The contents of this post represent me and only me. They do not represent anyone or organization I work for, volunteer with, serve as a leader for, or am related to.

Can There Be Justice
Without Empathy

I clapped and cheered along with everyone else as both Jeremy Ben-Ami and Rabbi Rick Jacobs spoke at the opening night of the J Street Conference.

However, it was what came next that proved to be the inspirational moment of the night...

Inspiration came in the form of the special relationship shared by Maha Mehanna, a Gazan, and Roni Keidar, an Israeli living about 800 yards north of the Gaza border.

Roni Keidar speaks with her friend, Maha Mehanna, at her side. (source: me)

I will not repeat Roni and Maha’s entire story here. It is enough to know that these two women are close friends in spite of the constant war of both words and deeds between our two peoples, and that they became friends through the fine work of Other Voice.

Roni spoke first; She spoke of her own experiences growing up in Israel, of her eventual involvement in Israel’s peace camp, and of the first time she and Maha met. She told us about her and Maha texting each other as rockets fell in Israel and bombs fell on Gaza. In her own words:

“We are here… two peoples who believe in their heritage; two peoples who share a history…
Today they are two peoples who have a right to live… in dignity, and liberty, and security…
having a life worth living, a life that one does not want to lose.
As long as this is not understood,
more and more people will be hurt on both sides.”

Roni was immediately followed by Maha Mehanna, who had stood by Roni’s side for the entire speech. Maha captured with intimate detail what it was like to live in Gaza when the IDF, responding to Hamas’s rockets, began bombing and shelling around her neighborhood.

Maha’s thoughts on JUSTICE were what inspired me to write this post.

Close to the opening of her speech Maha mentioned her family’s experiences in 1948. Her parents, she said, each grew up in a different Arab town in what is now Southern Israel. After looking up each town by name I learned that the residents of her mother’s community fled their homes out of fear as the fighting came ever closer in May of 1948; Her father’s town fled their homes under assault from Israeli forces a couple of months later in early July.

At this point in Maha’s speech I was expecting a mention of going back home, of a Palestinian right of return. Instead she said something that was, to me, unexpected:

“I know that those places no longer exist, there is no turning back the clock.”

If there is no turning back the clock, why mention her parents’ towns at all? Maha continued:

“I honestly don’t know what justice could actually look like today for my people who fled those places…
but I know that justice must begin with a courageous acknowledgement of what took place…
We can not share a future on more denial and lies…”

What denial? What lies?

Let’s talk about stories…

Those of us who discuss and teach Israel sometimes speak of dueling narratives. What we mean is that there are two different stories about the conditions under which about 700,000 Palestinians living in 377 towns, villages, and neighborhoods throughout Mandatory Palestine ceased to reside in those places.

In its simplest form the Zionist Narrative is that the Palestinians were offered full Israeli citizenship but 80% of them chose to leave instead of taking the new State of Israel up on its offer. This is fairly close to the narrative that I and (at this point) millions of other Jews grew up with in Jewish schools, Jewish camping, and other mainstream Jewish institutions.

The Palestinian Narrative is that they were expelled from their homes under an undeclared policy of ethnic cleansing so as to start this new country with as few Arabs as possible. This is most likely the narrative Maha grew up with, along with the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those 700,000 Palestinians who used to live in the parts of Mandated Palestine that were on the Israeli side of the Green Line as of 1949.

Even the language is coded, which is why I chose to use “ceased to reside” above; saying that Palestinians “chose to leave” their homes plays into the Zionist Narrative, while saying they were “expelled” is central to the Palestinian Narrative.

Both stories are a lie.
Both stories are the truth.

Which one you were taught growing up and/or believe now has an undeniable influence on how you view the relationship between the State of Israel and Palestinian refugees.

Leaders and educators in both the Jewish/Zionist and Arab Nationalist communities possess a deep understanding of the power of stories.

Those same leaders and educators have used the dueling narratives so effectively that nearly 3 generations of Palestinians and Jews have grown up assuming the Other is not to be trusted, the Other is to blame and, therefore, the Other is undeserving of justice.

Who, then, is deserving of justice?

The obvious answer is, of course, everyone in equal measure, but that is not enough — life is more complicated than that. I don’t think that most people approach justice this way.

A better answer would be to say that anyone who has been wronged by another is deserving of justice. Even this answer, to me, is missing something. You may believe the statement to be true, but are you willing to block traffic and get arrested for that truth?

Instead, I would argue that most people believe any person equal to me who has been wronged by another is deserving of justice equal to the justice I would expect were I wronged in the same way. It is this approach to justice upon which movements for change are built.

In order for me to believe that someone else deserves justice I therefore need to believe that:

  • The person is a person
  • The person is equal to me
  • The person has been wronged
  • I would expect a certain type of justice were I wronged in the same way


is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference…

Put into action, the more you share someone’s frame of reference the more likely you are to empathize with them. It follows that the more you empathize with someone the more likely you are to support that person emotionally, materially, and/or politically at times of trouble. After all, you feel their pain in a tangible way as if it was your own; you have no choice but to act!

I need to feel EMPATHY for someone else in order for me to demand justice on their behalf.

Without empathy it is easy to dismiss the “other”.
Without empathy it is easy to feel superior to the “other”.
Without empathy it is easy to reject the idea that the “other” has been wronged.
Without empathy it is easy to deny that the “other” is as deserving of justice as I am.

Maybe Maha is deserving of justice.
Maybe she is not.

The question of whether she is deserving or not can’t even be answered in an environment in which empathy for Maha is automatically seen by too many Jews (and more than a few non-Jews as well) as an anti-Israel stance.

So, where does that leave us?
Where does that leave Maha?
What can we do?

First, it is time for us to end the practice of allowing “denial and lies” to guide our curricula on Israel and Zionism. We do this every time we omit those historic details from 1947 through 1949 that might show Israel’s founding generation in a negative light. If we are comfortable teaching in history class about the US government’s treatment of Japanese during WW2, or of Native Americans in the 19th Century, then we should also be developing materials and curricula which delve into what really happened in Mandatory Palestine as it was transformed into the State of Israel.

Second, in the words of Peter Beinart at the J Street Conference, “we need to make it impossible for American Jews to visit Israel without meeting Palestinians”. Why are there Israeli soldiers on every Taglit/Birthright bus? Empathy! Why should Americans (and other Jews) visiting Israel get to know a Palestinian or two? Empathy! Beinart’s words should not only apply to Americans visiting Israel—they should also apply to those Palestinians and Israelis who are available to speak in our institutions about what day to day life in the WB and Gaza is really like on the other side.

These are just two ideas — I am sure there are plenty of others.

In this past Shabbat’s Haftarah we read Malakhi’s message about redemption…

Malakhi was delivering God’s word to those who had returned to the Land of Israel from Babylonia in order to bring God’s House, the Holy Temple, back to Mount Moriah. We are told that with the coming of the redemption God will “be a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of [God]… who subvert [the cause of] the widow, the orphan, and the stranger…”

Why does the Tanakh mention “the stranger” so often? Because, as we know from the Pesach story, we too have been the stranger. We too have been the “other”, persecuted and laid aside because of our beliefs or because of our cultural or national identity. As such we Jews have a sacred obligation to look out for the stranger, the other, to feel empathy for her, and to fight for justice on her behalf.

The contents of this post represent me and only me. They do not represent anyone or organization I work for, volunteer with, serve as a leader for, or am related to.