A group of Dutch students recently visited Bar-Ilan University. They requested a specific lecture, on the topic of whether understanding the suffering of your enemy can help bring about reconciliation. The university department which hosted the students asked me to give the lecture, as I could do it in Dutch and adapt my text to my audience. The background for the students’ chosen topic was not explicitly mentioned, but self-evident: could Israel, by showing empathy for the suffering of the Palestinians, promote peace with them?
The trap was obvious. If one addresses this subject by analyzing it solely within the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, one is drawn away from seeing the bigger picture and the harsh reality of the situation in the Middle East and in the Arab and Muslim world in general. With such a narrow focus, the audience falsely expects an Israeli to emphasize the value of compassion for the Palestinians. However, once one avoids this pitfall, the issue of having empathy for the enemy becomes an important analytical tool regarding Israel’s position in the Middle East.
The true context of the issue may be better understood by discussing some of the most lethal conflicts occurring in recent decades within the Middle East and its periphery. The civil wars in Afghanistan of the 1980s provide an adequate introduction.
Between the first war, where the Soviet Union backed a local government against the mujahideen, and the second one, involving slaughter perpetrated mainly by the Taliban, about one to oneand- a-half million people, largely civilians, were killed. If the first figure is correct, the number of those murdered would be greater than all residents of the second- and fourth-largest Dutch cities, Rotterdam and Utrecht, combined. If the second figure is correct, one could add the inhabitants of the third-largest Dutch city, The Hague.
As the great majority of the killings of Afghans was carried out by other Afghans, the conflict illustrated the absence of empathy nationals had for their co-nationals.
The same can be said for all civil wars.
Another major lethal regional conflict was the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Once again, at least a million people were killed. The Iranians sent many of their own children to step on and detonate Iraqi mines in order to save the lives of Iranian soldiers. These occurrences showed another facet of empathy’s standing in the Middle East: the lack of compassion of a nation for its own children.
A third relevant example was the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, where Muslim government soldiers and extremist Muslims fought each other for about 15 years, leading to 100,000 deaths and many barbaric acts.
It showed the lack of empathy of Algerians for those of their own religion.
Such examples from the Muslim world show a clear message: in many Muslim environments, there is a monumental lack of empathy for co-nationals, co-religionists and even for their own children.
A short analysis of the empathy – or rather lack thereof – present within the Christian world provides us with an additional illustration that the concept is – with minor exceptions – a pipe dream.
This reality is manifest in spite of the New Testament’s obligation to “turn the other cheek.”
One need not go back as far as the Crusades or to the era of the European conquistadors ravaging the Americas. Lack of Christian empathy is evident, for instance, from the more recent Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, where Muslims were the main victims of murderers who were mainly Christians.
It seems that turning the other cheek, as recommended by Jesus, turned out to be neither practiced nor practical.
In the Rwandan genocide, to mention yet another example, one group of Christians murdered an estimated 800,000 other Christians.
Such situations were so macabre, and the figures of those massacred were already so high, that one did not have to stress other aspects of the carnage, such as the many more that were wounded and maimed, the displaced refugees and the ethnically cleansed.
Beyond the killing fields, studies on the attitudes of various populations can help one further understand the status of empathy in the Middle East and within the Muslim world. Several Pew Research Center studies were conducted; one indicated that, for many years, hundreds of millions in the Muslim world supported Osama bin Laden and suicide bombings. These studies made it clear that Muslim extremism is not merely an issue of a few marginal Muslims.
Another Pew study polled Muslims within various Muslim countries regarding their opinion of Jews. Of Israeli Arabs, 56 percent had a favorable view of Jews. In all Muslim countries, however, opinions were extremely unfavorable. This stereotyping was confirmed by data from an Anti-Defamation League study on the percentages of the population in Muslim countries harboring anti-Semitic attitudes. In all of them, a large majority held such views. The least problematic countries were Turkey, where 69% were anti-Semitic, and Iran, with 56%.
It is against this background that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can be clearly explained: Palestinian empathy for others is non-existent. The Islamo-Nazi organization Hamas, whose charter calls for the genocide of Jews, obtained the majority of the seats in the only Palestinian parliamentary elections ever held, which took place in 2006.
If elections for a Palestinian president were to be held again today, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would easily defeat Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, who together with his associates regularly glorifies the murder of Israeli civilians. In the 2014 Gaza war, Hamas was interested in raising the number of Palestinian deaths as high as possible, in order to gain international sympathy and criminalize Israel.
In contrast to this horrific regional background devoid of empathy, Israel is an exceptional country where a certain empathy does exist for others, including some of its enemies. One example of such is the hospital treatment of the wounded crossing over from Syria, a country with which Israel is at war. By the end of 2014 about 1,400 Syrians had been treated in Israel. The same is true for the hospital treatment of Palestinians from Gaza, including Haniyeh’s daughter.
There are many other aspects which set Israel radically apart from its Arab neighbors. One of these, for example, is that Israel tries to limit civilian casualties during military campaigns, and has been more successful in doing so than the Americans and the British, according to the former commander of the British troops in Afghanistan, Colonel Richard Kemp.
The cabbie who drove me back after the lecture made his own contribution to the subject. He recounted that he had once driven a Gazan woman back to the border crossing. She had been treated in an Israeli hospital and had praised the help she had received. The taxi driver asked her whether she would let that be known among her peers in Gaza.
The woman moved her hand over her throat, indicating that if she did so, her throat would be cut.
The author’s upcoming book The War of a Million Cuts analyzes how Israel and Jews are delegitimized and how to fight it. He is a recipient (2012) of the lifetime achievement award of the Journal of the Study of Anti-Semitism.