Ok so one of the most confusing aspects of living here, perhaps of life itself, is understanding the context for what people say. And what it reveals about their intentions.
Most of our public discourse is focused on quotes- and not just here in Israel. “Gotcha” moments dominate our news cycles and rarely do we consider the surrounding environment. Critical thinking is not a skill valued by the news media these days- nor by many of its consumers.
So rather than talking public policy or the latest headlines, I’d like to delve into a less-discussed aspect of the conflict here- and its implications for politics everywhere: the axis of empathy.
For most people, the Arab-Israeli/Palestinian-Israeli conflict is broken down into pro-Arab/Palestinian and pro-Israel. To be one is not to be the other- or at least a lot less.
What I’ve come to realize, both through living here, through spending lots of time in Arab villages in Israel and meeting Palestinians, is that this breakdown is a distraction from the real conflict.
It’s not meaningless, but it obscures the most important dividing line.
When I’m abroad- Europe, America- my primary orientation is to be wary of hardcore pro-Palestinian activists and to feel more empathy for Israel. For two reasons. One is that generally speaking, if someone is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel outside of this land, they are an anti-Semite. And if someone is pro-Israel and pro-Jewish outside of Israel, they are empathetic towards Jews. And generally, though not always, empathetic in general. The exception to this rule would be people who are pro-Israel and anti-Jewish or pro-Israel and extremely anti-Arab, to the point of being an extremist. There are people who are pro-Israel and anti-Jewish- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban would be a prime example of one. And there are certainly people who are pro-Israel and hate all Arabs- I met a Dutch guy on CouchSurfing who liked Israel (and gay rights, interestingly enough) because he hated Arab immigrants. But when it came down to it, he was actually kind of homophobic. The flowery gay rights rhetoric was merely a convenient tool to oppose (indeed, sometimes homophobic) Arab immigrants in his own country. Not out of genuine concern.
What is important to note is that this dynamic flips on its head while living here. In Israel, the least empathetic Jews are unquestioningly pro-Israel and anti-Arab. And I have more empathy for Arabs here who oppose Israeli government policy than the Algerian man I met in Spain who claimed Israel and America started the Syrian civil war. And claimed Russia and Iran hadn’t killed anyone.
In other words, the very same sentence in two different contexts can mean two completely different things. Making identifying toxic people a challenge for someone like me who straddles multiple cultures- often in the same day.
For example, I’ve met Americans and Europeans visiting Israel who only want to visit Palestinian areas and show no interest in Israeli history and narratives. I once met a German exchange student at Tel Aviv University who came to dance dabke with Arab students- and me. While I was there out of empathy and a desire to learn more about my neighbors, he was there because he hates Israel and Jews. But I didn’t catch this at first, which ended up really hurting me. I figured that because we’re both in the same place and we both have empathy for Arabs, therefore we must both be empathetic people. The problem is that when we sat in a cafe after dancing, he asked me: “why do Israelis talk so much about the Holocaust? It’s old history.” When I tried to explain that in the same city he was sitting, there were actual Holocaust survivors, his response was to defer: “but that happened so long ago”. In his country.
So here’s the rub. We’re going to the same event. We would both probably agree with the sentence: “I’m concerned about the human rights of the Palestinian people”. But I’m doing it as an Israeli concerned about my neighbors’ well being. And he’s doing it because he doesn’t like Jews. My words are out of empathy, and his out of antipathy.
The same can go for Arabs themselves. Many people throw around the word “Arabs” as if 300 million people were the same. Yet the experience and positioning of Arabs can be radically different. When a Moroccan immigrant to Belgium says “Israel is a racist state”, it is without a doubt coming from anti-Semitism. It is rather unlikely he’d say Morocco is racist for having persecuted its Jewish citizens whose quarters now lie largely empty. Nor for oppressing its 30% Berber minority.
Yet when an Arab citizen of Israel complains about racist discrimination, it is usually based on first-hand experience. And unlike the Moroccan in Belgium, who has almost certainly never even been here, the Arab Israeli has felt this in her own life. So again, the very same sentence, two completely opposite meanings. In the case of the Moroccan immigrant, anti-Semitism. And the Arab living here, concern for his well-being and the state of society. Antipathy and empathy.
Of course there are nuances. There are Arabs here who care a lot of about racism and injustice, but ask them about gay rights, and sometimes you get a deep silence. Or in the case of one Palestinian: “I think we should throw them off of buildings like ISIS”. So the question is whether their concern about racism is because they are concerned about people being hurt, or whether it is only because it affects them. All other suffering be screwed. Whether it’s from a place of empathy and solidarity or narcissism.
