Where has all the compassion gone?

I am watching Israel’s slide into authoritarianism with dismay. Mass demonstrations, flag waving and moving renditions of Hatikvah by the IPO go some way towards warming the heart and lifting the spirit but the reality is that there is little to inspire optimism about Israel’s political future.

Admittedly this is the view from afar – from under Britain’s grey skies, to be precise – in a political climate which has a long tradition of nurturing democracy. But it is a view informed by friends on the spot whose judgement I respect and it meshes with my own experience of having lived through another country’s (South Africa) struggles to cope with deeply entrenched divisions between ethnic groups.

In the South African case, catastrophe was averted by the magnanimity of political leaders on both sides of the divide. The result was an almost miraculous recovery from the nosedive towards an explosive civil war. Unfortunately I can see no signs of this happening in Israel, where the situation is being further inflamed by religious differences. I hear of isolated instances of collaboration and harmony at a social and cultural level but not at the level of the political leadership which, if anything, is moving towards postures of greater intransigence. There is a vicious cycle in play, of cynical detachment towards suffering on the one hand and enraged retaliation on the other.

When the State of Israel was established, the socialist ideal prevailed. Jewish pride asserted itself after centuries of persecution, and recovery could at last begin, but the price was the maintenance of a powerful military presence which permeated every aspect of Israeli life. Jews felt safe at last but any moves towards a political settlement were undermined by unyielding territorial stances. The ebb and flow of diplomacy ended in a stalemate and the country has drifted steadily towards the hard right and a conviction that negotiation is futile.

The missing ingredient in this tragic mix is compassion. There plenty of it among the grass roots but little, as far as I can see, among the leaders themselves. Decades of trauma, violence and loss sustained through military and terrorist actions have blunted that faculty where it is most needed: among the ranks of the religious and political leadership.

How can this trend be reversed? Hatred, easily incurred, takes generations to dissipate, and with each day that goes by we are witnessing an escalation in inflammatory language and actions. The outlook for a stable, peaceful future is bleak. In the meantime, all we can do is to express solidarity with those at the centre of the storm who are protesting at what they see happening.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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