Sympathy versus Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and thoughts of others. A good historian is one who can get inside the head and heart of an agent in history and intellectually and emotionally reenact what that agent is going through and the decisions made. Sympathy, by contrast, is an attachment to and identification with the feelings and thoughts of the other such that any critical discernment is set aside in favour of emotional identification. What we find now in a great deal of reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a great deal of sympathy for the Palestinian position in the guise of empathy.

Not a day goes by now when I do not open my computer to multiple stories which provide blatant examples of journalist’s total sympathy with the Palestinian cause and almost exclusive blaming of Israel. That is, of course, Honest Reporting’s (HR) mandate. I expect bulletins from HR along these lines:

“On CBC News and CBC The National, Margaret Evans’ reporting was highly skewed against Israel, to the point that Israel was blamed almost exclusively for Gaza’s destruction, despair and deaths.”

“In The Toronto Star, Michael Lynk, the so-called “UN Special Rapporteur for the situation for human rights in the Palestinian territory,” created a false narrative of Israel as a pariah state, constantly breaking international law, in need of immediate opprobrium and an “occupier” of Gaza. Lynk’s narrative relied almost entirely on factual errors and extremely misleading statements.”

When you check up on HR, the statements are largely true.

S. Michael Lynk happens to be a Canadian now serving as the independent expert and Special Rapporteur for OHCHR (Commission on Human Rights) dealing with the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. His mandate is to investigate Israel’s violation of human rights, not those of Hamas. That is the first built-in bias. Second, his mandate applies to “Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967,” yet Gaza is included even though Israel withdrew from occupying Gaza in 2006 and the Gazan government indicated its independence in initiating wars against Israel in 2009, 2012, 2014 and most recently in 2021. Further, Lynk, as did Richard Falk before him, indicated his lack of independence and objectivity by joining in a petition, before he investigated, pointing to the “forced evictions of Palestinian families living in Sheikh Jarrah in “Occupied” East Jerusalem “as the spark that set off a full-blown war.”

It certainly was one element, but how can one draw such a definitive conclusion without an investigation. My own previous articles summarizing the conflict over housing in Sheikh Jarrah as simply a matter of “forced evictions” is a travesty, at the very least, even if I and many others sympathize with the situation of those Palestinian families and disagree with efforts to evict them.

The collective letter went on to charge Israel with causing untold destruction to Gaza without any consideration of the role of Hamas, without an investigation as required, and when, in the case of Gaza, the territory is outside his mandate. Instead, the reference is to “indiscriminate” or “deliberate” bombing of civilians. The judgement is made about the disproportionality only by reference to the ratio of destruction, deaths and injured, not to the legal definition of proportionality relative to the military objective. Instead, without an investigation, without hearing a defence of the claims, without any analysis of the actions of the instigator of the war, the actions are asserted without qualification to be war crimes. In effect, Richard Lynk provided ample evidence that he was not independent, was not objective, was not operating within his jurisdiction and had allowed his understandable sympathy with the plight of the Palestinian civilian population of Gaza to undermine whatever discernment and objectivity he might have possibly brought to the issue.

Margaret Evans, a CBC correspondent based in the London bureau, reported on the scene from Gaza Al-Wehda Street, lined with destroyed apartments and stores. She showed two apartments hit on the worst night of the bombing campaign. “a representation of the human toll” Dr. Ayman Abu abu-Alouf, the head of internal medicine at al-Shifa Hospital, died along with two of his children and his wife. The al-Kolak family lost 22 members. It is a bleeding-heart story deliberately intended to pull at the heart strings of anyone watching. The vast destruction in Gaza is captured in miniature. However, the conflict is not put within any context of Hamas policies and initiatives or even the facts that an estimated at least 25% of the destruction was a result of rockets fired off from Gaza but which fell short and landed in Gaza.

These are two examples, one of abstract principled appeal and the other of a direct sensory appeal to sympathy offsetting any responsibility for empathetically understanding the policies of Hamas or why a significant part of the population supports Hamas. These are unequivocal examples of sympathy trumping the responsibility for engaging in empathy. Of course, the responsibility for objectivity and truth are also sacrificed, but that is the focus of the next blog.

There are many other dimensions to the way in which sympathy trumped empathy as the reining methodology of dealing with the events that took place. Sympathy can be indifferent to truth, but empathy can also be at war with truth. Arno Rosenfeld wrote a story for The Forward headlined: “A spate of antisemitism reveals Jewish community fissures.” As I foresaw in my last blog, when empathy is at war with truth, the losers are members of the Jewish community brought to profuse tears by the stories and pictures to which they are exposed. This is the case even though incidents of antisemitism are rapidly increasing in frequency. A Jewish history and Holocaust scholar is murdered in the Ukraine. A Jewish man is punched on a Berlin street, one of 3 antisemitic incidents that day in the German capital.

