Israeli and Palestinian violence: empathy without endorsement

Photo: Jakob Rubner, Unsplash.

I was on a call with the Mennonite Jewish Relations group in May when John Kampen presented his research on scholars in Israel after the Oct. 7
attack by Hamas. Many of them felt ostracized and marginalized. In a sense, they were collateral damage of the world’s condemnation of Israel’s devastating military response. 

As I listened, I opened my heart as wide as I could to empathize with the harm these professors felt — and to realize how I, a vocal critic of Israel’s policy in Gaza, had contributed to it. 

The leader of Mennonite Jewish Relations, who has a Jewish background herself, called on me — the resident Arab American in attendance — and asked for my reaction. She speculated that Kampen’s presentation might be challenging for me. 

She was right. As an Egyptian American, it is easier for me to empathize with my Palestinian siblings in Gaza than with Israel. 

Unlike the academic people in Kampen’s report, Palestinians are not figurative collateral damage. They are literally being killed by the Netanyahu government’s indiscriminate bombing. 

The actions of Israel’s government and the bloodshed in Gaza grieve my heart. I pray and act for freedom for Palestinians in a nation of their own. 

Nevertheless, my commitment to peace is greater than my affinity with the Palestinian cause. Although I feel the Palestinians’ pain — and understand why their trauma would lead to more violence — I believe we can heal from our trauma and work toward peaceful solutions. 

I believe this work is God’s work, giving us a chance to heal from our pain and act in new ways.

Palestinians know this better than I do. They have made numerous efforts for nonviolent independence and liberation. Israel has crushed many of these efforts. It is not surprising that a violent alternative, led by Hamas, has emerged.

Occupation and oppression result in violence. Violence is motivated by anger and a thirst for justice. The inability to control violent reactions leads to unintended consequences, turning victims into villains. Though I empathize with Palestinians’ right to resist, I do not approve of it. 

If I can understand the Palestinian response to oppression, I need also to understand the response of Israel’s government and why Israelis support it. 

For Israel, the Oct. 7 attack was not only a horror but a reminder of centuries of oppression and violence. It echoed the fact that Jewish people have been hated, displaced and killed. Therefore I empathize with Israel’s right to defend itself, though I do not approve of it.

As a peacemaking follower of Jesus, I am called not only to empathize but to offer hope for an alternative.

Violence forces us into binary thinking. Anyone who questions us becomes an enemy. Violence distorts our vision. It makes sense to me that victims of violence and trauma — Palestinians and Israelis — have a hard time understanding the other perspective and fail to see the problem with their own actions.

Christians are called to listen to others and learn from them. With ­Palestinians and Israelis, our goal should be to understand why this conflict is so polarized. 

As an Arab American whose heart is with the Palestinians, I long to be empathized with, even as I empathized with the professors in Kampen’s report. I want to be understood as much as to understand. 

Our work does not end with empathy. It continues with allies, Muslim and Jewish alike, working for a better way of relating and being.

Our belief in nonviolence must not harden our hearts toward those who use violence. It should move us to understand why they consider violence their only recourse. 

This desire to understand is why I am proud to work with Mennonite ­Action as we call for a cease-fire in Gaza. 

If we start with empathy, we can be a part of a solution that leads to peace.  

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