Empathy Is Dead in Israel: Effects of a Forever War


Israel Defense Forces Gaza border

Israel Defense Forces near the Gaza Border in July Credit: Creative Commons-Flickr Israel Defense Forces

Much has been written about the silencing of anti-war dissent in Israel by a populace almost universally supportive of military action in Gaza. Such support – inspired by feelings of vulnerability amidst rocket fire and informed by the country’s rightward shift – has made speaking out against the violence not just uncomfortable, but dangerous. Not a single anti-war demonstration in the past month has concluded without participants being attacked and beaten by nationalistic counter-protesters.
And yet, while the silencing of anti-war dissent has been a troubling manifestation of Israelis’ support for war, even more troubling has been the societal numbness; the societal disregard for Palestinian suffering which has been manifested in unsettling, and sometimes shocking, ways.
It’s not bombastic to say that empathy is dead in Israel right now from a societal standpoint, a metaphorical casualty of the current violence. Evidence of this isn’t just being seen in statistical polls, but in a seemingly endless stream of incidents. Consider the following three, representative of a real phenomenon few in Israel deny:

  • Israeli soldiers prank called a Gaza hotel, joking about it being bombed.
  • A moment of silence in Jerusalem’s artsy theater for those killed in Gaza is met with shouts of “Shame!” and “You’re raping the audience!

These scenes are just three representing countless such episodes happening online and in everyday life. Of course, they’re not scenes taking place within a vacuum. A conflict is ongoing. Israelis have had to run to bomb shelters with each rocket attack. People are being traumatized by the constant threat of war.

However, within this context, many leaders are doing their part to incite the populace and ensure that the unspeakable suffering of Palestinians, not to mention their humanity, remain invisible. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been responsible for this, repeating the refrain that Palestinians in Gaza don’t care about life, and reminding everyone that the thousands of dead are not so much victims as desired public relations weapons in Hamas’ fight against Israel.
Netanyahu’s words have been tame when compared to those of the Knesset’s Deputy Speaker, who proposed placing Palestinians in tent encampments in Gaza before shipping them off to other countries. This call was preceded by a prominent chief rabbi who (falsely) declared that genocide with regard to Gaza was permitted by Jewish law to protect Israel.
Some might argue that all of this should be placed within the context of the growing issue of racism in Israel, which 95 percent of Israelis in March agreed is a national problem. However, such racism in many ways is just one more symptom, along with the disappearing empathy for the ‘other,’ of a decades-old conflict which is tearing at the soul of a country I love.
Decades of occupation and conflict have led to this societal moment in which, after killing nearly 2,000 Palestinians and obliterating parts of Gaza, Israeli society is unwilling to acknowledge what it has done to the other side. As though admitting such would be tantamount to losing in a zero-sum game where only one side can be right, can be just.
Such an environment prompted Gregg Carlstrom to write an article entitled “The Death of Sympathy,” which he opens with the following panoramic paragraph:

Pro-war demonstrators stand behind a police barricade in Tel Aviv, chanting, “Gaza is a graveyard.” An elderly woman pushes a cart of groceries down the street in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon and asks a reporter, “Jewish or Arab? Because I won’t talk to Arabs.” A man in Sderot, a town that lies less than a mile from Gaza, looks up as an Israeli plane, en route to the Hamas-ruled territory, drops a blizzard of leaflets over the town. “I hope that’s not all we’re dropping,” he says.

Yes, there are lone voices calling for the recognition of both Palestinian and Israeli suffering. Voices calling for Israelis to acknowledge what it has done to the other side, what it is doing to itself. Unfortunately, such lone voices are being silenced, and sometimes physically attacked.
Just as I mourn for the dead in Israel and Palestine, for the young soldiers killed and innocent civilians lost, I mourn for a society that seems to be slipping into numbness, and what that numbness portends.


What Do You Buy For the Children
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.

8 thoughts on “Empathy Is Dead in Israel: Effects of a Forever War

  1. I appreciate your insights, and wish to add that even many who far away, such as many American Jews,
    also exhibit little or no sympathy for those killed in Gaza. And these individuals are themselves not living
    under the stress that Israelis are living under. The deadening of sensibilities, by the carnage, is apparent, far and wide.

  2. Further, the carnage has deadened sensibilities far and wide, including among those who are not under the
    stress of war, such as many American Zionists and other Americans, both Jews and non-Jews.

  3. what goes around comes around — with a terrible vengeance – sometimes the only language that haters understand….

  4. Are there no ears in Israel to hear the compassionate and justice oriented words of the Hebrew prophets? These spiritually based ethics mirroring Gods concern for the stranger seem also to have been silenced in these sad times.

  5. What would we (The U.S.) do if Mexico demanded the American southwest back, since we stole it from them. Of course they stole it from Spain who previously stole it from the indigenous people.. Then they said America had no right to exist and they would shoot or kidnap any Americans they could and they also feel free to fire rockets into Texas, with an ultimate goal of destroying the United States? If you look at what we did to Japan, Germany and Italy, my guess is that is what we do to Mexico. Israel is more restrained than we were. And no, I am not Jewish. Frank

  6. As long as there are still some who are capable of empathy for those who suffer in this ghastly war, regardless of their affiliation — Palestinian or Israeli — as long as there are still some, then perhaps we may yet be forgiven.

  7. War is hell. It is very difficult to emphasize with those who are shooting at you.
    Soldiers on both sides are indoctrinated to hate the enemy.
    However those in charge should not dehumanize the opposition.
    Unfortunately the right wing is now in charge in Israel.
    This war must stop. Wars create more problems than they stop.
    Virtually every war lays the groundwork for the next one.

  8. A note of perspective: By the end of the London Blitz, few in London had any sympathy for the German civilians whom the RAF and the USAAF were bombing relentlessly in return. That is what happens in war.

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