The limits of empathy
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 2, 2002
Nothing so ennobles a human being as his capacity for empathy, particularly with those very different from himself. Without the ability to see the world from the vantage point of another no deep human relationship is possible. Great literature enriches the reader by teaching him the multiple perspectives that different people bring to the same events, and one of the tragic consequences of the decline in the reading of serious fiction is the reduced capacity for imagining another’s inner universe.
Empathy for the suffering of the Palestinians has long been a hallmark of Israeli life. More than twenty years ago, Cynthia Ozick observed that one can go into any coffee house in Israel and hear earnest discussions about the plight of the Palestinians. Yet one could travel the length and breadth of the Arab world without hearing a sympathetic discussion of the tragedy of Jewish history or meeting an intellectual interested in understanding the importance of a tiny sliver of land to call their own to a people that has suffered so greatly at the hands of the nations. Nothing has changed today.
Few, if any, Israelis rejoiced last week at the news of 14 Palestinian civilians, including nine children, killed together with arch-terrorist Salah Shehadeh in Gaza. There may have been those who felt that the elimination of Shehadeh was worth it, even in retrospect, given the magnitude of the mega-terrorist attacks he was planning. But even they were saddened by the loss of life. (I hesitate to use the term ``innocent life" for those who likely viewed Shehadeh as a hero.)
Not one Jew rushed out into the street to pass out candies, shoot off machine guns, or ululate in celebration of Palestinian deaths. Even upon the death of our bitterest enemies Jews are instructed not to rejoice (see Proverbs 24:17), and we all grew up removing ten drops from our wine cups at the Pesach Seder in memory of the Egyptians drowned at the Sea. No medals were awarded in a festive public ceremony to the pilot who dropped the bomb on Shehadeh’s house, like the public ceremonies organized by the Palestinian Authority on July 18 to honor the families of suicide bombers and subsequently broadcast on Palestinian Authority TV.
There comes a point, however, where empathy for others becomes something else entirely. When the empathy for one’s enemies is stronger than for one’s brothers, it becomes unnatural, inhuman. Much of the Israeli breast-beating last week falls into this category.
David Forman of Rabbis for Human Rights accused Israel in these pages of having adopted ``the tactics of our enemies . . . [and having] thrown all moral caution to the wind." Nir Baram in Maariv found no distinction between us and Hamas: ``Just as we were about to kill the enemy, our Shehadeh, we suddenly realized how much we resemble him. . . [W]hen we killed him, we killed one of our own." Even the normally sensible Ari Shavit termed the killing of Shehadeh a ``terrorist attack," perpetuated by Israel.
Bar-Ilan University professor Menachem Klein, on sabbatical at Oxford, delighted the British press by charging that ``the existence of Palestinian civilians and their right to life has been deleted from the screen of Israelis."
These statements and many more like them lack moral seriousness because they elide the distinctions that form the basis of all moral reasoning. The elimination of Shehadeh was not designed to spread terror among Palestinian civilian population but to prevent the murder of Israeli civilians. Sowing terror is the purpose of homicide bombings.
Far from being insensitive to Palestinian civilian casualties, Israel has often been over sensitive. There are thirteen bereaved Jewish families today because of the hypersensitivity shown by the IDF in Jenin to civilian casualties. Shehadeh himself lived to plan several terrorist attacks because the IDF repeatedly passed up opportunities to kill him due to concern about likely civilian casualties.
The equation of Jews and Palestinians is nothing short of obscene. No Israeli has placed a ten-month baby in his rifle sites and blown off her head as she lay in her mother’s arms, or shot a smiling five-year-old surrounded by her dolls between the eyes, or looked for a crowd of mothers pushing baby carriages among which to blow himself up.
I doubt there are a more than a couple hundred Israelis who advocate retaliating against Palestinian civilians and no more than a few dozen actually capable of doing so. Poll after poll, however, has shown that more than a million Palestinians, not to mention tens of millions of their Arab brothers, fully support homicide bombings, and the waiting lists to carry out such bombings number in the thousands.
JUDAISM does not view human life according to some utilitarian calculus. If an enemy surrounded a city and demanded that the inhabitants turn over ten people for execution or the whole city would be put to the sword, it would be forbidden to turn over the ten. It is therefore inadequate to say that the number of Palestinians who died together with Shehadeh was less than the number of Israelis who would likely have died if he were left alive.
But we are at war, and in war no nation treats the lives of its citizens or soldiers as of equal value to those of its enemy. When U.N. peacekeepers in Somalia found themselves surrounded and under fire, they did not hesitate to mow down hundreds of civilians together with their attackers. That does not mean that a nation may wantonly kill enemy civilians, but neither halacha nor the law of warfare affords civilians absolute protection. Moreover, the law of war places the onus for civilian deaths on legitimate military targets who use those civilians as shields.
Many of the nations so quick to condemn Israel last week have themselves shown little concern with potential civilian casualties when eliminating ``enemies" posing far less immediate threat to their citizens than Shehadeh posed to Israel. Does anyone imagine, for instance, that had the United States traced Osama bin Laden to a cave in Tora Bora it would have tarried a minute to ascertain how many family members were with him before unleashing its full firepower? European Mideast envoy Javier de Solana, who last week condemned Israel’s ``extrajudicial killing operation, which targeted a densely populated area," ordered cluster bombs dropped on Serbian leader Slobadan Milosevic’s bunker in a densely populated area when he was NATO Secretary-General. Milosevic had not yet been tried by any court nor did he pose a threat to any NATO country.
No sane rule of law permits Hamas to target Israeli citizens but forbids Israel from responding. What, then, can Ha’aretz’s Gideon Levy mean when he argues that Israel may only interdict homicide bombers on their way to carry out attacks but not kill those planning the attack? Are only lowly privates legitimate military targets but not the generals who direct them.
So much, too, for Yossi Beilin’s claim that Shehadeh was not a ticking time bomb and that his elimination constituted the imposition of an extra-judicial death penalty. Shehadeh was not killed as retribution for the hundreds of Jewish lives he had already claimed, but to prevent him from taking more. As the mastermind of impending attacks, about which there was apparently very good intelligence information, he was the obvious target – the head of the snake.
Empathy—yes; moral sensitivity—by all means. But not at the cost of more Jewish lives.
Related Topics: Peace Process
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