The Fallacy of Limited Compassion

This is a guest post by Eli Ungar-SargonEli Ungar-Sargon is an LA-based independent filmmaker. His second feature-length film, A People Without a Land, has its world premiere at the Manhattan Film Festival on July 3rd

When news hit that three Israeli teenagers had gone missing in the West Bank, the response from the Jewish world was immediate and intense. The assumption that Eyal Yiftach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel were kidnapped by Palestinians seems now to have been confirmed, but the details are sparse and the story is still developing. The abduction of children is an inexcusable offense. There is no moral justification for such an act. I am not writing to give excuses for this crime and I sincerely hope that these boys are found and returned to their families safely. But I do think that it’s instructive and important to take a step back and examine our responses to such tragedies.

A few short weeks ago, we learned that two Palestinian teenagers, Nadem Syam Nawara and Mohammad Mahmoud Odeh were shot and killed by the IDF during a protest. Despite the fact that there were three angles of video footage, independent eyewitness testimony, and hospital reports, my Facebook Wall filled with comments from Jewish friends insisting that we don’t know what really happened. For all we know, they argued, Nawara and Odeh might have been killed by Palestinians in an effort to make the IDF look bad. Some went as far as to claim that the boys might still be alive. Why is it that with far less information, none of my Jewish friends are spinning fantastic theories around the kidnapping of Yiftach, Shaar, and Frenkel? 

The reason, I think, is that we are burdened with ethnic blinders that impose artificial limits on our capacity for compassion. But isn’t it normal to care more about our own? Isn’t that just human? Of course it’s normal. There’s nothing unusual about caring more for our own. But when caring for those closest to us is twisted into an active neglect of the suffering of others, we lose some of our humanity in the process. Compassion is not a zero-sum game. It’s not a limited resource. Caring deeply about our family, co-religionists, and compatriots doesn’t have to mean ignoring the suffering of people from other families, religions, and nationalities. This, in a nutshell, is the bedrock conceptual error of political Zionism. Contrary to what Ari Shavit might have you believe, there is no logical reason why the establishment of a homeland for Jews in historic Palestine had to involve the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. To be sure, the Zionists in power at the time believed that it did, but this came from an ethnonationalist, settler-colonial ideology, not from logical or empirical necessity. And the legacy of this ideology is the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So how do we fix it? How do we interrupt the cycle of violence and suffering? As the old civil rights adage goes, the opposite of slavery is not freedom, but community. To end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we need to build a new kind of community. A community where the suffering of the Odeh and Nawara families are not met with knee-jerk suspicion and hostility, but with compassion. A community where we hear the blood of our Palestinian brothers and sisters screaming out to us from the ground. A community where the kidnapping of any child, whether by the IDF or by Palestinian militias, is unacceptable. A community that works together across the ethnic divide to fight oppression and sees in tragedy an opportunity not for further ethnic entrenchment, but for solidarity. A community where team Israel and team Palestine are united under the flag of team Humanity. Sound utopian? If you will it, it is no dream.

One Response to “The Fallacy of Limited Compassion”

  1. hey eli— you’re point is right on and utopian is a good description. I’m with you on working to get there…. but i’ll point out for the sake of sharpening the discourse and moving things forward.
    When you write about the Jewish defense mechanisms springing off after the murder of the two Palestininians in Nakba Day protests— and ask where are they after the kidnapping, you asked to the wrong side. On the other side- there was a steady support of Palestinian leaders suggesting that Israel staged the whole thing, or perhaps worse/ perhaps not- expressing support for the kidnapping.
    I’m not saying this in defense or comparison– just in terms of stating where we are… we meaning us and the Palestinians. So i want to reiterate my total support for your last paragraph.. and pray for us all to see the humanity and wrongs on our own sides and keep growing closer together…


    shaul · June 26th, 2014 at 4:44 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik