Is your empathy boundaried?

Is your empathy boundaried?

Gods and men love maps
They draw borders with pens
That split lives like an axe.
[1]

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reflecting on sharp demarcations, those that look flimsy, or invisible, but are real and palpable. 

I regularly walk in Jerusalem by a Jewish neighborhood that borders a Palestinian one, and while Palestinians can cross freely into the Jewish one, and I into the Palestinian one, I rarely do anymore. A simple street runs between the two neighborhoods, but it represents something bigger, a divide that is not meant to be crossed. A few years ago it was easier, but since then X-marked blocks, raids, attacks and more have come and gone, and Israeli security guards intermittently patrol the area.

A few weeks ago, I looked at a series of maps Israelis and Palestinians use, how added lines separating Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, simple flicks of the pen -- with or without an added scribble indicating the name of an area -- reveal so much. One study showed that “only 4% of maps in Palestinian textbooks...label the area west of [the green line] as ‘Israel’. Almost six out of 10 maps depict no borders, and another third include the green line but make no reference to Israel.” Similarly, “in Israeli textbooks, 76% of maps show no boundaries between Palestinian territories and Israel, and Palestinian areas are not labeled.” [2] Absent labels reflect each side’s desire for the other’s absence. Just recently this battle of maps, borders and labels raised its head again, as Google was accused of showing maps without Palestine. [3] The lines, words, or lack thereof, contain so much ideology and emotion that change, threaten, and erase parts of who we are. 

Recently I participated in a meeting with Israeli and Palestinians and we reflected on pictures evoking painful memories from our people’s pasts. Some of the images were not well-known, and it was difficult to identify if those suffering were Jewish, Palestinian Christian or Palestinian Muslim. One woman responded to the pictures, saying “If this represents us, I feel bad, sorry for those in the pictures. If this represents them, then…” and she grew silent as she shrugged her shoulders, indicating her apathy. She honestly verbalized what many think, but have not the bravery to utter aloud. “Our empathy is often boundaried, but should it be?” I wondered silently.

I reflected on these divisions, those in our city, those lines on our maps, even those lines in our hearts. Is the world we experience like a map, and empathy like a territory we draw lines around, limiting it only for our own? Yet, if our empathy remains boundaried, if our love for maps and borders defines us, if our policies are built on axe-wielding separations, then what hope do we have in our interconnected world? Part of what makes us human is our ability to adapt, to rise to challenges, to transcend our limitations and to expand our connections for common interests. 

It is healthy and normal to want to be part of groups, to focus our care and attention on our group. In Judaism we have two concepts that are relevant to this discussion, aniyei ircha kodmim (the poor of your city take precedence) and tikkun olam (the idea that Jewish activism should not only focus inward, but outward in social responsibility to others). Both of these concepts have philosophical and theological underpinnings, and they address two trajectories of care and empathy. Our compassion has to pass through concentric circles, of ourselves, our immediate families, extended families, social and religious circles, local communities, national communities, and more. We cannot do away with the circles, or we would lose our compassion in a sea of humanity. These circles give us a direction. 

We cannot feel legitimate compassion combined with participation in purposeful action in care for everyone equally, but we must start somewhere, so when we look beyond our immediate concentric circles, in intractable conflicts, the next circle that follows is that of our enemy, those close in proximity, but ideologically far from us. Part of our role as humans is to partner with others to do what we cannot do alone, to see our fellow humans as fellow images of God. This is what it means to believe in peace, what it means to partner with God in tikkun olam, bettering and setting-to-right the brokenness in our world. In periods of conflict, when our peoples are endlessly obsessed with borders and pens, transcending the situation involves healing the bloody, axe-induced wounds, through rising to the challenge and extending our empathy. 


Notes: 

[1] Tajikian phrase translated into English and adapted into Haiku form, John Paul Lederach, as quoted in Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise.
[2] Harriet Sherwood, “Israeli and Palestinian textbooks omit borders,”  The Guardian, 4 February 2013. 
[3] Petter Hellstrom, “Not on the map: cartographic omission from New England to Palestine,” The Guardian, 22 August 2016. 

 

 
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