Where has our empathy gone? This question is being asked with increasing urgency as American and Israeli Jewry grapples with another mutual descent into violence by Israelis and Palestinians. Even the hawkish Jerusalem Post is now alarmed by celebrations of violence by Jews.
When violence escalates, one might think the politically neutral call to arms should be that all killing is tragic and for both sides to cease. But that appeal is unfortunately precisely the one guaranteed to spark accusations of “equivocation” from right-wing pro-Israel advocates. The accusation is as powerful as it is transparently political. The Palestinians are the root of all the violence, goes the thinking, even in their own deaths. Effectively, you are not pro-Israel if you do not place Jewish life above Palestinian life.
David Harris-Gershon is among the few who’ve so vocally challenged this alarming trend. During the last Gaza war, Harris-Gershon wrote an article for Tikkun Daily that went viral, saying, “Empathizing with Gaza doesn’t make me anti-Semitic, pro-Hamas, or anti-Israel, it makes me human.” Months later, he doubled down by writing here on Jewschool.com, “Empathy for Palestinians makes me Jewish.” Harris-Gershon is uniquely qualified in this regard, since authoring his memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?.
A while ago, he agreed to talk to Jewschool.com about what led him to write both articles and where such “anti-empathy” originates.
Jewschool: Can you give us an example of anti-empthay that you encountered? 

David Harris-Gershon: Spending time online during the summer of 2014, whether on Twitter or in the comment sections to my own articles on Gaza, was quite painful. It was just as common to witness Jews blaming Palestinians for their own deaths, showing no emotion for what was transpiring, as it was to witness Jews like me in agony. Looking back, I realize now that at least some of this anti-empathy likely came from student volunteers enlisted in Israel’s social media war during the Gaza conflict. A sort of state-sponsored project in anti-empathy.

Where do you think the naysayers are coming from? Could we characterize their fears and hopes?  

Many Jews view any conflict with Israel or contentious issue revolving around Israeli policy as zero-sum games, with emotional responses from such people lacking any consideration for the humanity of the ‘other.’ I’ve long argued (and am certainly not alone in doing so) that this is rooted in Jews’ existential fear of being annihilated, a fear which is certainly justified given our history, but which also impedes one of Judaism’s central ethical pillars: empathy.

While we must recognize each others’ genuine hopes and fears, does the Jewish community have a hate problem?  

The Jewish community has a fear problem. And that fear often manifests itself as hatred, particularly for Palestinians currently suffering under Israel’s military occupation.

Some people said that empathy to Palestinian innocents gives sympathy to Hamas, a hate group. What should we say in response to that line of thinking? 

I wrote an article which directly responded to this notion in 2014 titled “Empathizing with Gaza does NOT make me anti-Semitic, nor pro-Hamas or anti-Israel. It makes me human.” I can’t say it any better than I did there, or in my recent Jewschool.com piece.

In many cases, so-called pro-Israel activists would engage in vitriolic shaming towards anyone who offered empathy. What is the effect of that bullying on Jewish discourse?

The goal of shaming Jews who critique Israel as self-hating or anti-Semitic is to stifle debate and delegitimize the debater. Sometimes, this shaming works, particularly when it comes to institutional reactions. However, we’re now reaching a point where those who make false anti-Semitic charges are being routinely called out for doing so.

Many Jewish professionals and rabbis wanted to express themselves, but were afraid these bullies would impact their reputation or work prospects. Is it possible to speak up without being misunderstood?

What can one do when someone deliberately takes our words out of context? This is not a matter of being misunderstood. It’s a matter of being first seen as the enemy, and then hit with the propagandist’s weapons: lies and distortions. This is something, as a day-school teacher, with which I’m quite familiar. All I can do is continue to write clearly and publicly, in honest yet respectful ways, and allow the hate speech to come from those who oppose me.

What, if anything, should we do as a community in response?

The cynical answer: wait the younger generations to age. What can we do right now? The silent majority of American Jews, both those who are and are not affiliated with Jewish organizations, must stand up and be heard, whether through op-eds, letters to the editors, protests, or other means. The problem is this, though: the silent majority of Jews are also these days not particularly interested in Israel, and so have no internal motivation to counter the hawkish voices of many Jewish institutional leaders.

I am not so cynical about what we can do as a community. We can save empathy as a cherished Jewish virtue. There are many things that progressives can do alone to combat the “fear problem.” True, writing op-eds and raising ones voice is important.
But nothing can replace the fact that people across right and left share shuls and JCCs across America — but want to peaceably disagree with each other without hatred. We differ on Israel but share many other views. The real struggle is not between left and right, but between those who don’t care to “burn down the village” in order to get their way. The single-issue extremists among us will ultimately fail — but it will take all of us on the left, right and center to get there.