Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Taking the Path to Empathy: Killing the Inner Stork
The obstacles to empathy are many. I said “YESHIVA BOYS.” Most of my Muslim friends have no clue what that means to me. These are kids who are studying Torah. To religious Jews , they are symbols of innocence, piety and dedication. They represent all that is not threatening or violent in this world. It means they are doing the “right thing” by serving the God we all believe in full-time. Bad things are not SUPPOSED to happen to them.
They are teenagers. We don’t know what to do with teenagers. They are simple-minded and can be as sweet as little children or as vicious as the most twisted adult. The can be Yeshiva boys, Madrasa students, hafiz qur'an, kids who love their mother and play with their little brothers and sisters and/or Palestinian terrorists or Settler “price-tag” exacting thugs. Sometimes innocent, sometimes culpable, both gullible and cunning, they defy our black and white thinking just enough make us reinforce it. We paint them black and white, though they are often gray.
The obstacles to empathy are shared. A few minutes of soul-searching and its clear its not just THEIR problem. When between 89-318 Palestinian children (IDF gives the low number, B’Tzelem the high) were killed in war on Gaza a few years ago, my Jewish friends did not cry. The pictures of Palestinian mothers weeping at gravesites, didn’t much move them. When Palestinians complain of their teenagers being hauled off to jail , beaten and interrogated for little reason, we turn a deaf ear. We are not much interested.
I can’t name a single Palestinian innocent killed in the conflict. I have never reached out to an Arab family that lost a family member. Never sent a card or an email to express my pain and outrage because in spite of my best intentions, I never allowed myself to feel that. Not because I am a cold-hearted jerk. I am not. The lack of names, itself a quiet strategy of dehumanization is second nature. I am a decent man but in the language of Rabbinic symbolism, I am a “stork.”
I will explain.
We are all storks. *
In Hebrew the stork is called a “chasida” and the Torah tells us that it is a non-kosher bird. Chasida means “Kindly one”. How could a bird with such a nice name not be kosher? The Rabbis explain, it is called “kindly” because it is exceedingly kind to its own, its own family, children, even other chasidas. But let an outsider come, and they are vicious.. We are storks. We are nice people. We are great to the people around us. We are chock full of the values of mercy and kindness and generosity until we are faced with “the other.” Then all bets are off.
We, all of us, have been MADE into storks, trained into a lack of empathy. Training can be undone. Here are the steps I am undertaking for myself, as an Observant Jew living in an observant community with friends and grandchildren in Israel to begin to undo my training. I hope other people will join me and suggest more and better steps. Whether you are Jewish, Muslim or Christian, I urge you to join me in this discipline. Choose whoever is “the other” to you and do it. Challenge yourself to see humanity in a new way. I can’t ask you to do what I am unwilling to do. It is not a lot but if I make a start, I hope you will too.
1) I want to know the names of Palestinian people (in particular but no exclusively) who face harm or have been hurt and killed, to know them as human beings. I want to know them as parents, children and friends.
2) I will count on my friends to help me reach out to families that might benefit from my comfort and concern.
3) I will not tolerate around me disparaging talk about Palestinians or anyone else. 4) I want to offer my friendship, openly to all those who want it and are willing to respect it and me for who and what I am.
When attempting to start something worthwhile never say “I am the only one.” Say rather, “ I am THE FIRST!” - The Chazon Ish.
*I thank my friend Rabbi Zalman Kastel for an earlier essay in which he made this point.