When my kids fight with each other, and especially when my eldest intentionally hurts one of his little brothers, my default is sadly to lash out in anger: to yell at him, banish him to his room, force him to stop. It never helps. He is still little enough that I can physically restrain him, though that won’t last long. But my anger has never stopped his anger.
What does help is empathy. When I manage to control my anger long enough to listen to him, understand why he felt wronged, and empathize with him, he softens, as do I. His yells turn to tears. He is able to let go of his anger and resentment, to apologize and forgive, to reconcile.
I have written a lot lately about empathy: that I think it’s critical for Israel’s future that we foster empathy and compassion and devote ourselves to recognizing the humanity of our Palestinian neighbors.
When I say this, it triggers many people’s defense mechanisms: “Do you really think you on the left have a monopoly on empathy? We do have empathy! We, Israel, the Jewish people, are so devoted to empathizing with our enemy, to valuing their lives more than they do themselves, that we risk our own soldiers, at tremendous cost. We can’t stand the loss of innocent life in Gaza! Our hearts ache at the thought of so many children dead. But we simply have no choice. Israel must defend herself. It’s us or them.”
Regardless of whether this is true (and I know at least some of it is), it is not the kind of empathy I’m talking about.
I’ve been searching for ways to describe the difference between the kind of empathy most of us seem to have in this situation, and the kind I feel we so desperately need. The best I can come up with is “intellectual empathy” versus “intimate empathy”.
By “intellectual empathy” I don’t mean the empathy is insincere. In fact I hear tremendous despair in the voices of many Jews who invoke the above defense narrative. Those who quote Golda Meir’s famous words really mean them: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.” Judaism teaches us to love life, and it upsets us greatly when we feel forced to kill innocents, even in the name of self defense.
But as earnest as that empathy may be, most of us don’t sit with it and simply let it touch us, painful as it is. Instead, we return it to the intellectual plane: we argue with it, analyze it, allow ourselves to consider why it’s not the full story and why it would be unwise, perhaps even suicidal, for us as a nation to take it into account.
“Intimate empathy” is different. Intimate empathy is scary and overwhelming. It means opening ourselves to deeply feeling the pain of another, so much so that it becomes our own pain. It means acknowledging the human, lived experience of the person facing us in that moment without judging, rationalizing, or defending.
Most of us have a hard time doing this even with those we love, and especially when we’re fighting. While we may intellectually acknowledge their right to feel as they do or accept that the feelings they’ve shared with us are real, we feel we must dig in our heels and protect our own fragile emotions rather than holding theirs. Truly empathizing with the suffering of another can be almost impossibly painful and difficult.
And yet I believe that we will never reach peace in this region until we can achieve a sense of intimate empathy with our Palestinian neighbors.
Before you tell me I’m crazy, I want to stress that this doesn’t mean we don’t need a diplomatic solution. However we get out of this militarily – and we must, at some point, do so – in order to move toward a sustained peace we will need to reach a diplomatic agreement with the other side. Such an agreement must take into account the very real issues of security on the ground.
But I believe a diplomatic solution will be neither possible nor effective without a significant portion of both populations feeling intimate empathy with the other. I don’t think this generations-long war will end until we can really, but really, imagine ourselves in their shoes: strive to understand their narrative, their pain, their desperate longing for a homeland, their desire to live and raise their children in peace. Those of us not among the growing number who think Arabs are rotten from birth talk about “innocents”, but I don’t know how deeply we feel their innocence. There is always the nagging thought, “but they are still the other side, our innocents still take priority, are more valuable to us. Tragic as it may be, their lives must be more expendable if we are to protect our own.”
Every time I hear this, I think to myself, “but the death of ‘their’ innocents is as bad for us as it is for them.” Every death of a child takes us further from our ability to reach a future of peace.
Yehuda Sarna recently shared a story about Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian peace activist. During the first Intifada, Ali spent time in Israeli prisons. Some years later his brother was killed by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint, an action for which the soldier was later disciplined:
“Ali was filled with rage and contemplated a revenge action. His family received a phone call from an Israeli parent who had lost their son to terror, asking if they could come over. As his family sat with the Israeli family, he watched the parents cry as they reminisced about their own sons. ‘I had never seen an Israeli cry; I didn’t know they could,’ Ali said. ‘The entire IDF could not have stopped me from throwing stones during the first Intifada, but one single tear of an Israeli parent prevented me from going on a rampage.'”
That single tear is intimate empathy.
That tear is the kind of empathy all of us – Israelis and Palestinians – need. The kind which shows us our own humanity mirrored in the other, which softens our anger and moves us toward reconciliation.
This is not about whether this war is justified. This is not about them being right or us being wrong. No matter how right we believe we are; no matter how much this war may be one of defense; no matter how inevitable we believe their deaths to be; no matter how much the media may use or fabricate bloody images to harden the world’s hearts against Israel; no matter what the precise percentage of civilians versus combatants killed; the facts remain: Around a thousand civilians have died, so far. Hundreds of them were children. Tens of thousands have lost their homes and everything they own.
Numbers of people are a strange and powerful thing. When one innocent Arab boy was horribly murdered, none of us could avert our gaze. When seventy-six had been killed in Gaza, each death of an innocent felt to me like a tragedy. Now that so many hundreds have been killed I can’t wrap my head around it. They become anonymous, items on a list.
We Jews know well how easily individual lives can turn into cold incomprehensible numbers. That is why we are not supposed to count people. That is why we read out the names of those who were killed every Yom HaShoah. The power of names is also why the Israeli Broadcasting Authority recently refused to air a commercial reciting the names of children killed in Gaza, a decision which was upheld by Israel’s Supreme Court.
This is absolutely not the Holocaust, and we are in no way committing genocide. And I deeply believe our army is not aiming to kill civilians. But they are dying – by our weapons if not by our will – and they have names. And those names reflect their humanity and their stories, which are all too easy for us to forget, and perversely easier the more of them there are. Four hundred fifty-six children so far. Four hundred fifty-six who, were the circumstances different, could have been my own sweet boys. Every one of those children was a real person, with a life full of potential, and a family who is beyond devastated by his or her death.
There is enough room in our hearts for both ours and theirs. No matter what our politics, I hope every one of us will ask of ourselves to feel their deaths as powerfully and deeply as we feel the deaths of the sixty-seven precious soldiers and civilians that have been killed on our side of the border. In that intimate empathy, I believe, lies our future redemption.
Two responses to anticipated comments:
1. Yes, as many innocents have died here, countless more have been and are being killed in Syria and now in Iraq. This is unbelievably tragic, deserves every bit of empathy we have, and justifies any potential intervention we think would be effective at stopping the massacres. But that does not make what is happening here in Israel and Gaza any less awful. And while I don’t think there is much outsiders can do to relieve the human suffering there, I do hope that I might be able to have some tiny impact on the suffering in my home. So this is what I write about.
2. In response to calls for empathy I have heard several times that in the heat of battle, when you’re facing an enemy hell-bent on your destruction, you can’t afford to feel compassion and empathy. Perhaps. But unlike those extraordinarily courageous young people charged with defending our country, neither I nor most of my friends and family are in the heat of battle. We can afford to feel.