In the face of terror, “Cautious Empathy”

Most nights, I like to go for a run through West Jerusalem. Amidst a route fraught with hills, I always look forward to the long, flat stretch of Emek Refaim. A trendy space in downtown Jerusalem, the street typically plays host to a multitude of people in their twenties and thirties, tourists and sabras alike spending time between the boutiques, trendy waffle cafes and apartment buildings.

As I make my way down the sidewalk towards Talpiyot and the night grows darker, I realize how lucky I am. I could never run as a woman alone at night in the neighborhood where I attended college, or in most cities in the United States. But here I am, a religious Jewish woman running with my extra-long sweatshirt and headband, moving unafraid down one of the most famous streets in Jerusalem. And I realize that this run is the kind of gift that many could only dream about. How absolutely painful it must be to think that I- a white Jew-by-choice with no family in Jerusalem- have traveled to this city on a grant from the Israeli government, that I study and shop and travel freely around a city that I was born without any connection to, that I first came here at eighteen on a program called “Birthright” with twenty other college students that spoke no Hebrew, that not a soul stops me and asks for my passport or looks at me with suspicion as I go about my day, that I can run tonight and almost any night I please through a neighborhood where Arab families lived for generations before HaPalmach “liberated” it: how painful this thought must be to Palestinians all over the world. It is easier to ignore all of this, it is easy to reflect on the anti-Semitism my fiancé and I experienced in the United States and assert that we, too, have suffered, and suffered enough.

I am studying in Jerusalem for the year as a yeshiva student, and I wonder if I have any right to get involved in the politics of this city and of Israel, if I have any right to be writing any of this down. But it is impossible to live in Jerusalem, even impermanently, and not be involved. Whether I like it or not, my decision to study here is a political act. My refusal to cross the Green Line (even before this wave of violence erupted) is a political act. It is a blessing to stand in the city where King David stood and Isaiah preached, but it would be criminal to forget that they are not the only ones who have stood here, preached here, and found meaning in this place.

The Beit Midrash where I spent the majority of my waking hours is near a very busy street in West Jerusalem. Lately, there have been ambulances running up and down the road all day, sirens blaring. Knowing the sound likely signals another terror attack breaks my heart. I ache for the victims of the attacks and their loved ones- they’re my community, my tribe, they are my family. News of these attacks are greeted with a sharp sigh, a wince and a mournful expression by many, and then a resolution to keep going about the day as if nothing were happening, to not let the fear overtake one’s schedule. But for the victims’ families, there is no time for resolution. There is shiva to sit, lifetimes worth of memories and experiences to mourn. These are people who walk the same streets as I, who ride the same busses, shop at the same stores. Perhaps we have davened together, perhaps we attended events together and did not know it. Their murders leave gaping holes in the community. Regardless of where they live or their politics, no one ever deserves such a devastating fate.

The randomness of the attacks is frightening as well. Many people I have spoken with feel that they must constantly look over their shoulders, must stay constantly alert. This hypervigilance is both physically and emotionally exhausting. My fellow students have described having nightmares, of arriving home and bursting into tears, of the anxiety of creating bittersweet “If you’ve seen the news today, I’m alive and safe” social media posts they send to family and friends abroad almost daily.

And too, I hurt when I think of the desperation and hopelessness that must reside in the heart of a thirteen year old who goes out to stab another child, knowing that he will likely be shot by the police. My soul cries out in anger when I read that the Palestinians of Jerusalem will be collectively punished by having their neighborhoods sealed off, and when I see Jewish protestors march down my street screaming “Kill the Arabs!” We are supposed to be better than this. We are supposed to be a light to the nations, and instead we have broken promises. We use our history of suffering to justify giving into fear, instead of developing cautious empathy.

I am scared, but I am also so glad to be in Israel right now- when my people are suffering, the last thing I want to do is abandon them in fear. I am so impressed with this nation who refuses to give into terror and shut down, who pushes to improve itself and provide for Jews everywhere a safe haven. But at the same time, I am disappointed by those here who claim that this newest wave of violence came from nowhere, that we are not our brothers’ keepers even when it pains us, even when it requires the most vulnerable soul-searching. These attacks seem to be organized not by sophisticated organizations, but by individuals who do not seem to see another possible expression of their pain, or a more effective solution to their current situation. Peace cannot be found with more violence, more restrictions and lashing out against entire communities.

I am so grateful that even in times such as these, I can sort through my thoughts during a run down Emek Refaim, alone and without fear. But I want to cry when I think about whose fear and whose pain- Israeli and Palestinian alike- have made that privilege possible.

About the Author
Margo Hughes-Robinson is a student living in Jerusalem. A graduate of Clark University, she earned a BA in both Jewish Studies and Playwriting, she writes about Jewish identity, feminism, and spirituality. Currently, Margo serves as a Global Teaching Fellow with Kulanu, Inc., a non-profit committed to supporting emerging, isolated and returning Jewish communities.