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.”
In the wake of the failed attempt at passing a boycott resolution (of Israeli academic institutions) at the recent MLA conference, here are some thoughts. (Readers of the Duck might be aware that last year’s ISA conference saw a modest attempt at bringing a discussion on BDS forward. That proposal was also voted down.)
Let’s talk (past each other)!
The debate over the academic boycott is often frustratingly unproductive.
On one hand, some anti-boycotters accuse boycott proponents of being antisemitic. While some boycotters may be antisemitic (just as some anti-boycotters may be antisemitic!), the accusation is ill-conceived and distracting. One claim I often hear — that since roughly half the world’s Jews live in Israel, then BDS must be antisemitic — simply doesn’t hold up. BDS is a tool to coerce Israel to comply with international law and adhere to human rights imperatives, not a boycott of Judaism or Jews.
On the other side, some boycott proponents accuse boycott opponents of being chained to other allegiances. “The bad conscience of liberal Zionism,” David Lloyd, English professor at UC-Riverside, wrote in Mondoweiss in describing the deliberations at the MLA, “forced to defend the indefensible, was on full display.” This too, is a bad-faith response. While some boycott opponents may be motivated by fealty to the State of Israel or to Zionism, there are enough good arguments against academic boycotts as a tactic to demand a fair consideration of the ethics writ large. More on this, below.
About the MLA deliberations, Lital Levy, a comparative literature professor at Princeton who followed the proceedings and later the responses from colleagues on both sides, says she “felt caught in the middle.” Rather than “digging in our heels,” Levy says, we should “actually talk to each other (and not just at these emotionally laden public hearings at MLA), but throughout the year, directly.” (Levy has more to say about the fraught nature of dialogue, though, below.) Continue reading
In the wake of the shocking US election results, what sometimes seems like an agreed-upon virtue has become controversial: the demand for empathy.
Writing in the New York Times, longtime Democrat Rabbi Michael Lerner has put out a call for empathy towards the many voters who supported Trump. As Lerner sees it, there are deep class fissures in America coupled with a spiritual crisis that requires redress. “We need to reach out to Trump voters,” Lerner writes, “in a spirit of empathy and contrition. Only then can we help working people understand that they do not live in a meritocracy, that their intuition that the system is rigged is correct (but it is not by those whom they had been taught to blame) and that their pain and rage is legitimate.”
It seems reasonable on its face: Lerner has long deployed the tool of compassion in what he has called the need for a “politics of meaning.” (His ideas were especially prevalent during the early 1990s when he had the ear of the Clinton White House, and in particular then-First-Lady Hillary Clinton.)
At the same time, it’s easy to see how Lerner’s position could rankle. Critics would say that the oppressed shouldn’t be required to empathize with the oppressor. And there was plenty of oppressive and hurtful and violent discourse emanating from Trump’s campaign. Continue reading
The reactions I’ve received to some of my recent op-eds have led me to reconsider the relationship between scholarship and politics, and to question the role of social capital in shaping scholarly opinion.
Over the last several months, I have published some pieces that have strayed from what had been my consistent “liberal Zionist” position. One investigated the dark underbelly of Tel Aviv (where I visited the remains of Palestinian villages with Israeli “decolonial” activist Eitan Bronstein). Another (with independent historian Peter Eisenstadt) challenged the “empathy” discourse prevalent among liberal Zionists. A third interrogated the idea of a “non-Zionist” synagogue in Chicago, and a fourth (with historian Joshua Schreier of Vassar College) asked whether Israeli-Jewish identity could be maintained if Palestinian refugees were to return and if Jews were to become a minority. All of these pieces involved some critiques of Zionism. Continue reading