Originally published at Jewschool
As missiles fell in Israel and bombs obliterated portions of Gaza last summer, I awoke each morning with a jolt, as though remembering some pressing task nearly forgotten. That jolt felt from afar – from across the Atlantic – was unmitigated fear. A fear that when I swept the crust from my eyes, fired up my laptop and scanned Twitter, I’d either find that an Israeli soldier I knew had died or bear witness to more images of bodies piling up in Gaza. While the former fear was never realized (despite 66 soldiers and six civilians dying in Israel), the latter was actualized with a nauseating consistency.
Every morning, the casualty totals in Gaza grew. Every morning, new images of homes and apartment complexes turned to rubble revealed themselves. Every morning, reporters on the ground wrote of unspeakable traumas, of entire families lost in the blink of eyes once open. And as Palestinian suffering grew, so too did my public expressions of empathy. Expressions which were attacked so forcefully, one might have thought, absent all context, that I was a skinhead seeking Jewish blood.
Finally, awoken to images of a U.N. shelter shelled by Israel, killing 16 civilians hiding in a location promised to be safe, I wrote the following on July 25, 2014:
That expression went ‘viral,’ principally because it resonated so forcefully among those who, horrified by what was happening in Gaza, didn’t want to concede that empathy is a zero-sum game.
And while I wrote that such empathy makes me “human,” in truth, what I was really thinking was this: such empathy makes me Jewish. This is something my teacher at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Rabbi Daniel Landes, eloquently expressed recently, the idea that empathy is not just admirable, but a defining Jewish ethic. Indeed, in the Talmud (Yevamot 79a), empathy for the ‘other’ is considered to be one of three ethical pillars to which Jews must adhere if they wish to be included in the nation.
It is precisely this Jewish empathy which informs my political activism. It informs my opposition to Israel’s military occupation and oppression of Palestinians. It informs my championing of Black Lives Matter. It informs the pain I feel for Syrian refugees, for African asylum seekers, for the weak and trodden upon.
This is my Judaism, this empathy derived from Jewish texts, derived from Jewish tradition. As a day-school teacher, I cherish the complexity of both biblical and rabbinic works, their desire to grapple with what is right, what is just. And while I don’t bind myself to Jewish law, I do bind myself to the humanism extracted from these texts.
Last week, Riham Dawabsha, mother to baby Ali – who was burned alive by settlers – succumbed to wounds suffered during the terror attack. Her death, along with her husband’s, left their five-year-old son Ahmed to ask from his hospital bed, “Where are my parents?” It’s an answer he’ll never accept, an answer which none of us should accept.
On Rosh Hashana, Jews will read in Genesis 21 what I consider to be, at its core, a story about empathy. It’s the story of Abraham expelling Hagar and their son, Ishmael, from his home and into the desert. Dying without water in the blazing sun, Hagar places Ishmael under a shrub, turns away and begins to wail, unable to watch her child die before her eyes. At this point, the text says that God hears “the voice of the child,” and shows Hagar a water source. But why does the text say God heard the “child” when it was Hagar clearly wailing?
My answer: God heard the source of her wailing, her grieving for a child nearly lost.
May we find the strength to hear the wailing of those who are suffering, be they Palestinians under occupation or black Americans under the thumb of police oppression, so as not to betray a defining Jewish ethic: empathy for others, particularly those in our midst.
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.