Stephen Daniel Arnoff
Author, Teacher, and Community Leader

Empathy or sympathy?

Protestor in front of the Kirya, calling for the return of Israeli hostages taken to Gaza (Wikipedia Commons).

My friend Michael “Mickey” Berman was the first person I reached out to for help on October 8th after the shock of the day before had subsided slightly. A group of people had huddled around Rachel Goldberg and Jon Polin, whose son Hersh was and remains in captivity. (Full stop: #BringHershHome.) We were sifting through our contacts to find colleagues with networks and skills that could help.

As the Vice President and Executive Director of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement – which focuses its expertise on negotiating freedom for hostages from some of the most narrow straits in the world – Mickey had good advice, though the struggle to free Hersh and so many others continues at a maddeningly slow and painful pace.

Mickey is about to release a book titled In the Shadows: True Stories of High-Stakes Negotiations to Free Americans Captured Abroad, and as part of the initial publicity for the project, he shared a powerful quote on social media this week:

There is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is putting oneself in the shoe’s of another. Sympathy is aligning your objectives with another’s. The two are often confused. In my line of work, empathy is a necessity, while sympathy is a trap.

In my line of work – creating transformative educational and spiritual experiences in Israel – empathy is a necessity too. If our team wants to help a day school student from Toronto or a rabbinical student from Berlin or a musician who recently left Mea Shearim to get where they need to go, we must first understand where they are coming from.

This is not merely the technical knowledge that an institution responsible for the safety and thriving of people in a complicated part of the world requires to do its job. Did they eat and sleep? Are they homesick? Do they understand the language or content or people demanding their attention for the first time?

Rather, the knowledge required for empathy demands emotional intelligence, honoring what is complex and unresolved in a seeker’s history, a trauma they hope to overcome, a story that perhaps they themselves are unsure how to tell. Educators must make space for students and seekers to be who they are wholly, while at the same time expanding the space of possibility in which they will grow into even richer, more authentic versions of themselves.

Empathy takes patience, respect, and above all humility. I might know a bit more Talmud or Bible or Israeli history than the person before me, but they are the experts in the room about what made them who they are. First, we try to listen and understand, then we do our best to open up new pathways towards enlightenment based on what we have heard.

There is a distinct lack of empathy and emotional intelligence in the world these days. Our culture lacks nuance and humility. It’s not just politicians grafting their own broken pieces onto everyone else’s weaknesses in order to get ahead. It’s also celebrities and college students and influencers deadly sure about opinions they have harvested from a TikTok video, unembarrassed to make statements or take actions that inflict real pain on others without having the slightest idea about who they are hurting, let alone the context for that pain.

David Horovitz wrote in this publication this week that filmmaker Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar-accepting speech

was not only simplistic and superficial — how could it be anything but, in the few seconds he had? — but also dangerously misconstructed. Hamas’s October 7 slaughter, mass sexual assault, and hostage-taking onslaught in southern Israel, and the consequent ongoing war, was the result of the terror group’s avowed antisemitic ideology and its implacable desire to kill Jews anywhere and everywhere and destroy the State of Israel. Not the consequence of an ostensible Israeli hijacking of Glazer’s and others’ Jewishness and the Holocaust in the cause of ‘occupation.’

Glazer’s sympathy for the plight of the innocent victims of the war in Gaza may come from a well of sympathy, a place of care and concern. But, to paraphrase Mickey Bergman, it is also a trap. In his speech – just as in conflicts on college campuses, political circles, and the swirl of ignorance powering social media – sympathy has its limitations. To focus all of our goodwill on one side of a conflict without asking how it began replicates and intensifies misunderstanding. To tie oneself or one’s cause to only half-understood narratives not only affirms ignorance, it wipes out the ability to solve problems at their core, where real people are suffering.

In a world where conflict and misunderstanding seem to dominate headlines, it’s crucial to recognize the power of empathy over sympathy. Mickey Berman’s distinction between the two is a poignant reminder of this. Empathy, he reminds us, involves stepping into another’s shoes, understanding their perspective, and acknowledging the complexities of their experiences. Sympathy, on the other hand, risks aligning one’s objectives without truly grasping the nuances of a situation.

This lesson extends far beyond the realm of international negotiations; it permeates our daily interactions and societal discourse. Whether it’s advocating for the release of hostages or navigating personal relationships, empathy serves as a guiding light. It requires patience, respect, and humility — qualities often in short supply in today’s world.

When we witness instances like Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar-acceptance speech, where sympathy may cloud the understanding of complex geopolitical realities, it underscores the importance of empathy-driven discourse. By embracing empathy, we can move beyond superficial narratives and engage in meaningful dialogue that fosters understanding and ultimately leads to solutions rooted in compassion and genuine connection. Striving to cultivate empathy in our interactions is not only a necessity, but a powerful force for positive change in a turbulent world.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Daniel Arnoff is the CEO of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center and author of the book About Man and God and Law: The Spiritual Wisdom of Bob Dylan.
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