Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Taking the Path to Empathy: Killing the Inner Stork

It always amazes me what we don’t know about each other, what we don’t really want to know about each other and the tragedy that creates when in critical moments we are left unable to empathize with one another. We mock each other’s fear, we mock each others dead, we mock each others grief. A few days ago, in a moment of pain and worry, I tweeted out “Three Yeshiva boys kidnapped between Hebron and Jerusalem. #BringBackOurBoys.” The response surprised me. “You mean SETTLERS don’t you?” “They are teenagers, fair targets.” “Probably just kill them but best case scenario a prisoner swap.” “What about kids in Gaza?” “Who cares, the IDF uses Pali kids for target practice.” It went on like that. My twitter following, which happens to be overwhelmingly Muslim, seemed not to empathize at all. The Israeli-ness or the Settler-ness (one kid is American and I don’t know that the other kids are “settlers”, only that they go to a Yeshiva High School run by a prominent Rabbi on “the other side of the green line”) so totally trumped the reality that these are teenage kids, somebody’s sons and brothers that even the fact that they were likely to be hurt very badly, tortured or killed was essentially irrelevant. I was shocked. How is it possible that so many bad people had been listening to me for so many months, even years now? Where were the tears? Why can’t they get this? What is wrong with them? What is wrong with me?

 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.


  1. you should get to know these kids


    hey lee...wanna know what is more evil than nationailism? moral equivalency

    1. Geoff, always healthy to see the dissenting view. Thank you for keeping it relatively polite. I appreciate it.
      Let me think some on the "moral equivalency" thing and write about that independently. Have you read anything really powerful on that that you think I should read?

  2. I am unconcerned NOT being my enemy's moral compass. That's their problem.

  3. Lee, thank you for this beautiful post. I work in Bethlehem with traumatised children. The callousness to what they've been through is like being winded. When I was in ulpan in Jerusalem, we each had to introduce ourselves and say a bit about what we did. After hearing about my job, one woman, an American olah, became distinctly cold to me. When she spoke to me pleasantly after class one day and showed me a photo of her family, I relaxed and smiled inwardly over my paranoia. But then it happened: "I've been trying to think of a polite way to say this. Why DO you work with the Palestinian children?" From the icy tone it was as though she were asking, "Why DO you work with the Brazilian wandering spiders?" Then there are the people who grub around the Internet looking for kids who have said horrible things, because that way they get to go on telling themselves that it's OK for the Magav to snatch a severely learning disabled boy who doesn't even know his own age from the streets of Silwan, it's OK for kids not be given access to lawyers or parents and threatened into signing questions of stone-throwing in a language that they can't even read, it's OK when these kids die. They don't want to see these children as children, they don't want to know how terrified kids are or what they've experienced, they just want to turn them into symbols of a hateful society. You don't have to care what happens to a symbol. (It happens the other way too - there are some infamous photos of Israeli kids scrawling messages on missiles destined for Lebanon or playing with weaponry that never fail to generate the cry of, "Look how hateful/violent these children are being taught to be!") As adults, this is one of the cruelest and manipulative things we can do to a vulnerable child - reduce them to symbols in order to prop up our own politics. It makes me so angry, especially when the guilty people are adults who live in safety and comfort half a world away.

    It's hard to know how to respond. If people don't want to see a child as a child like their own, they won't be persuaded into it by arguing. I think the only way to make change is just to be kind yourself, and through your own behaviour make it easier for others to try to be the same. In my own case, I found that the best way to do this was to pray daily for the people I dislike most and am least inclined to pray for. One of those people became a close friend after I started doing that. God is good like that.

    On a positive note, to counterbalance all the vitriol that's sloshing around online, I’ve often found that children know this better than most. There is a girl in Bethlehem whose 12-year-old sister was killed by an army sniper during the Second Intifada. She herself was injured in the same shooting. At the checkpoint, after a long wait for permission to cross, soldiers bundled her into the same ambulance as her sister's body. She couldn't stop screaming. She had several days in hospital in J’lem, and when she came back and spoke to her classmates – all very shaken by their friend’s murder - she ended her story with, "I don't want to talk any more about that night or the nights I spent in the hospital, but I want to say that the Israeli nurses were very nice to me and treated me in a good way." This was a ninth-grader whose sister had died in front of her eyes, and her concern was to make sure her classmates didn't think badly of Israelis as a whole. I don't think I’ve met a more generous person, unless it's the girls' theatre group in Shatila camp, who refused to perform a fairytale in which a wicked king got his comeuppance. They asked for the script to be rewritten so that he became good and lived, because they didn't want any more dying, not even pretend.

    When you meet kids like them, you see that no matter how nasty and blind we adults on the Internet can be, there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful. Prayers for you.

    1. Hello Vicky, My name is Bill Goff. I am a Christian friend of Lee's. My wife and I are scheduled to be in the "Holy Land" for three weeks beginning July 15 and specifically in Bethlehem July 25 for three nights. It would be an honor to meet you and learn more about your work. You can respond to me at wmgoff@cox.net.

  4. Thank you Vicky for your comments. Its nice to hear from "the trenches". I hope you and Bill manage to get together. I love to see such connections being made.