Which is why I’ve met Americans who care a lot about Palestinians, but know literally nothing about Jewish history. Whose only experience with Judaism is maybe eating challah at a friend’s house. But knows nothing about why or how their Jewish friends ended up in Minnesota. Or why there are more Polish, Romanian, and Iraqi Jews in Israel than in any of those countries. Whose combined Jewish communities numbered 4,1326,000 before the Holocaust. Today, standing at 25,000 according to the most generous estimates. Meanwhile, 4.5 million of their descendants live in Israel, where they found refuge. While the rest lie buried in foreign soil, millions upon millions in overgrown cemeteries. That’s if they’re lucky- sometimes our burial grounds are turned into soccer fields.
It’s also important to remember our own positioning. In other words, when I’m in Israel I feel differently than I do in America or Europe. Both because of the surrounding environment, my own political interests, and of course, which direction empathy flows.
In other words, when I’m in Israel, again depending on circumstance, but I’m at my most empathetic when I’m able to find concern for Arab Israelis and for Palestinians. Not an easy thing- it’s not as if these communities don’t have their own extremism. As I sit in a Palestinian bookstore in East Jerusalem, I am staring at a book entitled: “Victory for us is to see you suffer”. Whose WiFi code is “JerusalemIsOurs”. Just miles away from where a Palestinian shot six Israeli civilians two days ago. Just last month I lived through a terrifying air raid siren in Beersheva, as Hamas rockets rained down on Israeli towns.
I can’t say I felt terribly empathetic to Palestinians then. Though I imagine life is excruciating for them under Hamas rule and faced with harsh conditions imposed by basically every government in the region- their own, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and Egypt. Suffocating. Palestinian extremists storm the Israeli border, some of whom have been quoted as saying they want to get to the other side to rape and murder. And in the meantime, ordinary Gazans who just want to put food on the table are caught in the crossfire, as are their Israeli counterparts on the other side. Some of whom are concerned for their Palestinian neighbors as well.
Basically, what it comes down to is empathy. When someone is an anti-Semite, I’m going to defend Israel and talk about what’s good with the country. When someone is anti-Arab, I’m going to share why its complex and we can’t generalize about millions of people. And because the context for identifying these people is extremely hard to pinpoint, it is not so easy. Because words that have the potential to sound empathetic coming out of the mouth of an Arab citizen of Israel sound horrifying coming out of a far-left European or a Tunisian living in Paris.
And the same goes for pro-Israel. When I hear someone passionately defend the Jewish people’s right to a refuge and homeland outside this country, it touches my heart. And when an Israeli rages about anti-Semitism and how the world hates us, but has never left this country, it’s usually indicative of a deep narcissism. Because someone who has grown up in the Diaspora or has spent significant time abroad experiencing anti-Semitism has a basis for their anger. But the man I met who has never left Kiryat Gat is raging about anti-Semitism, it is because he is repeating what he read in the newspaper or what he learned in school. Because he is a fervent, unquestioning nationalist.
So when I hear an American Jew frustrated with his right-wing relatives who shut his progressive Israel views down, I feel empathy. But when a British non-Jew tells me that “British Jews are ridiculous, why do they care about Israel without ever having been there?”, I know she’s an anti-Semite. It’s the positioning.
Therefore, to return to the original point, the positioning of “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” obscures the most important axis of this conflict. Indeed, of human society in general. The axis of empathy. Of kindness. Of care.
Because when you re-orient the conflict this way, you see that the potential allies are much different than what the news media and politicians on all sides would prefer for us to see. That the Muslim girl in Tira who appreciates Jewish women’s freedom to choose their clothing is as much my ally as the Jewish kid in Tel Aviv of Syrian ancestry blasting Arabic music in his coffee shop on Ibn Gvirol. He doesn’t understand a word- but he told me he wants to learn and he loves the music.
What unites them is not a nationalistic goal, nor is it a sense of fidelity to a tribe. It is their desire to see humanity in the other. To show compassion, empathy, and openness.
It’s the tribe I love the most. It’s the tribe that no matter where I find myself in the world I want to belong to. That I strive to strengthen and be a good member of. The empaths. Like Marko, the young Slovenian cell phone salesman who was excited to discover a Jewish museum in his city. And as soon as I told him about it, he scribbled the name on a piece of paper. We shared about our cultures and our personal experiences with discrimination and overcoming it.
He told me at the time, a moment that was quite hard for me after seeing a Nazi salute in his town’s square: “Grab your heritage and explore! Go for it!”
This is what it means to be a person. At the time I wrote:
“Then it really hit me. What Marko and I shared in common was not a religion, not a nationality, not much in terms of the typical labels we hear each day. On Tinder, in our passport, when people introduce themselves.
