Sometimes saying sorry is just not enough, says Howard Jacobson. Justice and action are the only means of making amends
"There is no way in which you can assume that yesterday's oppressed will not become tomorrow's oppressors. We have seen it happen all over the world and we shouldn't be surprised if it happens here." Desmond Tutu

I don't know about you but I always find that when Desmond Tutu has something to say I listen. Which is not what I find with all Archbishops.

Of the many humane and reasonable words he has spoken in the course of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation hearings, few have been more arresting - by virtue, I suppose, of their unblinking matter-of-factness - than the above. It is as though every window has been thrown open, and light allowed to play at last upon a subject we normally find it unbearable to address.

No lasting honour or exemption attaches to the condition of victimhood - that's what he is reminding us. The abiding meaning of any oppression, the bit that never goes away - the lesson, if you will - is to be found first and foremost in the story of the oppressor's wrong, not in the sanctification of the oppressed.

Those of us Jews who weary of Holocaust talk, and who abominate the playing of the Holocaust card by ballistomaniacal Americans who cannot wait to change their names to Baruch and fly to Israel to soldier arms for God, are not ipso facto friends of Nazis or advocates of oblivion. Myself, I would have all Nazis, past or present, hunted down and slowly executed, whatever their age. The more reverend the better, I say. And if they are too deficient in faculties to understand what is happening, give them pills to wake them, give them Viagra so that they should remember the exquisite beauty of desire at the very moment that all desire is squeezed out of them forever. Yes, I am as vengeful as anyone on the planet. But it doesn't follow from that that I wish to be numbered among a Holocaust people, honoured for what was done to us.

I was a small boy when I first heard of the Holocaust. But not so small that my first thought shouldn't have been "So what did we do to bring this upon ourselves? What did we say to invite such wrath?" As though any provocation (suppose there to have been provocation) could ever explain a death camp. But there you are: consider the Holocaust to be your story and you go looking for your part in it. In fact, it was only ever our story circumstantially. Essentially, it's their story.

Personalise it, make it about us and them, and whatever we do subsequently will cast a delusive backward light. Until it will eventually be argued that we must forgive them for what they did yesterday on account of how hard it is to forgive us for what we do today.

Which is why I feel uncomfortable with all the saying sorry that's going on in those few places where new Holocausts are not blazing even as we speak. In Australia, every day is "Sorry Day". Well-meaning shops have books for you to write sorry in. The re-elected Liberal government has promised it will say sorry to Aborigines very soon. Whether it will do anything else by way of making life supportable for those living on reservations and the like remains to be seen, but at least sorry's on the agenda.

I was once apologised to for the Holocaust. By a German friend. We were holidaying in Prague. Me, my wife, a Czech friend, and our German friend - one of the kindest and most learned men I have ever met, a man of sweet and philosophical temper, a lover of books and pipes and wine, and a priest to boot. The wine was the culprit. We had all taken too much of it. Suddenly, as we were walking home, clattering on the cobbles, laughing, joking, our German friend flung himself against the wall of a church and began to sob, "I am the Auschwitz German, oh, I am the Auschwitz German." The others looked at me. "You're the Jew, Jacobson," they said. "Go and put your arms around him and tell him it's all right." So I did. I embraced him. Ran my hands through his hair. Kissed him. Absolved him.

Not true. I did no such thing. I walked away, my wife calling after me, "Say something, Howard. He's your friend. Say something to him." I couldn't. I couldn't say that on behalf of my forbears I forgave his. Because I didn't.

You want forgiveness? Wake the dead and ask it of them.

As for the living, all we can seek is the reparation of justice. Only justice releases us from that terrible cycle of nihilism which is oppression's legacy - the oppressed becoming self-righteous oppressors in the image of those who self-righteously oppressed them. All cruelty and righteousness appearing relative at the last.

Only the impersonality of the Law can save us from the relativity of our individual selves. "Not merely upon you was this crime visited," insists the Law, "but upon all of us. Therefore it is for all of us, embodied in Law - not just you who, sure as eggs are eggs, will one day take the oppressor's road yourself - to pronounce sentence."

Aeschylus said all that several thousand years ago. He also said that while the Law must transcend revenge it must not ignore its savage rights. I do not know, as I write, what the House of Lords will decide in the matter of Pinochet, or the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation in the matter of Mrs Mandela. But men go mad if they do not get justice. Should Winnie Mandela not be tried; should Pinochet not be handed over, a piece at a time, to France and Spain and Whoever-else; should the Australian Government not do better than a condolence; we will all surely lose a little more of what remains to us of sanity.