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‘Comparisons are odious’. This I understood with greater clarity as a result of my recent encounters in Israel and Palestine during the summer. Based in East Jerusalem, I was conducting fieldwork by speaking to Israeli and Palestinian grassroots and civil society organisations working with principles of non-violence in their communities. The aim of the research was to begin to explore the role and dynamics of empathy within complex and protracted conflicts. In doing so, I was interested in understanding what empathy meant to people, what work the concept might do in shaping and influencing perceptions of the conflict, how empathy may be circulated within and between communities, what role narratives play in enabling or blocking empathic relations, and the significance of place and space in a conflict which is characterised by clashes of representation.
Let me return to comparisons and their place in sites of conflict and long-running suffering. Emerging from deeply personal stories of loss and suffering, the lessons regarding comparisons that I heard extended far beyond the private sphere of grief to become the active political choice of individuals and leaders of communities. This is an important component of understanding the dynamics of empathy because the latter requires a willingness to let go of our need to make comparisons. In the case of conflict between Israel and Palestine, comparisons are frequently made regarding suffering and pain. Comparing stories of violence and suffering can, particularly under conditions of hostility, lead to two relevant consequences for reflecting on empathy. First, it may embed individuals further into their own story, closing their eyes and ears to the stories of others. Second, and relatedly, it may contribute to an ability to deny recognition and acknowledgement of the other’s pain; a crucial ingredient of empathy. In the course of my meetings and conversations with both Israelis and Palestinians, one of the messages clearly articulated was that each person’s suffering is their own and needs to be heard. We cannot, and should not, compare degrees of suffering. This is not to deny differences in scope or experience, but it is to suggest that each individual’s experience remains their own.
The conflict in Israel and Palestine circles around (although is by no means limited to) two critical historical events: the Holocaust and the Nakba. Both of these complex and many-stranded histories serve as legitimating and justificatory narratives for contemporary politics. Both, for many people on all sides of the conflict, serve to cancel out the acknowledgement of the other. Just as individual suffering needs to be acknowledged, so does the suffering of peoples. The Holocaust and the Nakba should not be compared. Yet, how should they be recognised? Questions around acknowledgement and recognition echo around the conflict, in private spaces and in the public sphere.
The narratives of these events play an important role in an exploration of empathy and what blocks it. Despite the passing of time these narratives remain resilient. In fact, it could be argued that the passing of time increases their power as a focus on the long historical past when acting in the present and looking towards the future offers a greater store of evidence to be marshalled by one side or another. One effect of the resilience of these narratives is to exclude breathing space for other narratives. It is to reinforce ideas of victims and perpetrators, of innocent and guilty, of right and wrong, security and insecurity. In coffee shops and hotel lobbies, in personal tours of the geographical and political contours of Jerusalem and the West Bank, and in organisational offices, there was a common theme to what I was hearing: it was being suggested that what was needed was an alternative third narrative. Such a narrative would recognise the suffering of all sides and would lift the burden of history a little to make room for new possibilities in the present. Such an alternative narrative requires considerable political and personal change.
This is not to suggest that there is a universal consensus on the role and value of empathy amongst Israelis and Palestinians. Far from it; this remains a diverse, pluralistic and fairly contentious issue. Neither is it to fall into the trap of the liberal narrative of empathy which argues that protracted conflict and social crises can be addressed effectively through dialogic engagement, perspective-taking and empathy. The liberal assumption that empathy is a positive and universal value is too simplistic and takes little account of potential strategies of empathy and the power relations which can be articulated through empathising. Critical accounts of this liberal narrative raise questions regarding how we might ‘know’ the other, how we may represent their experiences, and argue that making the ‘choice’ to empathise can in itself be an expression of power. Both liberal and critical accounts of empathy contribute to our understanding of this concept and how it works. Both also raise productive questions around the possibilities of sustainable transformation of individuals and societies. At the heart of this project is a desire to explore empathy not just in terms of the personal transformation it can and does effect in conditions of conflict, but to examine the structural and historical factors which influence the possibility of empathy. It also asks the fundamental question, who is exercising empathy? And with whom? Implicit in this question is the argument that it matters who is exercising empathy and how: this in itself tells a story.