Empathy is a key ingredient of leadership, the ability of a leader to project to his people that he feels their pain and understands their plight.
Winston Churchill was blessed with this trait in abundance. During the worst of the Nazi blitz on London in 1940-1941, Churchill stayed in the city and often toured bombed-out areas. Gen. Hastings Lionel “Pug” Ismay, Churchill’s chief military assistant during World War II, wrote in his memoirs about a visit Churchill took to an air raid shelter in London’s East End the day after a night-time bombing raid killed 40 people there.
“...As Churchill got out of the car, they literally mobbed him,” Ismay wrote. “’Good old Winnie,’ they cried. ‘We thought you’d come and see us. We can take it. Give it ’em back.’ Churchill broke down, and as I was struggling to get to him through the crowd, I heard an old woman say ‘You see, he really cares: he’s crying.’”
That’s caring, that’s empathy, that’s identifying with the plight of one’s people.
That’s not exactly how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comported himself on KAN Bet Monday morning when challenged by a very aggressive interviewer, Aryeh Golan, to explain how despite the vaccines that Golan said Netanyahu talks about endlessly and takes sole credit for procuring, the coronavirus has taken the lives of nearly 6,000 people in the country.
“Ask the Shashot and the pakot and the paka,” Netanyahu said, playing on the name of New Hope’s number two, Yifat Shasha-Biton, who as head of the Knesset Corona Committee last summer pushed back against many government decisions to close much of the country because of the virus. “Paka paka, Shasha Shasha,” Netanyahu said, in a phrase that could be loosely translated as “all talk no action Shasha.”
Even if one can understand Netanyahu’s criticism of Shasha-Biton, who for some is seen as the symbol of a populist politician who pushed some corona-related decisions because they were popular with the public rather than because they were useful in the fight against the disease, his glib answer demonstrated a lack of empathy. There is a time for levity and a time for solemnity, and answering a question about the death of 6,000 people is not the time for levity.
As Yoaz Hendel, a colleague in Shasha-Biton’s party, put it in a Ynet interview afterward: “It is sad to hear the prime minister turn this issue into a joke at a time when many Israelis are losing their livelihoods and there are so many dead. It is very sad.”
Netanyahu, obviously, does not think the coronavirus is a joke, nor is he unfeeling toward the nation’s sufferings. But it’s critical that his words always reflect that, because there are many out there who continue to not take this plague seriously, and whose actions demonstrate the very lack of empathy that could be read into Netanyahu’s words.
Purim revelers in the streets of Jaffa and Jerusalem over the last few days demonstrated that lack of sympathy and compassion for their suffering countrymen by showing that they are not taking the whole coronavirus saga seriously. Because, if they had empathy and compassion, and if they were not treating the disease lightly, they would not flout all the corona regulations, attend mass gatherings without wearing masks and risk further spreading the disease. The same can be said of haredim attending Purim parties and celebrations.
Sadly, society is looking at those who have died from COVID-19 in much the same way as it looks at victims of car accidents: an inevitable part of the contemporary landscape. People recognize in general the tragedy of these losses, but become inured to the suffering they cause both because of the sheer numbers, and because – for the most part – the victims have remained faceless.
We don’t see the faces of corona victims on the front pages of the newspapers, and their neighbors and friends are not interviewed on the evening news as is the case when a soldier is killed or someone is killed in an act of terror.
We don’t hear their stories, and since so many die each day from the disease, the victims have turned for most of us into a statistic that we look at in the morning paper to gage whether the virus is continuing its relentless stampede, or is in retreat. The victims are a faceless mass.
Perhaps that is why Netanyahu allowed himself to reply, when asked about these numbers, “Paka paka, Shasha Shasha” – a type of response he would have never uttered if asked a question about terror fatalities. And it is also why he never should have answered that question in such a flippant manner in the first place.