Ben Samuels wrote a story in The Washington Post (26.05.2021) headlined: “These Young Jewish Staffers Are Bringing Their Disillusionment With Israel to Capitol Hill.” His stories and others bring up these repeated themes:

  • They went to Jewish day schools, attended Jewish camps and often went on birthright trips.
  • They were raised to be cheerleaders of Israel.
  • They grew skeptical as they learned more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • As they launched their careers, they either bracketed their concern for Israel or even became critics.
  • Whatever position they now take, they resent being raised on heroic and mythical histories and leave out evidence that most Palestinians did not leave voluntarily; rather, a great many were forced to depart.
  • There was a narrative, but no interrogation of how Israel came to be, yet they were taught to interrogate every word of Torah.
  • Each Gaza War created a “cognitive dissonance between what they’re seeing and what they’ve learned regarding how Israel can do no wrong.”
  • Killing Palestinian civilians seemed cruel, very disproportionate and did nothing to protect Israelis.
  • Education on human rights further compounded the emerging despair about Israel.
  • Misplaced charges of antisemitism against critics of Israel fueled the direction of disillusionment.
  • Creeping annexation in the West Bank (the expansion of settlements), Netanyahu’s support for Donald Trump, the affirmation of Jewish supremacy in the nation-state law, all added to the new “truth” that Israel deserved to be a pariah state.
  • The United Nations Human Rights and the International Criminal Court, all international institutions dedicated to the universal protection of human rights, indict Israel diplomatically and legally for being an abuser of rights.
  • The fundamental sin is that “Everyone deserves basic dignity and self-determination” and Palestinians are denied both and Jews are the cause of that denial.

Therefore, Jews join Palestinians and human rights activists in demanding that Israel be held accountable for human rights violations and demanding that Palestinians have the rights to peace and justice and that means self-determination.  The divisions within the Democratic Party over support for Israel grow wider and deeper. These Jews no longer accept the claim that Israel no longer occupies Gaza but left Gaza to its own devices and withdrew its settlements in August 2005, but through a blockade, effectively continued the occupation de facto. Even though it is difficult to reconcile Israel occupying Gaza and Gaza being able to shoot well over 4,000 rockets at Israeli civilians, in spite of labour leader, Merav Michaeli insisting that Israel is not in occupation of Gaza, these newborn or evolving critics of Israel point out that:

  • Israel controls access (even though Egypt controls one access from the south).
  • Israeli blockades Gaza on land, sea and from the air.
  • Israel controls the registry of names lest any unregistered person seek to cross into Israel.
  • Israel controls the electricity supplied to Gaza, the entry of humanitarian and development aid.

This is asserted even though the United States controls all land crossings into Canada and has an economic stranglehold over Canadian economic development but no one, at least no one I know, would claim that the U.S. occupies Canada. The claim that Israel continues to occupy Gaza is accepted as truth and its denial is characterized as a lie.

However, the main issue is really the human rights of Palestinians. As Jeffrey D. Sachs wrote, “Human rights are human rights, and they are part of international law under the UN Charter. Whether the case is Xinjiang and the Uighurs, Myanmar and the Rohingya, or Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, the correct way to defend international law is through the United Nations, starting with an independent investigation under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council.” (25.05.2021)

The defence of human rights comes at the cost of truth. The threats to expel Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah area of East Jerusalem along with the Israeli-provoked violence at the al-Aqsa Mosque, compounded by right-wing Israelis marching and chanting, “Death to Arabs,” offer abundant evidence that Israel is a systemic human rights abuser. The fact that Jews owned the land on which the homes were built, the fact that the court offered a compromise to the residents – stay on for life, but pay rent and acknowledge the ownership, is left out.

The violence on the al-Aqsa Mosque is purportedly all one-sided, at least in its instigation, even though a small but significant percentage of the “worshippers” were present to instigate trouble. Arabs marching and chanting “Death to the Jews” is omitted from any part of the story. There is not even a superficial effort at objectivity, only one-sided advocacy in the place of a reflective and thoughtful op-ed. Sack’s screed went so far as to suggest that Netanyahu “may have” instigated the rocket attack from Hamas on Jerusalem in order to cling to power.

Israel’s behaviour is characterized as lawless, ruthless and “reckless anti-Arab violence” contrary to Jewish ethics “causing mass suffering and killing innocent people.” All references to military targeting are omitted. And what are the sources of that authority: Rashid Khalidi’s recent book, The Hundred Years War on Palestine which effectively trashes the tale of two nations in search of a nation-state in the same territory for a narrative of an invasive colonial enterprise determined from the beginning to repress and replace Palestinians in the land. And Human Rights Watch, which declared Israel an apartheid state, has now, effectively, endorsed this version of history. As one headline in Haaretz put it, “The Left Feels Palestinian Pain. It Must Also Recognize Jewish Fears.”

In my next blog I will take up the topic of truth as the last element to formulate a framework that includes peace and justice, empathy and truth to indicate the tensions between and among them and why all have to be brought into consideration to get a balanced and relatively accurate portrait of what is taking place.

One comment on “Sympathy versus Empathy

  1. Alex Zisman says:

    As Jeffrey D. Sachs wrote, “/Human rights are human rights, and they are part of international law under the UN Charter. Whether the case is Xinjiang and the Uighurs, Myanmar and the Rohingya, or Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, the correct way to defend international law is through the United Nations, starting with an independent investigation under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council./” (25.05.2021)

    I could not help but wonder whether Prof. Sachs is delusional or has succumbed to the antisemitic rumblings at Columbia. With every passing days UN institutions are becoming more and more of a joke.

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