Empathy must conquer fear

No battles are as fierce as the ones fought between brothers. I speak not of the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but of the rifts between right and left in Israel, and between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.

Outsiders seldom appreciate that Israel, like any other nation, has many sides and tremendous cultural diversity. Israel is a vibrant, complex and contradictory society. Issues of national security and politics compete for headlines with celebrities, cost-of-living challenges, Eurovision winners and sports competitions, and new technology and energy developments.

It may be perplexing to Israelis that many in the Diaspora view Israel only through narrow religious or ethical frames of reference, focusing either on the Arab/Israeli conflict (Israeli settlements and policies in the West Bank, IDF conduct to counter threats from Hamas and Iran, or the treatment of African refugees) or on religion-and-state issues (marriages, conversions, pluralistic prayer at the Wall, yeshiva exemptions from military service). Top concerns in the Diaspora – apart from Israel’s national security – may not be the key issues of the day to the majority of Israelis. Personal experience, especially of daily terror threats, cannot be compared. Hence, “outside” criticism of the government (even when mixed with firm support for the state) may not always be welcome.

With respect to left and right in both Israel and the Diaspora, the difference is not about whether Israel should seek to achieve peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbors. Who can smile when anyone’s children are dying? Who but the most implacable extremist on either side does not want life free from fear of violence, war and death?

The difference is also not really about whether to perpetuate an uneasy and costly occupation behind hardened walls, or to replace it with a two-state solution, a larger single Jewish state containing a substantial enfranchised Arab population, or some other yet-to-be-defined political solution if willing partners could be found.

The core disagreement between right and left – and increasingly between Israel and its allies in the Diaspora – is about whether it is possible or impossible to achieve the dreams that both share. Is it a realistic challenge or just pure fantasy to work for a lasting peace between Jews and Arabs in Israel’s small slice of the Middle East? In the long run, can Israel remain a modern state that is both Jewish and democratic, a moral exemplar worthy of its military prowess? Despite hardening religious, economic and social divisions, will Israeli society remain unified, just and strong, a model to be emulated by other nations?

If these dreams could be achieved, real sacrifices might be worth the risks. It would be worth reaching across the ideological divides to build trust with willing partners, internally and externally. If the dreams are illusory, then any concession amounts to a foolish and naïve vulnerability and an intolerable existential threat.

Shared goals – peace, security, legitimacy – are too often buried under an accusatory barrage of recrimination and hostility between left and right. It is high time to soften the rhetoric, reduce the acrimony, and at times to put pragmatism ahead of principle in service of the greater good.

To make a relationship functional means learning that it is sometimes better to be effective than to be right. To be effective in a relationship requires honest curiosity about the other person’s perspectives, and an open-minded willingness to accept and validate experiences that differ from our own – to see even in adversaries a human created in the image of G-d.

That level of empathy is hard to achieve when we are blocked by our own fears. We fear violence or loss of our autonomy or identity. We fear being duped or hurt when we show careless goodwill. We fear our own insecurities. We demand that our own legitimate claims be recognized, but not at the cost of recognizing the conflicting claims of others. We hide behind “history” to deny present realities and to prevent future possibilities.

What if things were different? What would it look like to allow the inconsistencies and conflicting narratives to peacefully coexist without having to choose one over the other?

The debate should be reframed to focus on building a consensus on what changes are possible. Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to collaborative dialogue is language itself. We tune out those who use words or phrases that betray a differing view: Eretz Israel vs. Palestine; Occupied Territories vs. Judea and Samaria; secular vs. apostate. By casting the other side as “wrong” in these debates, we miss opportunities to learn, to break out of our shells, and to explore together how to achieve what is at once both necessary and seemingly out of reach.

The status quo means physical danger and moral compromises, instability and insecurity. Can there be a viable alternative?

To create a more productive and collaborative dialogue, to replace fear with empathy, three steps are urgently needed:

1. Rebuild the center, to facilitate respectful conversation among those of differing views, so as to find common ground and to create new solutions rather than persuading others of how justified our own biases and fears are.

2. Believe that failure to achieve greater empathy, understanding and trust means failure to achieve lasting security, moral legitimacy and reciprocal recognition.

3. Negotiate from strength – not the strength of Goliath’s armor and towering air of superiority, but the strength of David’s agility and nimble adaptability. It takes true inner strength to allow our cherished assumptions to be challenged, to accept that contrasting views may also be valid without negating our own experiences, and to value building relationships more highly than defending our own dogmas or interests.

Now is the time for people on all sides to end recriminations about morality, “truth” and legitimacy, and rather to replace walls with bridges, and hubris with humility. That is the path to both acceptance and peace.

About the Author
Allan Marks is a lawyer in the United States and an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley law and business schools. Allan writes and comments frequently on Israeli economic, security and political affairs, on bridging gaps between Jewish denominations and between Judaism and other faiths, and on other issues of importance to world Jewry. He is an expert on energy, transportation, land use, and infrastructure policy. The views expressed are his alone and are not attributable to any organization
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