Terror has struck ’us’ again. I write ’us’ referring to Westerners who identify with the Paris victims. I feel angry about this attack against ordinary people in a Western city. A terrible destruction of life perpetrated against people who live in a ’normal’ city like I do. I am surrounded by outrage and solidarity expressed in French flags, on Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and all over Facebook. But surely, every life of a non-combatant taken violently is an utterly unacceptable violation of the sanctity of life?
I am disturbed to read Facebook posts by my Arab and Muslim friends rightly expressing their hurt at the implication that French lives appear to matter more to Westerners than Arab or Muslim lives. Some posts list the names of places where Arab or Muslim blood has been spilled, including the terrible attacks in Beirut. Yet, none of these posts mention the recent stabbings of Israeli civilians. I feel a deep sadness about the selective empathy so much in evidence right now.
The term ’selective empathy’ is almost a tautology because researchers in this field explain that empathy is by its very nature geared toward people we see as being like us. We can overcome this natural tendency to limit our circle of empathy either by calling on increased compassion (which is not naturally restricted to people like ourselves) or by changing our relationships with ‘them’ so that they become part of ‘us’.
The inclusion of those we are unfamiliar with and whom we regard as alien can feel quite threatening. After the Biblical Jacob left his village and the people familiar to him he put rocks around his head when he stopped for a nap along the way. This act is considered highly symbolic. Jacob protected his mind from the influences of a new place. Only his hands, symbolising action, were to connect with the new place, but his mind had to remain ‘unpolluted’(1).
Despite the fear some people have about how they might be changed or lose their identity, they do often make efforts to connect with the other. When Jacob met the ‘strangers’ among whom he would live he addressed them as ’my brothers (2)”. It is easier to regard people as abstract threats when you are not interacting with them face to face.
Although Jacob approached the locals in a spirit of friendship (3) and love, (4) the natives responded without enthusiasm. His three questions were met mainly with one-word answers (5). According to commentary there was a dismissive comment about how he talked too much—so he might as well talk to ’Rachel who is a talkative one, just like you’. (6)
In our experience in the work of Together For Humanity, we have found that outsiders, such as Muslim teenagers, are often more motivated to connect than those who are more settled. In one case, a few years back, Muslim state high school students posted repeatedly on an electronic notice board but their Jewish peers never got around to responding. In another interschool program the school with Muslim students was keen to continue the relationship into a second year but the mostly ‘white’ school opted out. Sadly the goodwill of the ’outsider’ is sometimes weakly reciprocated.
Jacob, the outsider in our story, was cheated by a local man in full view of ’all of the men of the place (7)’. Their father Laban switched his promised bride, Rachel, with her older sister, Leah. When the stranger protested against his unfair treatment, his complaint was dismissed with a reprimand about local customs. ’It is not done this way in our place to give the younger before the older ( ’, said Laban. Later, when Jacob prospered, he faced resentment from his brothers-in-law (9), just as his father had earlier as a foreigner in the land of the Philistines.
Relationships between people who perceive each other as different can be fraught. In my experience, empathy grows when we manage to transcend differences and stop seeing people as ‘the other’. Perhaps a practical first step is to recognise and accept our own limited feelings of empathy and our closeness to some people more than others, and pray for Paris if that feels right for us. Then one could take a step back and ask: ‘How can I be more equitable in my concern so that I can contribute to more inclusive, just, compassionate outcomes for all people— wherever and whoever they are?’
1. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, Likutei Sichos volume one, first Sicha
2. Genesis 29:4
5. Genesis 29:4-6
6. Pirush Hatosafot Hadar Zkainim, cited in Torah Shlaima, Vol .2, p. 1159, note 18
7. Genesis 29:22
8. Genesis 29:26