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The Limits of Empathy

Despite having opposed Israel’s pullout from Gaza from the very beginning, I cheered when I read Jonathan’s post on why he supported it. I, too, think Israel’s overseas supporters–on both sides of the political spectrum–ought to accord more respect to Israelis’ democratic decisions than they sometimes do. But this isn’t only because, as he rightly said, Israelis are the ones who ultimately bear the consequences of those decisions. It’s because in making those decisions, Israelis often have knowledge that even the most supportive and best-informed non-Israelis lack.

By this, I don’t just mean knowledge of the facts, though that’s also an issue. During the “quiet” years following Israel’s 2009 war with Hamas in Gaza, for instance, people overseas were often shocked when I mentioned that rockets still fell regularly on southern Israel; that’s information even regular visitors to Israeli news sites could easily have missed. Yet it obviously affected Israelis’ views on territorial withdrawals.

Far more important, however, is the knowledge of what it actually means to live with such consequences. Many Westerners, because they have been raised on the value of empathy and genuinely try to practice it, truly believe they have succeeded; as an Israeli, I can’t count how many times I’ve been told, “I understand, I really do.” But the only honest answer is, “No, you don’t.”

If you’ve never lain awake night after night, unable to sleep, because you’re tensely awaiting the siren that tells you a rocket has been launched and you have only seconds to take shelter, you do not understand the physical, mental and emotional devastation of living under constant rocket fire–even if (thanks in part to such precautions) it mercifully causes few casualties. If you’ve never woken up, morning after morning, dreading the moment when you have to turn on the radio and hear how many people have been killed overnight, all while praying nobody you know will be on the list, you don’t how emotionally devastating a suicide bombing campaign can be even to those whose loved ones are mercifully spared. If you’ve never paid a shiva (condolence) call on a family that has been shattered by the loss of their bright, beautiful daughter in a terror attack, or of their soldier son in combat, you don’t know what it’s like to live constantly in the shadow of terror and war.

Reasonable people can obviously draw different conclusions from this knowledge: Author David Grossman still advocates territorial withdrawals even though his soldier son was killed in the war Hezbollah launched from Lebanon six years after Israel withdrew; columnist Rabbi Stewart Weiss opposes territorial withdrawals even though his soldier son was killed serving in the “occupied territories.” But whatever decision an Israeli reaches on these issues, he or she has made it with a bone-deep understanding of the price they will pay if the choice goes sour.

That’s an understanding non-Israelis lack, even when they’re perfectly aware of all the pros and cons on paper. And because of it, they often end up assigning different weight to the variables than Israelis do.

I don’t expect American Jews to agree with every Israeli choice. But I would like them to understand that the choices they disagree with may be driven by knowledge they lack. For without that understanding, bridging the gap between the two communities’ very different experiences will only keep getting harder.


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