What we shared in common is that we’re members of a tribe I’ll call the ’empaths’. People who care about other people. And not just those who fit their worldview. The people who, instead of spewing hatred at a cafe or boxing people in, encourage others. Growing, changing, and living mostly in those colorful shades between black and white.
While national and cultural labels matter- and to some degree protect and connect us- I’ve discovered that the degree of a person’s empathy is the biggest predictor of whether I will like her. That your warmth and kindness is at least as important to me as how you vote for or to whom (or if) you pray.”
This tribe is the most important one in the world. More than Israel, Jews, Arabs, Americans, left and right. And it is the hardest to organize. Because even after you’ve identified them, there are so many forces pulling us apart. Telling us the colors of our flag matter more than those of our heart.
But if we are to have a future on this planet, it is a must. It’s necessary to be like the liberal Washingtonian I read about who visited a gun store in Virginia- just to talk to people. It’s necessary to be like the Arab from East Jerusalem I met who studied Hebrew on his own to get to know his neighbors. It’s necessary to be like me, an American Israeli Jew who studied Arabic for years and years because it’s the best way to understand Arab people. To build bridges in the impossibility that is the conflict which embroils us. Because my deepest hope is for a day when I can hop on a train from Tel Aviv to Damascus. And maybe stop over for a night of partying in Beirut. And then sit sipping tea in the Lebanese mountains overlooking the Jewish towns of the Galilee. As if the past 70 years have been just a bad dream.
It is not easy. There are times when I am afraid- and sometimes justifiably so. There are extremists on every side here and abroad. There are people who’d rather us- all of humanity- sit in silos. Easy to market to, easier to divide and conquer. While both “progressive” and right-wing billionaires continue to rake in our resources. Palestinians and Israelis fight for crumbs, but who really gains? Why are there 30 Israeli billionaires but the average New Yorker, in one of the most expensive cities on earth, has 17% more purchasing power than a Tel Avivi? Why is there a Palestinian billionaire while 32% of his countrymen sit in abject poverty, unemployed?
In the end, the people at the top care very little for the people at the bottom. If I wanted to indulge my most cynical side, I’d say that’s how they got there. But I’m really not sure. What I can say that what interests me less are peace declarations, foundations, donations, and projects. What interests me more is the well being of the average human being. And while people here- indeed around the world- rally around the ethnic group or religious community or political party they are supposed to defend- who is really winning?
I’m not suggesting billionaires are necessarily bad people, though. I’m not sure life is so simple. There are really mean poor people and generous wealthy ones.
But what I am suggesting is it’s not fair. And that efforts to focus us exclusively on identities at the expense of our shared human empathy are driving us into a hole. So while liberal billionaire Tom Steyer has been held up as an exemplary clean energy enthusiast, how often do the organizations who receive his donations wonder where he got his money? Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and eventually his own investment firm which invested millions in private prison companies.
But let’s join Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in storming the office of Nancy Pelosi about climate change and rail against Republicans who receive coal money. While The Latino Victory Fund which supported her partners with Tom Steyer’s SuperPAC.
To what extent this is purposeful, I don’t know. I do appreciate Ms. Cortez’s critique of money in politics, but I fear the judgmental fire in her belly may scorch us as a society. Maybe Tom Steyer and other donors’ views are situational. Some people earn a lot of money to then try to do a lot of good. People’s motivations are hard to discern. And I don’t want to support a witch hunt or class warfare, or to suggest people are purely good or evil.
But I do think the result is a game of smoke and mirrors. Where I should spend my time hating Palestinians or Republicans or Muslims or right-wingers or left-wingers, when in the end most people can’t make ends meet. Around the world.
So I’ll say this. If there is a solution to this problem, it’s the empaths. Whether it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Benjamin Netanyahu, the BDS movement, or anyone else dominating the headlines these days, let’s focus our attention elsewhere. Maybe they can join us later, but in the meantime, instead of gazing up at them, let’s look sideways. Ahead- at the people in front of us.
Those are our allies. Our potential friends are the people who don’t buy into this warfare. They’re the Republican willing to buck the party on gay rights. They’re the Democrat who who dialogues with her anti-abortion neighbors. They’re the Tunisian who writes about the Jewish history of his land– in collaboration with a Jewish historian. And the Israelis like me who empathize with the challenges facing our Arab countrymen and our Palestinian neighbors. Who rather than tearing up at every Ben Gurion quote and saluting the flag, would prefer to talk with the Arab man who cleans their school. They’re the American Christian who visits this land to understand both Israelis and Palestinians, rather than coming with a pre-set agenda. Who is willing to confront anti-Semitism with as much vigor as racism or Islamophobia. To confront their own prejudices.
