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Modelling Empathy

Bar Refaeli

There were two examples I saw this week where Jewish women raised their voices in empathy with the suffering of the Palestinian residents of Gaza. In both cases, they were met by condemnation on the part of many in the wider Jewish community. Rabbi Sharon Brous was attacked by Rabbi Daniel Gordis, in a piece entitled “When balance becomes betrayal,” for daring to suggest that we recognize that the suffering of the Palestinian people. To quote Gordis: “Yes, we are all deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil. But why does Rabbi Brous not feel that it’s her place as a rabbi to tell her community…which side is good and which side is evil?”[1] Likewise, Bar Refaeli’s seemingly harmless tweet: “I pray for the safety of the citizens on both sides and for the day we will live in peace and harmony. Amen,” was received with enormous hostility by some sections of the Israeli public, including people who called to boycott her and the products she advertises.

Sometimes we need a mirror to see clearly. Two conversations particularly moved me this week. The first was with a Palestinian friend and colleague living in the South of Israel. As I worried about the safety of her and her family, being shelled by Hamas missiles, she worried about my son, an Israeli soldier. She told me about her daughter, who was finding it a particularly difficult time to interact with her classmates at her Jewish school who seemed to have little sympathy for her confusion and distress. But amazingly, my friend expressed great concern for my son’s safety and for my fears for him. Even in the midst of her own emotional torment, she could find it in her heart to empathize with both him and me.

Later in the week another Palestinian friend called to ask about us – and suggested we get together for coffee. Even at a difficult time for her personally and collectively, she went out of her way to ask about my soldier son – not even an “innocent civilian” but a combatant in the armed conflict.

I found their empathy moving and supportive. Neither they nor I saw it as a betrayal of their national identity. So why do we see Jewish empathy with even innocent Palestinian civilians as a betrayal of Israel? As mothers themselves, these women reached out beyond their own distress to identify with a mother and her son on the “Other” side. They refused the characterization of “Us” and “Them” and created a safe space where “Us” included all those of us caught up in this intolerable situation.

Sadly, study of Mothers’ peace movements suggests that they are usually motivated by concern for one’s own sons. It is no accident that the Four Mothers Movement, so influential in Israeli society, did not become a bi-national movement, joining together with Lebanese women. Rarely have effective movements based on maternal love managed to reach over the divide to care for the Other. Even so, we cannot as a people allow empathy with the Other to be seen as disloyalty to our own. Such narrowness of vision only contributes and fuels the ongoing conflict. Stifling our capacity for empathy may be the biggest betrayal of all.


[1] I have seen two excellent defenses of Rabbi Brous – one by Rabbi Brous herself and the other by David N. Myers



One thought on “Modelling Empathy

  1. We just have to focus on how often there actually already IS empthay between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. Here’s a lovely report that a couple of friends of mine co-wrote:

    And even the awfully nationalistic Channel 2 news managed to air a report about 2 injured children from the war in the hospital, one from Kiryat Malachi, one from Sderot. The Palestinian mother was clear her interview that there was no difference in te suffering of both kids and both mothers.

    Posted by Jon Simons | November 24, 2012, 12:25 am

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