Alan Tenenbaum

On the political use of commiseration

We see on social media people sharing messages of their own, or written by others, including from the Israeli defense army, or from its hasbara department, calling for raising awareness on the attack to Israel, if not through compassion, of non-Jews. 

The political use of commiseration

The political use of compassion won’t do the job. Compassion achieves very little, when it does not turn altogether into contempt. Proof of this is that the Shoah did not end the anti-Jewish obsession. And what the Shoah did not achieve, this new massacre won’t achieve either. 

But you don’t have to go that far to prove this point.

For someone who suffers we do not feel admiration, but compassion. 

Also compassion, much more than admiration, fluctuates. It is automatic, a reaction to the immediate suffering that we see, through our own eyes or through other means. And it moves from one object to another as quickly as images, like a camera that now focuses on one and then on another object. 

And suffering has no merit in itself. What merit could it have to have pricked a foot with the edge of a table? That is, pain can be accidental, it does not require a choice, an action, not even a human being, unlike admiration. 

At most, admiration is not caused by the suffering itself, but by some positive character that the person has, by something good that he did, or seems capable of doing, regardless of the suffering. It is admiration, or friendship, that prompts us to help without despise, and more steadily. Doing something good for what is good, and not just as if we lose something on the way. It is on these positive features that we should focus.


The same thing that happens with people, happens with countries, in this case with Israel.

The pro-Israel camp knows that the cultural battle is a lost battle. It starts from the fact that judging rightly who is the victim and who is the perpetrator will be a difficult, long-lasting, improbable change. The examples are ubiquitous, this is just a personal one: a young Italian woman has the urgent need to tell me that she is pro-Palestinian. That she knows nothing about the conflict (nothing about the geography, or the history, or the cultures in question), except that she knows for sure who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. She also knows that the evil one is the Jewish country.

And this defeat in the perception of those who observe, from abroad, is not going to change with this new attack, the ultimi barbarorum.

The relative identification with the pain of the Israelis (including Arabs) and foreigners who were victims of the attack lasted less than a week. Already yesterday the BBC shared a series of posts ranging from the Israelis are the creators of the Palestinian Islamist group; going through technical failures in the Israeli security system; to the moral responsibility of Israel for the attack against its citizens due to the Jewish prayers at a Muslim square. This is yet another example of the transformation of the victim into the guilty.

Speaking Arabic

It is on the positive characters that arise admiration (in people as much as in countries, in psychology as much that in politics) that a pro-Israel policy should focus. And the same that holds for admiration or friendship, as opposed to compassion or commiseration, holds for fear.

As several Israelis argue, terrorists must be dealt with in their own language. They must be confronted not in English (the language of human rights that they do not recognize for their own population) but in Arabic. Speaking in English is perceived by them as a weakness, which they cynically exploit. And for their supporters, human rights only have relative importance, relative not only to those whose rights are not respected, but relative to those who transgress those rights. Proof of this is that little or no coverage, not to say compassion, is produced by the abuses committed against Palestinians by themselves, by their own governments or by other Arab countries. And we are talking of a place where, for example, there is not only the death penalty, but this is practiced in the most arbitrary and public way. Or where freedom of expression is non-existent, or selective

With all this in mind, here is the point I want to get to. 

While the above mentioned posts are understandable (and even desirable, perhaps, in the long term), a policy based on the demand of compassion, or a pathetic message from Jews to their non-Jewish friends, is not helpful. In general, and in the case of Israel in particular. Persuasion in this case is as lost as it was a week ago, before October 7th. The everlasting phenomenon of resentment against the Jews, exacerbated by the multiple success stories (from Nobel Prizes to the Start-Up Nation) is not going to change with the (260 just in the recital) victims of the Islamist attack.

Nor will a march be persuasive if, like the one in Paris, its motto reads: Against terrorism. As if terrorism, a tool, would be subject to responsibility. “Terrorism”, an abstract entity, did not kill anyone. Not calling the Palestinian Islamist terrorists from Hamas as such, is part of the problem. The reverse phenomenon is also harmful, that is, blaming Hamas as if the rest of the many supporters of the attack were good. That’s the same connerie that in the demonstrations after the Bataclán attack welcomed the President of the Palestinian Authority, promoter of terrorist violence, recently stripped of his titles of illustrious citizen of Paris for Holocaust denial.

Israel does not and cannot rely on anyone’s help. And less than so if help comes by way of compassion. So, all those calls on social networks for awareness through identification with the pain of the with the civilian victims (the multiples images of massacre and chaos), their families, and country may be unavoidable, But it is better to show those who are accountable for the attack what Israel is capable of, (and do it). More persuasive is to speak with them in Arabic.

About the Author
MA in Philosophy (EHESS)
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