Empathy Has Lost Its Way

A section of the famous mural wall at Sydney’s Bondi Beach was defaced in the last couple of weeks with a row of around 20 swastika symbols, and it made headlines.

I wish I were able to say I’m shocked.

Swastika graffiti and vandalism of synagogues, Jewish schools, cemeteries and other places where Jewish people gather are a regular occurrence around the world, and random daubings show up from time to time here in Australia too.

But that isn’t why I’m not shocked.

When I was growing up, there were very clear boundaries of what bigotry and racism was, and retrospectively, while these boundaries, along with language, still required a lot of polishing and true cultural sensitivity, people’s intentions were genuine when they said they wanted to stamp it out. People actually wanted to empathise with people who had had a history of persecution, and they wanted do the right thing and they strived to rectify past wrongs.

But we are living in a very different world these days. Right now in 2019, the world we are living in is a moral mirror maze. Feeling our way through deliberately designed confusion, disorientation and optical trickery, we are also confronted with distorted reflections, showing us not what is, but what we would like it to be, those curved mirrors sometimes making us appear taller and thinner, while we laugh at the not-so-flattering ones without giving it too much thought.

Likewise, it is fitting to point out Ovid’s version of the mythical Narcissus who, upon seeing his reflection for the first time in a pool of water, became so enamoured of it that he refused to leave the pool or even disturb the reflection. Narcissism as we know it today is the driving force behind virtue signalling, and virtue signalling has replaced true empathy in many of today’s social justice movements.

And just like in the myth where Narcissus’ complete self absorption eventually led to him dying of thirst, so too, is the social justice movement in danger of becoming a withered body instead of a living and growing – and most importantly effective – network of vehicles for real change and real justice.

If bigotry and hate are the toxins that have already affected this body, then antisemitism is a virulent symptom, and the hall of mirrors above is misdirecting us from the remedy. We are being led to to a dystopic wasteland of gang wars between disenfranchised minorities, all becoming angrier, more hostile, more self righteous, thanks to the divide-and-conquer tactics employed, for example, by the likes of the current Women’s March leadership. Thankfully they are slowly losing credibility and being called out on their prejudice and hypocrisy, not least by the movement’s founder and past leaders.

There is no better illustration of the perversity in today’s antisemitism than the world’s most beloved non sequitur, “oh but Palestinians….”. Check out the comments in response to Professor Deborah Lipstadt’s recent interview on Australia’s ABC radio (an interview to which I highly recommend giving a listen, by the way). It was clear that these commenters had listened to the interview with their blinkers on, with their “whatabouttery” itching to be released. For if they’d listened to the interview from a place outside their own rectums, they would have noticed that firstly, it was not centred on antisemitism within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and secondly because when this was briefly touched on by the interviewer, Professor Lipstadt made it clear that genuine criticism or disagreement with Israel’s policies in itself is not antisemitism.

These people simply don’t get it. And apparently wilfully so. On one hand they insist that their views on Jews is separate to their views on Israel and Zionism, yet as soon as you mention anything to do with antisemitism, or even bring up any topic in relation to Jews that is not related to the conflict, they reflexively bring up the topic of Palestinians.

If collectively holding Muslims around the world to account for acts of Islamic terror is considered Islamophobic, then why isn’t holding Jewish people around the world responsible, or even putting them on the spot by expecting them to explain Israel’s actions, not considered antisemitism?

It’s pretty easy to see it is these “I’m-Not-An-Antisemites” themselves are the ones who are conflating the two, not the Jews themselves, no matter how much they try to gaslight Jewish targets of antisemitism. But try arguing that with a commenter who writes, and I quote:

“I’d never heard Lipstadt before but couldn’t help recalling A Jewish friend’s warning that she could turn a saint into an antisemite with one blast. If she can’t recognise the problem created for most Jews by Israel and compulsory tribal (Jerusalem Post happily says The Tribe) support even as Israeli control of US Middle East policy becomes blatant….

Dammit, we’ve been sprung! After all, this person has a Jewish friend (ta-da!!!!!!) who says so! I can’t imagine the incredible euphoria of vindication this commenter must feel right in his or her “kishkes” and the pride and joy in having such a token Jewish friend stashed away, one who can verify all those “Benjamins” we use to control other countries’ foreign policies for our own interests. Ilhan Omar must be eating her heart out!

So it’s pretty easy to see that people’s empathy for others’ is being eroded by self-importance, whether it’s the kind that comes from believing one’s own battle trumps those of others and simply can’t co-exist, or the simple need to have some others’ cause as your own pet project and virtue-signalling opportunity.

This has an on-flow effect, and while this will reveal some uncomfortable truths about ourselves as Jews and as humans, it is also stating the obvious to say that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We are understandably hurt when those who we would expect to show at least an ounce of compassion and anger when, say, Jewish children get threatened on buses, or grown men wearing kippot are physically attacked in the street, or swastikas get painted in popular landmarks in suburbs that happen to have larger Jewish populations.

So when not only does this not happen as we expect, but up pops the usual “oh-but-Israel”, then we initially feel it as a punch in the heart. But when it happens often enough, then as I said above, we’re way past shock and our hurt has turned into a rage that took over two or three thousand years of marginalisation and being maligned, to ignite itself. And it burns toxic. We become Marvel Comics style alter egos, unfortunately sometimes misdirecting our superpowers, and in the most extreme cases, our behaviour starts to mirror those of our haters.

