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Forgiving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange
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erella shadmi
Trapped by Patriarchy
Can I Forgive Men?

Genevieve Vaughan (1997) writes:

The logic of unilateral gift giving is the logic of transmission, and in satisfying the needs of the other, it gives value to the other by implication.

The receiver often emulates the giver, giving in h/er turn, but this does not cancel the gift. Rather it enhances it, and passes it on.

Let us look at predatory behaviour as an aberration and at gift givers not primarily as victims but as positive agents who are momentarily trapped and exploited by a system based on a false and illusory gender construction, which takes their gifts.

I am trapped. Here is why and how.

Part 1: Mother

I was a young student at that time. I went to visit my mother for the weekend as I did every other weekend since my father passed away. We sat to the Sabbath dinner. My mother lit the candles and served the Jewish food that I like so much and she cooked so well. Then she said something. I really don’t remember what exactly she said to me but I clearly recall how furious I became. I was so angry with her that I could not control my mouth. I said many vicious and ugly words to her. I insulted her. She turned silent, just looking at me.

We finished our Sabbath dinner silently. After a while we went to bed. I was lying in my bed but could not fall asleep. I was still furious at her. I sensed that she couldn’t fall asleep as well. Slowly I began feeling sorry. After a while I got up, went to her bedroom door and said, “I am sorry, mother.” She said, “I forgive you.”

Forgiveness is the best gift my mother could give me. Her forgiveness is a way of embracing me, of accepting what I am unconditionally; it is compassionate, loving, and inclusive.

Part 2: Daughter

When my daughter turned 17 she got her first call to the Israeli army. We both looked at the letter not knowing what to do. Throughout the years my daughter spent much time in antiwar demonstrations, in the feminist and civil rights move- ments; she joined me in my struggle against militarism. And now, this letter.

We had many talks about this letter. I told her unequivocally that I wanted her to refuse, not to join the army. She understood why. Like me she was against occupation, war, militarism, and violence. But she also had her reasons to join the army. We had numerous discussions. One day she asked me, “what will you do if I decide to join the army?”

I said, “it will be a terrible moment for me. I will be sad.”

“You know,” I said to her, “when my friend’s son decided to go to the army, she decided not to support him in any way because supporting him is supporting the army so she decided not to visit him on the base like parents do and not to wash his clothes.”

“Will you do the same?” my daughter asked me.

“No,” I said. “I will support you because I accept you the way you are even if I disagree with you.” I emulated my mother. I circulated the gift of forgiving.

Part 3: Politics

I sit in my home at the outskirts of West-Jerusalem reading the titles of the papers to be delivered at the Las Vegas conference on the gift economy. Some of them are: Solidarity Economics; The Gift Giving Philosophy of Open Source Technol- ogy; Women’s Gifting Relations and Community Work: Toward a New Public Policy Framework and a New Knowledge Paradigm; Enabling the Gift Logic of Indigenous Philosophies; Gift Giving Across Borders; Ecospiritual and Activist Movements Reviving the Gift Imaginary; Epistemology and the Gift; Women’s Giving: A New Frame for Feminist Policy Demands.

I read these titles and others like them and feel the hopes and desires they express. I see women giving everywhere. But I look around me and see the Apartheid Wall being built not far from my safe home. I see the many murdered and wounded Palestinians in Gaza. I hear the warmongers shouting in the streets of Jerusalem. I hear the cries of the traded, raped, and beaten women behind the walls of the homes and the brothels and I wonder: can I, as a feminist, forgive men for the many harms they have inflicted on women? Can I, as an Israeli, be forgiven by the Palestinians for years of occupation and exploitation? Can I forgive and be forgiven?

Fury made me a feminist. This fury has slowly accumulated over the years. I was not aware of the way it accumulated, growing more and more, until one day, when the conditions had ripened, it erupted, and it erupted with a big cry and a lot of joy—a cry against men that treated us, women, so viciously and a joy celebrating the pain that turned into protest and the sisters that I found.

The fury has been translated into demonstrations, politics, organizing, research, teaching, and words. It burst like a dam unblocked: tales of oppression, cases of offences, experiences of rape, reports of evils, exploitations, trampled dignity.

