Recent events in Israel and Palestine raise questions about the roots of empathy: Who do we feel for? Do some instances of human suffering evoke our sympathies while others are overlooked; do we engage in a kind of selective empathy on the basis of either our identification with or distance from the victims in question?
Like many other Jewish people around the world, I was pained and confounded by the deaths of three Israeli teenagers at the hands of their kidnappers. The frantic search for the teenagers was based on the widely held premise that they were alive. Hearing the news of the location of their dead bodies abandoned in an open field filled me and many others with disbelief; hope turned to horror, anguish turned to rage. I came across a posting on Facebook by a friend I studied with in Israel, Melissa Rudd, where she reflected on the roots of her empathy for the teenagers and their families, referring to her familiarity with their world and sense that she could have been one of them. Could it be that a sense of likeness lies at the root of empathy with others, or perhaps more profoundly, a sense of fraternity – shared belonging to a particular nation? I was moved by Melissa’s reflection on the imperative to develop empathy for those who seem alien or “other”. Empathy for the Israeli teenagers and their families flows naturally for me. Do I allow myself to feel equally for the Palestinians who have been killed in the crucible of this relentless conflict, or for the Nigerian schoolgirls forcibly held captive by Boko Haram since April this year?
The immediate reaction to the news of the deaths of the teenagers was to turn to news sources to find out more, to try to understand, and to link with others who shared the confusion, outrage, and sorrow. I was dismayed at a report of the deaths of three “settlers” on one of the major news networks; not teenagers, young men, or students – but settlers. As far as I knew, two of the three teenagers lived in greater Israel, rather than in disputed territories. So why brand them settlers when reporting on their deaths?
Settlements in disputed territories arouse strong feelings, and are seen by many as an obstacle to peace and the viability of a two-state solution. The label “settler” might impact the perception of their murder, distancing the viewer, and creating a breach in the capacity to identify with the victims. It seems that the more similar we feel to others, and the more aware we are of our shared humanity, the greater the empathic response to their suffering. In contrast, the greater the sense of “othering”, the more the emotional response is muted.
I am reminded of a recent project I undertook at the Wits Historical Papers Archive, where I came across a collection of material surrounding the detainment without trial of anti-Apartheid activists, and the torture and ill-treatment they suffered at the hands of the Security Police. I was struck by a newspaper clipping from an Apartheid government-affiliated newspaper, referring to the detainees as “terrorists”, “enemies of the state”, and a threat to the safety of ordinary South African civilians. Of course, this menacing construction serves to justify their detainment, numbs the sense of their ill-treatment as an injustice, and possibly allows the idea to take shape that the authorities should use whatever means required to protect society. The language we use to construct the identity of the victim of injustice seems to impact whether we allow ourselves to feel empathy and outrage, or whether we turn a blind eye.
The news of the kidnapping and subsequent deaths of the teenagers was followed by an outpouring of sentiment on social media, where my Jewish friends expressed their outrage and sorrow. The silence of those who often speak out against the suffering of Palestinians was notable. It works the other way around, too: many ardent supporters of Israel are silent at the suffering and death of Palestinian civilians as a result of the ongoing conflict. The selective empathy is striking. Do we reserve our empathy for those whose plight aligns with and lends weight to our political views? I am struck by the way the human response of empathy gets perverted in the politics of fear and conflict. In the South African context, we look to Mandela as an example of a leader who could understand the anxieties of the other, and who could use this empathic understanding in the service of a peaceful transition to democracy. Feeling only for ourselves and those like us maintains our insulation from the other, while we galvanise our own points of view, and the other seems increasingly alien. I may be accused of harbouring a naïve vision of universal empathy, and encouraged to apprehend the stark reality that we can never understand nor feel for the other. I rebel against that.
As I write this, investigations have been undertaken into the horrific murder of a Palestinian teenager – a suspected revenge killing in the aftermath of the killing of the Israeli teenagers. How unconscionable that teenagers at the cusp of their adult lives are slain on the altar of this unyielding conflict. A young man on his way to mosque at dawn, observing Ramadan, robbed of his life by the dark shadow of hatred and revenge. The price paid by teenagers and their families in Israel, Palestine and Nigeria should awaken us in a way that cuts through individual political affiliations. As I read reports of escalating violence, hatred, and mutual blame in Israel and Palestine, a sense of hopelessness that the two sides can ever understand one another settles in. And then I remember the South African story, and keep hoping.
I have always been impressed that the Hebrew word for cruelty contains within it the word “strange”. It is the sense of estrangement from the other that allows our hearts to harden, and unspeakable cruelty becomes our reality. I anticipate that comments may follow this article on the offensive and defensive from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the reflection on the process of empathy may get lost, in a way that mirrors an intractable conflict where there is little space to see the other. We will always feel for those with whom we have a sense of affinity and brotherhood; I am not suggesting a vision of no country and no religion, but rather that we question the process of empathy, whether it applies when it suits our political motives or whether we can stretch ourselves to identify with those who seem alien and other. DM
Leanne completed an M.A. in clinical psychology at Wits, and has worked in a number of community settings. Currently, she works in private practice and in a hospital, and lectures at the South African College of Applied Psychology. Leanne is interested in issues which impact on the South African psyche, including trauma, the disruption of families, violence against women, and masculine identity in the South African context, and believes that psychoanalytic thinking can help us understand and address social realities.
Bladerunner (1980s version) is a visual feast due in large part to the Hollywood Actors Strike. This allowed the designers an extra three months to refine the sets and props.