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Sarah Bernstein
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The shared pain of ordinary people caught in the crossfire

Compassion is not a zero-sum game; rather, we should feel empathy for those suffering, regardless of our politics or allegiances
Preparing art kits for children in Ramle (image courtesy of author)
Preparing art kits for children in Ramle (image courtesy of author)

Recent events in Israel have cast a palpable shadow of fear, affecting everyone in its grasp. The uncertainty, tensions and sense of loss have woven a collective anxiety that permeates daily life, leaving an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of all those navigating through these challenging times. We are experiencing events that trigger our collective memory and intergenerational trauma as Israeli-Jews, scared for our lives. I too, have been swept up by waves of fear and anger.

As fear intensifies in Israel, some, overwhelmed by anxiety and uncertainty, channel their distress into dangerous avenues. This may manifest in heightened aggression, radicalization, an inclination towards extremism – or the distribution of and purchase of guns. It is difficult to refute the feeling that we need weapons to protect us – particularly following what we perceived as the failure of both government and army to offer protection. We no longer feel we can rely on the state – so we must protect ourselves. But are there other ways to process our fear and address the uncertainty and need for security?

It is not only Jews who are experiencing this extreme anxiety and intergenerational trauma. Jews revert to Shoah imagery to express their experience. Palestinians are experiencing this as a repeat or perhaps even continuation of the Naqba – and the images of Palestinians fleeing the fighting indeed bring to mind distressing photos from 1948.

Nevertheless, even in this intense environment of fear and anxiety we have to find the strength and humanity to be compassionate towards the innocent people on the other side. Children, often referred to as the “innocent casualties” of war, bear witness to the horrors that unfold around them. In Israel and Palestine, generations of children have grown up amidst conflict, facing the stark reality of violence, loss, and displacement. Regardless of the side they find themselves on, these young souls should be the embodiment of hope, potential, and the promise of a brighter future. Instead, we are seeing those that survive scarred by events they should never have had to witness or endure. How do we prevent that scarring from becoming fixed hatred that will only lead to more violence, more war. Is that the future we want for our children?

“We oppose violence. We want good neighborly relations”. Message projected on house in Shuafat refugee camp, for their neighbors in Pisgat Zeev. (Courtesy)

The images of suffering children in Gaza or in Israel should not only be seen through the  lens of national belonging or political allegiance. Rather, they should awaken the collective empathy that resides within all of us. Compassion is not a zero-sum game; it is not diminished by extending it to those who may be perceived as the “other.” In fact, true compassion is boundless, encompassing all who suffer, irrespective of their nationality or background.

Compassion should be a universal force that transcends the boundaries of conflict and forces us to consider other options. In times of war, compassion towards the children and innocent civilians on the “enemy’s” side is not a concession; it is a testament to our shared humanity. And it is that shared humanity that should be pushing us to seek a different path. Surely we can recognize that we all want our children to grow up and lead fulfilling and worthwhile lives. Can we not work together to make that a possibility? We could start by doing everything in our power to call a halt to the fighting and bring the hostages home – back to their families, back to their loved ones – and perhaps then we will be able to begin the massive task of finding alternatives to violence, together with allies from around the world.

In the context of Israel and Palestine, compassion is not an endorsement of one political stance over another. It is an acknowledgment of the shared pain and trauma experienced by ordinary people caught in the crossfire. By recognizing the humanity of the children on the “enemy’s” side, we undermine the dehumanization that often accompanies and prolongs protracted conflicts, fostering an environment where dialogue and other solutions become possible.

Even though Hanukkah is drawing to a close, may compassion become a beacon of light that cuts through the darkness of hatred and division. May it be a force that unites rather than divides, offering a glimmer of hope for a future where peace is not just a distant dream but a tangible reality.

About the Author
Dr. Sarah Bernstein is the Director of the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue. With a background as a lawyer and mediator, for over twenty years Sarah has been working in Jerusalem in the field of peace-building and shared society, specializing in interreligious dialogue and education. She was awarded her Phd in Peace and Reconciliation Studies by Coventry University in England. Sarah sat on the Alliance for Peacebuilding Global Advisory Council on Effective Interreligious Peacebuilding Evaluation, and was a founding Board member of the International Association of Spiritual Care.
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