The never ending stream of narratives, incidents, experiences that women began to tell has turned into a demand for men to take responsibility, to recognize the evils they have done, to confess the truth—so as to bring about reconciliation, exactly as the Germans did after the Shoah, as the Africaners did after the Apartheid, as the African Americans demanded of the Yankees: the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa, the reparations the Germans paid the Jews, the lands given back to the Aborigines in Australia.

In the same way I demand the three Rs from men: Reflexivity, Responsibility and Reparation. But I wonder: perhaps there is an alternative way like my mother taught me, like I am teaching my daughter. Can I give and forgive? Can I forgive the harm done to us, to me? Can I give my forgiveness on a silver plate without asking for truth and responsibility?

I have my doubts: will men understand my forgiveness? Won’t they see me like one who compromises, swallowing her pride, giving up, afraid? Will they see it as another of their victories?

On the other hand, these are the excuses Israeli military men are raising against the withdrawal from Gaza and any talks with Palestinians. I know better: forgiving is power. Forcefulness is weakness. If so, does forgiving have a political meaning? Does it promote our struggle to transform the world, to shatter patriarchy, to construct a new world? Does my personal forgiveness, even when some other women join me, rock the ship of patriarchy and construct a new world?

I am not sure yet and therefore I am afraid to forgive.

Add to all this the context in which I live: Jewish tradition insists on remem- bering Amaleck—the ancient people that defeated Israelites thousands years ago. Muslim tradition puts revenge and honour up on the private and public agenda of every believer. And Israeli modern culture is dominated by the Culture of the Freiher. Freiher is a vulgarism meaning “sucker.” The culture of freiher defies a person that is ready to give way, to be used, to forgive. Such a person is viewed as one that does not care for his honour or power. For example: you are a freiher if you yield to other drivers. And especially, you are a freiher if you talk with “terrorists,” if you let your wife dominate you. In a culture of the freiher you do not take responsibility for your mistakes, you do not share your ideas lest they be stolen, you are never weak lest you are exploited. So you learn to manipulate, to lie, to exploit people, to hide your feelings.

In a culture of the freiher, in the region and religion ruled by honour and unfor- getting, how can I forgive and be forgiven? The issue is how my words, my deeds, my text, will be read, accepted, interpreted. It is an issue of intertextuality, My desire to forgive and be forgiven does not stand by itself, as an autonomous text, but is positioned in the context of other meaning constructing practices, in this case, the culture of the freiher and the practices of honour and unforgetting. My forgiving maintains links with other ideological and cultural systems loaded with their own codes and voices. The context of the culture of the freiher of honour and unforgetting creates a new intertextuality that may distort my forgiveness and make it meaningless.

It is an issue of working and talking within one paradigm and being read and interpreted within a different paradigm. How will my forgiveness be understood by the culture I am living in? Will it make a difference?

I look up to my mother. She forgave me. She taught me the power of motherly forgiveness. I forgave my daughter. But still I am not sure about men. I guess my fury stands in the way, as does the culture I am living in. Being a radical feminist, I am often ahead of my sisters. I am often trying to touch the stars, to reach to my vision. Being a radical feminist I want men to take responsibility. So I am still torn between my fury and my vision, between my motherhood and my womanly experience. I feel I am stuck. I am trapped by patriarchy.

For over 30 years, Erella Shadmi has been a radical feminist, lesbian, peace and anti- racist activist in Israel. She is the co-founder of Kol HaIsha, the Jerusalem women’s center, and of the Fifth Mother, a women’s peace movement. She is one of the first Ashkenazi Israelis (Jews of western origin) to speak out against the oppression of Mizrahi Israelis (Jews from Arab countries). Dr. Shadmi is the Head of the Women’s and Gender Program at Beit Berl College. She is also a criminologist who has published numerous critical analyses of Israeli police. Her book, Contemplating Women: Women and Feminism in Israel, is forthcoming.


Vaughan, Genevieve. 1997. For-Giving. A Feminist Criticism of Exchange. Austin, TX: Plain View Press/Anomaly Press.

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