Observing a Foreign Conflict: The Importance of Active Empathy
I struggled for a while with how and even whether to write about the recent protests and violence in Palestine and Israel. I am sure, as I have read them, that there are more thoughtful, knowledgeable and compelling pieces written by Palestinians and Israelis (see 972mag.com). I am equally sure that my short month here in Nazareth does not make me qualified to analyze and judge these events.
However, a recent encounter with American ignorance at its finest reversed my course of thought. I was walking with a friend in Nazareth and stumbled into an American tourist on the day of the strike. He asked why the Arab community was striking, as his hostel was closed for the day. When we explained that it was, in part, a reaction to violence against Palestinians he responded incredulously, and I quote, “But the Palestinians are the ones causing all the violence, without them there wouldn’t be any.” This vantage point is disturbingly common in the United States, and is a reflection of ignorance fed by a powerful media machine that distorts the reality of the conflict. There is an immense power in the way headlines, images, and word choice in articles provides frame of reference for the conflict. This is especially true for the casual and uncritical observer of the conflict. The bizarre false dichotomy that treats stone throwing as an act of terror, but ignores, applauds, or remains ambivalent to house demolitions, administrative detention and violent abuse by the IDF and Israeli police is unconscionably common in American discussions of the conflict.
This can be seen in a somewhat more benign form in the way the current violence has been described as an entirely recent trend, as if to say that violence is only relevant when it begins to threaten the Jewish community. Let’s be clear, violence is an everyday reality of the occupation. It is not something that disappears when it disappears from media coverage. When we accept those narratives or fail to challenge them internally and externally, we become complicit in a system that marginalizes an entire population and reifies a false dichotomy which has and continues to allow the protraction of violence towards that community.
So while I do not purport to evaluate the protests or the response to the protests, I think I can speak to methods of challenging our own ignorance, and critically evaluating the ideology infused into our information sources.
At the core of my argument is a call to empathy, a call to find human connection with each actor in the conflict, a call to challenge every narrative that seeks to take away the humanity of any participant by grouping them as separate from us. Vigilance to these principles is not easy and is certainly not comfortable. It is rather an active process that requires searching out voices and stories from all perspectives and communities. It requires a constant and strenuous effort to suppress discriminatory ideologies that have been instilled into our national psyche.
I will begin this process with a story of my own experience with the protests here in Nazareth. While walking home on the night of a protest my friends and I arrived at a roundabout to find that each path was blocked off by barricades lit on fire. Immediately upon arriving an Israeli police officer fired a volley of teargas canisters towards the barricades. As we ran away from the gas a family from the neighborhood pulled us into their home and offered us shelter. While the police continued to fire at the protesters, we sat on the floor of the house under a window which had a gaping hole in it from when a canister had been fired into their house a few nights before. In the backdrop of this constant barrage they offered us coffee and sweets and spent a good hour distracting us from what was going on outside.
It is not hard to find empathy here: empathy for the daughter who gave us onions to press to our faces to help with the burn of the tear gas; empathy for the mother keeping a watchful eye to ensure her son didn’t get too close to the window, while simultaneously calming perfect strangers; empathy for the ten year old boy practicing putting on a kefiyyeh for the day when he would be allowed to join the protests. It is easy to find empathy here, but these are not the stories that are told. These are not the faces that are plastered on newspapers and online magazines covering the conflict. Nor are stories that explain frustration which leads to violence. The story of the 19 year old Christian Arab boy whose school was cut funding is not told. The story of the Nabka echoed by the words of my host family here, “we are forced to live on top of each other because the Israelis took all of our land”. These are the stories that scream but are not heard.
It is, however, not only about lack of access to these stories. Increased understanding of the conflict and increased tolerance towards communities involved can only come through allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to the stories that they are capable of changing you. The greatest challenge and greatest responsibility of the international observer of conflicts is to refrain from hardening your mind such that empathy can no longer break through. The narratives that define a conflict as us versus them, the good versus the bad, are easy to buy into. These narratives are simpler, less confusing, and morally self-affirming. We do not have to think about our complicity in an apartheid state, we do not have to think about the degradation of humanity that we contributed and supported through money and ideology. The premise of empathy for the Palestinian people requires introspection into our own failings.
I am reminded at this stage of a quote from Nelson Mandela, so excuse the intellectual self-affirmation, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” In a system of global human rights, the international observer must not occupy a passive role. The manifestation of its goals requires more than that. It requires an active empathy; it requires a constant recognition of humanity in each actor.
I am constantly struggling with this goal. I fail many times. For example, my trepidation to walk past the protesters at the barricades that night was captured by a young boy who remarked that they were not ISIS. However, as an international observer I am constantly trying to challenge these predispositions. This is what is required when we consume news media. This is what is required when we see hateful posts on social media. This is what is required when an ignorant American tourist remarks that Palestinians are the cause of all violence in Israel.
I will do my part to bring new voices to you through a new series of blog posts which will feature interviews with Arab rights activists here in Israel, so stay tuned.