Because we all have them. And if we’re honest, if we’re empathetic, we can acknowledge that. I, for one, have been learning more about transgender experiences. I don’t know much- and it’s a deeply stigmatized identity and community I don’t know much about. But I’m putting myself out there and realizing I have a lack of knowledge. And that doesn’t make me weak, it’s makes me kind. Because to acknowledge our own gaps in knowledge is to point us in the direction of what we need to learn.
So in the end, I’m not interested in whether you’re pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. I’m not interested in whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice. I’m not interested whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, a left winger or right winger.
What I’m not interested in is “or”. What I’m interested in is “and”. Because an empath lives in the and. The ability to see that the identities we are supposed to defend are only part of the story. That the words we use aren’t as important as what they indicate- given our position. That the sentiment behind them, the context is much more important than the vocabulary itself.
So give me pro-Israel Europeans and Israeli Jews who rail against racism. Give me Americans who fight against BDS and anti-Semitism and give me Israelis who fight against an unquestioning Zionism. Give me Palestinians learning Hebrew and Israeli Jews learning Arabic.
Give me the and. Because the real way forward, as I see it, is to step outside our silos. And find the people whose orientation is towards compassion, who are willing to question orthodoxies, and are struggling to live in the gray space at a time when polarization would make it so much easier not to.
Who are willing to give up the simplicity of living enclosed in the safety of a walled-in tribe. Whether that tribe be NPR listeners, secular North Tel Aviv, a gun show, or a West Bank settlement.
Because where things get a porous is where life gets dangerous. And when boundaries become frontiers, they can become markers for progress more than barriers separating us from each other.
Don’t tell me what you think, show me how you care. Don’t tell me where you’re from, show me where you’re going. Because perhaps what I’ve learned is it’s not so much where you are so much as how you’re oriented.
The bad news about today’s world is that we’re increasingly divided along national, political, and religious lines. Which can make it incredibly hard for a double minority gay Jew like me to find a safe and welcoming home. When I look at a map, my heart wishes I could live everywhere and my mind knows that I can’t. It’s a force that pulls me apart and forces me to choose between the well being of my identities and my curiosity about the world. Although as I write this article I wonder if perhaps the most important identity of all, someone’s kindness, may lead me in different directions than I’m “supposed” to pursue. Maybe it already has.
The strain of trying to find a home, a career, a place where you feel safe, fulfilled, and stable is real and intense. It’s a lot to handle at once and can feel excruciating. Especially when your primary communities are targets for so much antipathy and hate. What I’m discovering is there’s a way to view things a bit differently that can help me find a way forward. Because when you understand the most important (if not only) characteristic of someone you’ll like is their compassion, you realize that exists in every corner of the planet. And while it requires some sifting, some risk taking, some potential hurt, you can find people everywhere who will treat you with dignity and compassion.
Israeli identity is not so portable. Tied to this land, there is nowhere else on the planet that feels exactly like this. Where Jews live in the majority. Where Hebrew signs dot the skyline, where Hatikvah is blasted at every sports game. Where Judaism isn’t something to be hidden at home or behind synagogue security guard. Where it carries both the power and responsibility of running things. It exists like this nowhere else on the planet, which is why so many Israelis have trouble adapting to life, including Jewish life, elsewhere. Perhaps this will change- groups like the IAC are trying to help Israelis build a Diaspora identity, as strange as that sounds. I can understand why it’s necessary for their well being.
Jewish identity, on the other hand, is the most portable identity in the history of mankind. It changes and mutates everywhere we go, adapting in extraordinary and creative ways to both fulfilling and extremely scary circumstances. Sometimes it’s snuffed out- it can’t plant its roots everywhere due to the cruelty of some people. But it does show an incredible adaptivity that few cultures have managed to replicate.
It is challenging to be an Israeli or Jew in much of the world. But there are some things you can uncover anywhere. And can bring to any society. What you can carry with you to every corner of the globe is a desire to help, to understand, to bring hope and kindness. And to find people willing to share that warmth with you and to join you in the task of building a gentler, more caring human society.
Because when we understand the meaning of the words others say, we realize that it’s the intent behind them that matters most. That help us sift through the distractions to see the direction their heart points in.
May we all find the words to bring us peace. In our own lives and in the lives of the people around us, to the extent we can. This Christmas, this Chanukah, this Kwanzaa, is the season when the sun sets early, the darkness sets in, and the contrasting blackness surrounds us. Which presents us with the challenge of finding warmth. And if we manage to kindle a flame, also gives us the chance to make our little bit of light shine even brighter. Not as bright as the sun, but brighter than if we try to be a lamppost at noontime. We can’t choose when the sun sets- nor can we choose when it rises to cover us and glow. When you find yourself in darkness, you can’t expel all of it. So rather than struggle against its very existence, perhaps the key is to find someone else willing to light a candle with you. To make some space for warmth. Until the morning breaks again.
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