Kovanda_NYCNew York, 3rd October, 2014 – On Tuesday, ECI hosted a historic event to honour the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur in the UN Headquarters in New York. The High Level Breakfast Meeting, ”The Spirit of Yom Kippur, Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Seasons of Conflict”, took place in conjunction with the General Debate in the UN General Assembly. In a letter to ECI, UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, called the event, ”an important meeting in the UN Headquarters.”

In his keynote speech, former Deputy Director General of External Relations at the European Commission, Ambassador Karel Kovanda, spoke about forgiveness and reconciliation in seasons of conflict.

‘Reconciliation is a bottom-up process.  It starts with reflection, regret, remorse and apology, then redemption and perhaps even atonement,’ he said. He differentiated between reconciliation between elites (as in the case of France and Germany), between peoples (as between Germans and Jews) and on an individual level (as in the reconciliation process in Rwanda). But he also mentioned nations such as China, where the collective memory of the cultural revolution is still being suppressed. ‘In China´s official history it is a blank unexamined page,’ he said.

Ambassador Jeanne D’Arc Byaje gave a personal account of the national process of unification and reconciliation which took place in Rwanda after the genocide of 1994. In order to deal with the murder of up to a million people, the Rwandan authorities had to dismiss the traditional judiciary process and instead apply a transitional justice process based on the village custom of Gacaca. The system has managed to deal with 400,000 people accused of having participated in the genocide. Some were released, some were sentenced to community work, some paid fines and others received prison sentences. The system was closed down last year.

In his speech ECI UN Director, Gregory Lafitte, spoke about the universal values of Yom Kippur, stressing the need to look back at one’s life in order to look forward.
’The Jewish feasts and holidays teach us important lessons’, he said, giving examples such as forgiveness and reconciliation as demonstrated in Yom Kippur and freedom from slavery as seen in Pesach. He went on to remind the audience about how the UN has been shaped by ideas from Jewish thinking, as in the principle of the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have others do to you) or the peace vision of Isaiah Chapter 2, written on the Isaiah Wall, right across the road from the UN Headquarters.

’This Isaiah vision points to a future when swords will be turned in to ploughshares and there will be war no more. This vision has inspired social reformers throughout history as well as the creation of the UN.

’As we listen to one and other and recognise the values of the Golden Rule we strengthen the core purposes and principles of the United Nations’, he concluded.

The breakfast had received an official greeting from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who described the values of Yom Kippur as universal. In his letter he thanked ECI for their efforts to help make Yom Kippur a UN holiday.

At the breakfast the Israeli Government was represented by Permanent Representative to the UN Ron Prosor who spoke about the many contributions of the Jewish State to the international community today, from water sanitation to agricultural technology. Malcolm Hoenlein from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations spoke about the religious significance of Yom Kippur for the Jewish community.

ECI Founding Director, Tomas Sandell, quoted Madeleine Albright in saying that ”The world is a mess!”
’In order to achieve peace, we need to foster a culture of forgiveness and reconciliation. By making Yom Kippur a UN holiday we can correct a historical injustice by giving the Jewish people a day of rest, similar to the other monotheistic religions. But the meaning for Yom Kippur is universal, a day to reflect on forgiveness and reconciliation, which are also the core values of the UN Charter,’ he said.

This was the second event organised in the UN Headquarters by the Forum for Cultural Diplomacy which is the ECI initiative for its UN-related work. The vision of FCD is to offer an arena where we can recognise the many contributions of the Jewish people to the international community and build on these principles.