Too much empathy in Israel-Palestine?

10 February 2017, 1501 EST

So far, 2017 has been a tough year in Israel for its Palestinian citizen minority. From a xenophobic  billboard campaign across the country to a village demolition turned violent in the Negev, the past several weeks have highlighted issues around power and inequality in a country whose democratic aspirations are weighed down by its ethno-national identity.

As deep power differentials across society have come to the fore, what does the literature say about whether empathy might help to increase support for social justice? Yale psychologist Paul Bloom’s new book on empathy (called, fittingly, Against Empathy) suggests that putting oneself in another’s shoes may actually be less helpful for political change than empathy-boosters may think. More on that, below. First, some background on the events.

In January, a group calling itself Commanders for Israel’s Security launched a national billboard campaign featuring an image of Palestinian flag waving crowds flanked by the Arabic phrase “soon we will be a majority!” A small bubble appeared at the bottom: “For Hebrew, dial *2703.”

Those who reached the phone number, according to reporting by Mairav Zonszein in +972 Magazine, heard this: “Are you sick of these Palestinian billboards? We are too. But they will disappear in a matter of days. What will not disappear are the millions of Palestinians who live in the West Bank. They want to be a majority…If we don’t separate from them we will be less Jewish and less secure.”

For Jewish Israelis, seeing a massive sign in Arabic — one with menacing overtones — was intended to evoke a sense of dislocation and spur the public to action. My first thought — after being disgusted by the obvious xenophobia — was to wonder if maybe this very dislocation might actually give rise to something counterintuitive: a sudden jolt of empathy for Palestinian citizens.

While Arabic and Hebrew are both official languages of Israel, Arabic speakers regularly experience a lack of language access. An array of Israeli civil rights non-governmental organizations – including Sikkuy, Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) –  have documented the disparity between the country’s official two-language policy and the actual lack of access to Arabic — in official signage and bus announcements, for example. All this exists alongside serious structural inequalities and pervasive casual discrimination and racism directed at Palestinian citizens of Israel.

So in giving Israeli Jews a taste of what it feels like to be an ethno-linguistic minority, were these billboards possibly subversive?

A closer look at the empathy literature suggests otherwise. In his book, Bloom argues that too much empathy, which he defines as “feeling the feelings of other people,” can be paralyzing. Rather than engage in political or other direct-action solutions to address suffering and injustice, subjects who experience the suffering of another might end up looking away and avoiding the problem completely.

Writing for an IR audience, Neta Crawford does tout the importance of empathy for conflict resolution but echoes Bloom in cautioning against too much of it. The “experience of empathy” Crawford writes, “requires the capacity to self-soothe, enter a non-judgmental frame of mind, and ‘decenter.’”

Next came shocking events in the Negev.

Demonstrators in the Negev were protesting the destruction of the unrecognized Bedouin village, Umm al-Hiran, to make way for a Jewish town. Ayman Odeh, a Member of Knesset for the Joint List, joined the protest and later said that he had tried to broker a compromise between village residents and the government, a compromise, he said, that the residents had accepted. As the standoff unfolded, a villager could be seen driving slowly along the road. Israeli police forces fired at the car, which careened into a group of officers, killing one. The driver later died of his injuries.

During the event, Ayman Odeh was taken to hospital with a bloodied head. While the police claim he was hit by a protestor’s rock, Odeh has filed a complaint with the Department of Internal Police Investigations, saying he was struck in the back with a sponge-tipped police-fired projectile. Lawmakers — most recently at a 5,000 strong demonstration in Tel Aviv demanding Arab-Jewish equality — are now calling for a government investigation.

So if too much empathy — being placed in the shoes of an Arabic speaker; seeing a bloodied MP sitting, stunned on the ground after being shot by police — can lead to political paralysis, what can help spur effective social pressure?

A better approach to eliciting pro-social behavior, Bloom suggests, is reason-guided compassion. Rather than feeling what others are feeling, Bloom calls for deploying our rational faculties to determine what kinds of personal decisions or public policies would give rise to the greatest amount of well being for all.

Enter Asaf Harel, a Jon-Stewart-like figure on the Israeli media scene. In his television segment in the aftermath of the Umm al-Hiran protests, Harel’s message was straightforward: it’s irresponsible to jump to conclusions, he said. He chided Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan for being quick to call the car accident an act of terrorism and accuse the driver of having links to ISIS. It seems, Harel continued, that “we have not learned a thing from the Azaria trial,” (all translation mine) referring to the IDF officer recently convicted of manslaughter for shooting an incapacitated Palestinian in Hebron last March.

Harel went on to criticize Erdan for ignoring facts, a strategy that “already worked really well for him,” Harel said, tongue firmly in cheek, “during the so-called Arson Intifada,” in which a series of forest fires across Israel led government officials to accuse Palestinians of arson without evidence. Harel concluded with an appeal to reason and fairness. “You said you don’t believe a word that comes out of Ayman Odeh’s mouth. Fine. Do you think we believe you? Or the police spokesperson or that of the IDF?“You could start by telling us the truth.”

The trouble is, of course, that in a democracy with a mostly free media and unfettered access to social networking sites, citizens will watch what they choose to. It’s hard to know how much Harel’s messages manage to cross partisan lines. Most importantly, it’s hard to know how easily he can convince his fellow Israelis to deploy the kind of reason-guided compassion that may bring about a more just society for all.