the children play they never make a division between Arabs and Jews. They play as friends. This, for me, is a light for the future. I believe that we have to accept that there is no military solution to this conflict. Using force is not the way. Our leaders should know that. Education is very important, education to learn that we can live together, education to accept the other."

A Peoples' Peace Conference

Before you go home I would like to share something that you might like to consider in the near future, a "Peoples' Peace Conference." You could come together as people and organize a peace conference where you can offer your insights, solutions and proposals. This would be a process of education within the country as well as for the outside world. The participating people would act as people and not as governments. And they would come having already cultivated some peace and compassion inside of themselves. There are two aspects to peace - making peace and being peace. In order to make peace you must also be peace.

We can organize a peace conference where we bring a number of people together to practice breathing, calming, smiling and embracing our despair and anger. After several days we can begin to sit down, to smile at each other, to share our suffering and so on. That is the process of practicing peace. We can organize a rehearsal peace conference in Plum Village.

As the peace inside us grows, we will grow, and we can organize a second similar conference. As we make more progress, we can invite people who are more official representatives than we are. We can try it several times in several places, and finally we can hold it in a place where the whole world can see. We can call it a "Peoples' Peace Conference." By that time supporters of peace all over the world will try their best to draw the attention of the world to the event. And we can invite reporters and the mass media to cover this work.

I think that in this process of practice we cannot expect a miracle. We have to go step by step towards real peace. That is the most realistic way, we should not be too dreamy. We cannot rely on our leaders because they have not been educated in peace; they are not accustomed to making peace, talking peace or listening deeply. We have to take the situation into our own hands, the hands of the people. This is very much the Plum Village way.

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