Forgiveness: On difficult memory

I became curious about Udi Aloni’s feature film Forgiveness (2006) after I read his article for Mondoweiss criticizing the Israeli left’s ideological failure and ultimate position of “territorial compromise,” namely giving up some land to Palestinians as opposed to seeking a more holistic justice.

At the end of the article, he writes that he put his film on YouTube for a month to show how he “experiences the current reality in Israel-Palestine.”

“It’s a reality that is a result of a long-term self-manipulation of the psycho-national trauma of the Israeli Jews,” he continues, “a trauma that repeats itself time and again since 1948 like a spiral that accelerates its movements towards ethical and mental destruction of the Israeli-Jewish soul.”

Set in an Israeli psychiatric hospital established on the ruins of the Deir Yassin village, which was subject to a pivotal massacre in 1948 by Zionist paramilitary forces, the film tells the story of David, the son of a holocaust survivor, who chose to leave the comfort of his home in America to join the Israeli army.

The American-Israeli soldier is admitted to the mental hospital after accidentally shooting a Palestinian girl while on patrol duty. Since then, his struggle has become one of forgetting, even if it is induced forgetfulness. While his doctor walks him toward memory loss, his fellow patient, another holocaust survivor, tries to drag him the other way.

The film is one of few Israeli attempts to look at some of the ulterior features of the state of Israel’s inception, transcending historical narratives and their ensuing political positions. Set in the private space of mental struggle, a private space rendered collective because of the war experience, “Forgiveness” taps into what happens to one’s mind when practicing violence. It also explores what results when the state actively intervenes to control this individual and collective mental experience.

Away from triumphant acts of national history-writing, factual selectivity and erasures, the Israeli soldier’s encounter with his own act of killing through the rite of psychic suffering becomes a point of departure for a different narrative, built on the mental traps resulting from committing violence.

In a celebratory commentary on the film, Slavoj Zizek writes that “Forgiveness” is a “moral story,” in which David’s recognition of his act of killing “saves him from an ethical catastrophe and acts as an ultimate moment of reconciliation.” This is a position broadly adopted by Israelis opposed to liberal Zionism. For Zizek, talk about accountability can only start here.

But within this righteous position, there are two problematic issues in Aloni’s work: the function of memory, and the question of representation.

Within Aloni’s moral quest, “Forgiveness” re-enacts some of the critique he offers the Israeli left in his Mondoweiss article. Aloni argues that while territorial compromise is central to Israeli leftist ideology, the giving up of small plots of land to Palestinians is essentially a utilitarian act aimed at avoiding the escalation of the conflict, rather than a moral act of recognizing land theft.

In what seems to be a parallel thought in “Forgiveness,” a Palestinian woman who cleans an Israeli nightclub every dawn after the party is over blows herself up there one day, as David, now resettled in America, lives in forgetfulness of his own act of killing. The woman is none other than the sister of the girl David accidentally killed. It seems to suggest that if David had remembered, or struggled to remember, and confronted his own memory, Israel would have been spared one more suicide bomber.

The suicide bombing itself brings up the exhausted tropes employed in “Forgiveness,” such as the key as a symbol of Palestinian return. In a way, the film functions as a gesture for the position of Israeli apology using the complex channels of mental struggle and territorial integrity. But this choice of complex channels to mediate a moral story arguably weakens it.

“Forgiveness” reminded me of Uriel Orlow’s Unmade Film (2012-2013), also set in the Kfar Shaul mental hospital.

Orlow’s film is a suspended multi-part series of audio-visual works that inhabit the structure of a film without actually becoming one. It is a series of a film’s constituent parts, including a proposal, staging and script. In choosing this form, Orlow speaks of the difficulty and moral problematics of comparing different traumas through narrative. He also speaks of reactions to films made about war, whereby the viewer experiences a certain resolution or catharsis at the end, though the suffering in reality continues.

“Forgiveness” and “Unmade Film” are probably two incomparable films with very different intentions, but Orlow’s recognition of the complexity of a site of a village ethnically cleansed of its Palestinian populace and then turned into a mental hospital for holocaust survivors stands in a stark contrast to Aloni’s attempt to narrate the possibility of memory at the intersection of the two traumas.

Memory may be both a path for ethical redemption and a possible way out of the crisis for Aloni. David’s struggle to remember despite a state-induced quest for forgetfulness is prescribed as a solution, or the beginning of a solution. But while remembrance — feeding into accountability, leading to reconciliation — may be a way forward politically, in reality, the past remains unresolved and its representation more and more blurred. Although “Forgiveness” is a film with good intentions, it fails to recognize this complexity.


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