But can you blame us? We’ve had enough. We become cynical, we start to channel our ancestors’ trauma, we revert to the fearful “shtetl” attitudes of previous generations. Everyone is a potential antisemite, the “others” hate us behind those smiles, one day when they’re angry enough they’ll turn around and call us “b&%%*y Jews”.

Just to be clear, I am not judging anyone for what I’m about to say, because as Jews, we never asked for this. All we want is to not be harassed with swastika graffiti, or taunted with online comments saying we deserved the gas chambers, and most of all, not gunned down during synagogue services, nor beaten up in the streets for being visibly Jewish. And, if it’s not too much to ask, we’d like to be able to express our hurt and anger about this without being dismissed as being too “privileged” to care about, we’d like our safety concerns to be taken seriously, and for the love of G-d, can’t there be a nationally mandated drinking game for people who respond to antisemitism that allude to us deserving it “because Palestinians”?

In short, the situation is so messed up, that perversely, in some ways we are allowing ourselves to be turned into the villains the antisemites want us to be. Speaking from my own experience, the part that is particularly disheartening, is a distinct change of attitudes towards certain social issues (for example, immigration, LGBTQ rights, anti-discrimination laws), towards which Jews have always tended to take the more compassionate stance, even the most conservative minded among us. But now I’m observing more hard-ass attitudes which, instead of being aimed at actual antisemites as they should be, are aimed at society in general. “Who cares, the rest of the world hates us anyway, let’s just worry about ourselves”. We become closed off and coldhearted to outsiders. Then eventually we extend this same cynicism to fellow Jews who still show empathy to the the plight of others.

A while back, I wrote a blog piece about how extreme behaviour on one political side gets us swept with the pendulum in the opposite direction. It starts to get even more problematic when it goes beyond just angry name-calling that happens in a moment of heightened emotion, or even the blinkered generalised perceptions of those whose political leanings differ to ours. It is problematic because no matter where we lean on the political scale, none of this is who we are as Jews. We are a charitable and humane people, both in relation to giving and raising money for all causes in the wider community, and in spirit towards our fellow citizens. In this regards, this is one of the few common denominators for all streams of Judaism (in the religious sense) and between religious and secular Jews. Despite what people perceive about us as the “chosen people” – also a source of antisemitism that falsely suggests we hold ourselves as “superior” to the rest of the world – we are just as civic minded and active in our wider communities as anyone else. So what went wrong?

The way I see it, this problem is two-fold. Firstly, as we have learned from a history of persecution, it has been necessary to show that we are no longer weak and we will fight back against bullying, threats and violence against us, as it comes. Unfortunately, as human nature goes, some people misguidedly believe that showing compassion is a sign of weakness. This is how far trauma and abuse can damage people.

Secondly, despite our history of support, active participation and championing of civil rights, social justice and liberation movements – which many of us still continue to do today – we have been abandoned by so many liberals and progressives, those who we once could rely upon to include Jews, not only in their social circles, but in recognition of our history of persecution. But as we have been slowly but surely muscled out of progressive circles, we are left feeling stuck in a social wilderness, because we are still seen by the far right as inferior humans, the antisemitic tropes have not changed, except as Zionists, we are now used by them to “stick it to Muslims”, falsely believing that support for Israel necessarily means animosity towards Muslims. And unfortunately as so many so-called progressives have also bought into this false connection, we get scapegoated (nu, what else is new?) as being puppets for racists and Islamophobes.

As a result, I said earlier, this situation is as messed up and convoluted as it gets, and has done so much damage, that I’ve seen fellow Jews — yes, including friends and family — start to become uncharacteristically suspicious and antagonistic towards almost anything that liberals and progressives hold dear to their hearts, and while in a politically divided atmosphere it is advisable to hold a bit of healthy skepticism about reported events and hot button issues, as well as be aware that they are more often than not used to push a political agenda, it is unhealthy to let that default assumption blind us to reading more, learning more and gathering as many facts as possible. Otherwise, we are playing the same game of filtering facts through our own political counter-biases, and we lose our great Jewish tradition of critical thinking, and most importantly, our sense of empathy towards disenfranchised others when it is legitimately required.

And when we truly open our eyes, we can see it’s not all gloom and doom. We do have friends and communities who do have the moral fortitude to respond to antisemitism. In the case of the swastika vandalism in Bondi, Waverley Council acted very quickly to remove the graffiti, and the attack was condemned by several local members of parliament. We do have friends and genuine sympathisers, and most importantly, we have ourselves: we have our work cut out for us, but we also have the means and the courage to fight antisemitism, without losing sight of who we really are and what we stand for.

So, back to my hall of mirrors metaphor, we don’t have to be eternally stuck in that maze. If antisemites disguised as social justice advocates want to remain there, and become fixated on the distorted reflection they want to see of themselves, then let them. We can choose to emerge and look at ourselves and our reality through the clarity of accurate reflections. And instead of becoming mesmerised by the beauty of resilience, determination, compassion and empathy that we see, we can be reminded it and simply go out and live these values.

About the Author
Kooky vegan, Zionist, liberal minded, animal loving, non conformist but very congenial soul from Sydney who left the insurance industry to work as a nanny and self employed pet sitter, when she realised her "inner socialist" was incompatible with denying insurance claims. Defies Jewish stereotypes by enjoying a few wines after work, but compensates for this by cooking enough food on chagim to make even her mother tear her hair out!
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