Mourning with and for the empathy gap

One need not be Jewish to have been horrified, shocked and distressed by the pictures of pierced bodies of Jewish worshippers wrapped in their prayer shawls and phylacteries alongside pools of blood. Yet those with no connection to the Holy Land could be forgiven for not feeling a sense of loss. Many have no geographical, historical or ethnic ties and it would be highly unusual for them, humane as they may be, to feel any real sense of mourning.

Jews around the world and especially those who live in Israel do in the main feel some loss. Naturally those of us used to praying in a minyan every morning, where we seek physical and spiritual sanctuary were unnerved and frightened by the fact that even prayer is not safe. Most likely the empathy of those with a religious background who follow similar lifestyles was at a higher level than those Jews more alienated from Jewish observance. In contradistinction those used to a more secular lifestyle were more affected by a bomb that cruelly exploded the bodies of young  revellers. This is basically how things are and it would be foolhardy to try and change the situation.

However there is another factor, which to me is more troublesome. Unfortunately even within the religious world there are those more affected and those less so. A number of years ago after hearing of the horrors of the Itamar massacre I was surprised to learn that some within the Hareidi community appeared less perturbed. It had nothing to do with geography for this community was closer to Itamar than our settlement. It had more to do with a feeling that the entire settlement enterprise was under attack and thus we felt a special bond with the victims.

This time however it seems the tables have turned. Obviously on an individual level it would be inconceivable  that anyone in our neighbourhood who heard about these horrific events remained untouched by them. Yet, unlike in the case of other recent murders which have been closer to home, the  reactions did appear more stilted than one would expect. Although in faraway America and Britain communal prayer was called for, events here went on pretty much as normal.

How does one explain this empathy gap? How is it that when five family members are brutally murdered on a Friday night and the sanctity of the Sabbath is so eerily pierced, those most in touch with Sabbath observance  do not react with pain and shock at hearing of such desecration. On the other hand why is it that a community made up overwhelmingly of those who attend morning prayers are not sufficiently shocked by the events in Har Nof to want to change their routine and get together in public prayer.

Whatever differences our neighbourhood has with Hareidi neighbourhoods there is quite a lot in common. We all have charitable societies that look after the needy, provide interest free loans, care for birthing mothers and look after their sick and frail members. We all believe that we have a religious duty to enhance the physical and spiritual welfare of our neighbours and those surrounding us. We all view our children as playing a unique role in continuing the Jewish heritage and we pay special attention to the younger generation. Yet when it comes to empathising with those whose, political, religious and ideological outlook  is somewhat different to ours, our sense of togetherness is somewhat dulled.

Without ignoring very principled differences that relate to the role we play in a secular society and the value each community ascribes to earning a livelihood or to dedicating oneself to a non material spiritual lifestyle, it is still legitimate to ask whether the present sense of alienation is an inevitable outcome.  If it is not so inevitable , then anyone uncomfortable with the situation should ask oneself what can be done to change things.

As I have learnt the hard way it does not help to vent one’s frustrations by riling against any particular community. Unless one is blessed with a subtle soul (and unfortunately I am not) it is likely that doing so will needlessly offend and alienate those one wishes to alert. It is impossible to mandate how others should feel and therefore in order to change people’s reactions one has to change their perceptions of events. For this to happen a long term strategy must be adopted.

For various reasons the Hareidi and national religious world have always vied for the attention of their secular brothers.  In the case of the former this is normally motivated by a desire to bring others closer to a sense of holiness and is predicated on the idea that secularism is for the most part devoid of value. When it comes to the national religious world, aside from wishing to introduce the irreligious to a world of spirituality, there is also the need to create allies in the political struggle for legitimacy especially when it comes to areas of security and settlement expansion.

Unfortunately little is done to draw religious people of differing world-views to some kind of understanding and identity with each other. Whereas in past generations many families were composed of both Hareidim and national religious members this phenomenon has become less common.  Geographically there has been a growing trend for neighbourhoods, which used to  include a heterogeneous mix of religious Jews of all stripes, to become more and more homogeneous. The result is that exclusively Hareidi neighbourhoods have become commonplace. This trend has  its counterpart in the ever expanding settler movement, an overwhelming majority of whom are insulated in their exclusively national religious settings. Thus the communities have increasingly less to do with one another.

We should however not have to abide a situation where much in common is obscured by relatively little that separates. This does not mean that we should search for some fabricated middle ground. Neither does it mean that idealogical differences can be easily peppered over. It does mean that we should try and increase interaction. Surely we can find charismatic teachers whose religious knowledge and erudition would be popular with both parties. Surely we can come together in discussing effective ways for disposing with public funds and perhaps create jointly run  charitable institutions.

Of course the prescription above is not easily achievable. It requires goodwill on both sides and a recognition that there is a problem that must be confronted if not altogether solved. I do believe that if prioritized progress can be made and will be felt. Many challenges lie ahead for Israel and its precious inhabitants, a little less friction, a tad more unity and an iota more understanding and identity  can go a long way in fortifying the nation for the struggle ahead.

About the Author
I am a resident of Alon Shvut. I work as a translator and hold a Masters in Law from South Africa and an MA in Contemporary Jewry from Hebrew University