Truth be told

Acknowledging each other's history key to Israel Palestinian peace

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:09:45 PM

In a region of the world where conflict is steeped in ethnic and religious history, a truth commission may be the only way for Israel and Palestine to find lasting peace.

“Much of the conflict comes from denying one another’s history—and humanity—in order to claim a god-given right to the land,” says Heribert Adam, a sociologist at Simon Fraser University and author of Seeking Mandela: Peacemaking Between Israelis and Palestinians.

“Each side has a story explaining what the conflict is about, who the aggressor is, and who acted in self-defense,” he continues. “These opposing views must be reconciled into one ‘truth’ before peace can occur.”

Truth commissions allow both victims and perpetrators of violence and human rights violations to tell their stories before a panel of fellow citizens. While truth commissions are not courts and can’t award reparations to victims or punish the guilty, Adam says they can help countries and communities heal by exposing hidden and disputed truths.

“Sometimes countries must forgive crimes of the past in order to move forward,” says Adam. “But denying it happened, only creates more resentment.”

The first truth commissions were held in Latin America during the late ‘80s to expose what happened to people who disappeared during military regimes. While the hearings were done in secret, Adam says they helped families heal by clarifying what happened to their loved ones and acknowledging human rights abuses.

Later, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission held public hearings for more than 20,000 victims of apartheid. With the promise of amnesty, some perpetrators of violence, such as police and government officials, revealed where bodies were buried and how victims were tortured.

“After the commission, nobody could deny that human rights violations happened,” explains Adam. “But, while those who carried out the abuses were exposed, many creators of apartheid never admitted any wrongdoing.”

If Israel and Palestine are to achieve reconciliation through truth commissions, they need to pay close attention to the lessons learned in other countries, says Adam. Citizens, rather than government, must lead the process, and people must be prepared to challenge accepted myths and political rhetoric that demonize the other side.

“Peace between Israelis and Palestinians requires each side to investigate their own abuses, rather than lament about their victimhood,” he concludes. “This type of truth-seeking effort is crucial for peace.”

Heribert Adam’s research into truth commissions and emerging democracies is supported through SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants program.