Empathy in the Holy Land

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Credit: Creative Commons/Makaristos

I am writing after seeing a series of letters from fellow practicing physicians justifying acts of brutality during the most recent conflict in Gaza. What concerns me more than any particular political position is finding empathy in such short supply among those within the healing professions.

To begin with the numbers of killed and injured on each side are not as Stalin would have put it mere statistics. They DO matter, first and foremost because they represent real people, each of whom has grieving and aggrieved brothers, sisters, mothers, and children, but also because proportionality is an element of international law. According to various sources, during Operation Protective Edge Israel lost sixty-six soldiers and six civilians including one child while just over 2,100 Palestinians died in Gaza with over 75 percent as non combatants, six times as many were injured, 17,000 had housing damaged, and more than a quarter were displaced. The economic cost with damage to civilian infrastructure is estimated at 6 billion dollars, and even with the influx of international aid, it would take decades to repair. This tally appears remarkable when one of the most sophisticated (and reputed “moral”) army in the world faced off against reputedly callous, terrorist groups. Neither side appeared to hesitate prior to launching rockets or indiscriminate attacks in areas with no places for children to hide — in schools, daycares, playgrounds or beaches — spawning nightmares and lifelong fears.

Israel, which demonstrably used human shields directly in Operation Cast Lead, accused Hamas of asking foreigners and locals to flock to its targets of hospitals and UN schools, in the vicinity of which, they believed weapons or fighters were housed. It blamed children for choosing wrong parents, not fleeing when it sent warning missiles —“taps” or “knocks” on roofs — into an area with a population density more than ten times that of the Netherlands and Israel and just under that of Hong Kong and Singapore, and shrunk a further 40 percent by Israel’s three kilometer buffer zone. Victims, whose families had been displaced, often several times since 1948, were seen as trying to create photo-ops, being “telegenically” dead.

Going back to root causes, several American right wing Jewish commentators suggested that malnutrition in Gaza was a result of destruction of four greenhouses left behind when 7,000 settlers evacuated, as if these might have fed almost 1.8 million people. Could these have counteracted the effects of limited food entry when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as his senior adviser Dov Weisglass announced, “put Gazans on a diet”, a diet calculated more explicitly by the Olmert government to put pressure on Gazans after Hamas took over, reduced by ten percent, for “culture and experience”? The Lancet documented profound, sometimes irreversible health effects on developing children who make up a majority of Gazans. For these right wing commentators the blockade of land, water, and air together with restrictions on water, sanitation, electricity, and building materials were equally unrelated to the creation of tunnels.

Even Occupation, with its threats, humiliations, beatings, house demolitions, arbitrary denial of travel even for medical reasons, and its unauthorized settlements (which have access to abundant water, electricity, and education denied to their neighbors) is a side issue. Only when a beautiful, young, blonde American woman such as Rachel Corrie is killed, does it have a human face. The police beating of the American cousin of a Palestinian brutally tortured and burned alive, blocks away from demonstrations of mourning and caught on video, is unworthy of remorse. It took almost three years for Israel to apologize and offer compensation to Turkey for the Gaza Freedom Flotilla after initially claiming to have its heavily armed and shielded commandos ambushed at sea by those armed with iron bars and pocket knives. My friend Izzeldin Abuelaish, a tireless worker for peace and against extremism who worked as a gynecologist in Be’er Sheva, has yet to receive an apology from the Israeli government for the deaths of his three daughters five and a half years ago.

People that are taught to hate are unwilling to live beside the “enemy” or attend the same schools; their textbooks demonize the Other, representing them as inferior and dismissing their suffering; their leaders call for “mowing the grass” or destruction or displacement. Is the calling for the “elimination of insects after drying the swamps they live in” or tearing out of the wombs that housed the little snakes any better than the celebration of “shaheed” suicide bombings or rejoicing in the murder of three Israeli teenagers by extremists on the West Bank? Seventy years of experience show that attacks on schools, hotels, restaurants, buses, refugee camps, and diplomats by each side not only fail to disqualify one from leadership positions, but may sometimes appear to be a prerequisite.

Medical colleagues in Israel, despite characterizations from the outside, were generally not consuming popcorn in lawn chairs on the hills overlooking Gaza. But neither were they cowering in bomb shelters (the danger they face is generally far less than what I faced as a medical resident at the Jewish General in Montreal during the 1991 Gulf war, with a very real prospect of Iraqi-inspired terrorist attack). These colleagues treat Palestinians with compassion and care, but they rarely question the conditions that lead to delays in their treatment.

Those on the Palestinian side sometimes fail to congratulate Israel for creating conditions afforded to Palestinians within the Green Line. Despite flaws in terms of discrimination in land purchases, access to employment even in the government sector, funding for education, infrastructure, and services, Israel still offers Israeli Arabs a higher standard of living, health care, and political processes than in most of the Arab world though not equivalent to their Jewish neighbors. They enjoy equal participation in institutions such as the Knesset and on the Supreme Court, Israel’s free press and the presence of Jewish organizations that stand for justice such as Physicians for Human Rights, B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, and Rabbis for Human Rights. On the other hand those in the Muslim world point to Jews living freely and prospering for thousands of years in Baghdad and Tehran, with acceptance of refugees throughout North Africa and the Ottoman empire after the Spanish expulsion in 1492, the prosperity of Iran’s Jewish community and the guaranteed presence of Jewish representation in the Iranian Majlis (Parliament), but it would be ridiculous to claim that Jews are treated as brothers there.

The few who dare question the dominant narrative on either side, who show non-partisan compassion, are seen as traitors or characterized as self-hating. The tendency to demonize and discount the victims, to accuse them of faking their tragedy, is unconscionable. It only revictimizes them, whether it be denial of the Holocaust or of the Nakba, For Palestinians denial of Jewish suffering destroys their fledgling nation’s soul, as well as making important players and organizations feel they are not worthy to manage a country.

With each successive military incursion that causes disproportionate casualties, the main existential danger to Israel is not the opprobrium of other nation states, nor even increased anti-Semitism, but the disengagement of many Jews in North America in the national enterprise. For each nation’s survival, retaining moral legitimacy cannot be achieved by building walls. Years of attempting to hide in “intimate disregard,”  as Meron Benvenisti termed it, is impossible in the few dunums of land found between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. A new way must be found to allow moral tranquillity, one that recognizes the suffering of the Other, and where peoples live not parallel, but instead interconnected lives. As Einstein who had declined the offer of Presidency in Israel in 1952 asserted in another context, “Remember your humanity, forget the rest.”

Neil Arya has lectured on peace and determinants of health and sent medical trainees on both sides of the Green Line as Director of the Global Health Office at Western University. He was involved in a study of Palestinian adolescent mental health. Arya wrote in Tikkun on Israel’s 60th anniversary.

 TIKKUN/NSP Workshops on Communicating Across Differences: How to Have EMPATHIC COMMUNICATIONS ON ISRAEL/PALESTINE

Cat Zavis, the executive director of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and a lawyer/mediator who leads trainings on empathic communication, is available to lead workshops that help you communicate effectively and empathically with people who hold very different perspectives from yours on Israel and Palestine. If you are interested in setting up a training in your community, university, church, synagogue, mosque, ashram, professional organization or other venue, contact cat@spiritualprogressives.org to discuss details.