Embracing empathy amidst the conflict in Israel and Palestine

November, 2023
Tamar AssayagHarry Dweck

On October 7, 2023, Hamas, the Muslim authority of the Gaza Strip, invaded the state of Israel. In response, the Israeli cabinet vowed “to wipe… Hamas off the face of the Earth.” In the following weeks, the world watched the attack become the bloodiest war in Israel’s history. According to the New York Times, as of November 7, there have been over 1,400 Israeli and 10,000 Palestinian civilian and militant casualties, as well as 422 Israeli hostages and 1.5 million internally displaced Gazans.

The war has also come with inflammatory speech and calls for violent protest. The Anti-Defamation League has recorded a 388 percent rise in antisemitic incidents in the U.S. between October 7 and October 25, compared to the same period last year. Similarly, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, reports of Islamophobia were up 182 percent in the U.S. between October 7 and October 24, compared to the average 16-day period last year. Educational institutions have been particularly rife with confrontation. For instance, at UMass Amherst, a student was recently arrested for assaulting a fellow Jewish student at a vigil. Stanford has also been investigating possible hate crimes committed against a Muslim student. And at Harvard, a group of pro-Palestinian students received widespread condemnation after “holding the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all ongoing violence.”

Other, less extreme responses have also contributed to the deafening noise. One such reaction is performative activism on social media, and the rush to take sides; this is often caused by the widespread lack of empathy for others and a general lack of understanding of this nuanced situation. You have probably seen it online; a binary stance, or lack thereof, becomes a part of one’s character. This pressures people to hop on social media to share a quick something about the war and get it over with. A global conflict becomes a box they can check off, a guilty feeling they think they can dispose of with a simple click. This leads to a common sentiment — when people lack compassion and time and space for reflection, the results are horrendous. In October 2022, AP News conducted a poll that found that around 75 percent of adults in the U.S. agree that misinformation leads to violent views and behaviors.

Incorrect, radical, and often conflicting messaging related to the Israel-Hamas war can make it difficult to discern the truth and process our reaction to it. However, instead of trying to easily address the situation with a simplistic perspective or opinion, the most effective solution is to take time to develop a complete understanding and keep empathy at the center of thought.

While not all responses to the war have been peaceful, we are fortunate that at PHS, we have had thoughtful and constructive opportunities for reflection. On October 17, PHS invited Rabbi Merow from The Jewish Center to help students process their reactions. On October 20, PHS hosted a Gathering for Peace and Hope, in which the Muslim Student Union, the Jewish Club, and the Middle Eastern Students Association came together to recite Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb.”

Rather than making rash and violent decisions or participating in performative acts without a true understanding of the issue at hand, we should continue to encourage each other, and ourselves, to take time in making decisions and keep an open mind. It’s not an easy topic. That’s not to say that one may not have an opinion on the subject; individual opinions are encouraged and valued, but it is essential to maintain an anti-violent and open-minded approach when developing them. This war, and our reactions to it, are anything but a justification for hatred. If we want true unity, true resolution, and true peace, the best reaction is a thoughtful and empathetic one.