According to Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University, Alvin Goldman, empathy is “The ability to put oneself into the mental shoes of another person to understand her emotions and feelings”. Most of us experience it on a daily basis, often because of news reports. We empathise with other humans who we do not know when they experience the loss of a loved one in a traffic accident, or in a crime of violence, or suicide, and so on. Natural disasters affecting large numbers of people, and man made disasters such as war and famine, evoke waves of empathy for the victims from other humans, both as individuals and communities, from across the globe. We imagine ourselves in their situation and empathise with them.
The capacity to empathise is a positive attribute in a person. Not all humans appear to have it, they may have grown to be self-absorbed or they may have suppressed it to enable them to behave in a certain way, such as in war. It is something that can be deliberately manipulated for good effect, for instance in raising aid for victims of natural disasters or for providing support for bereaved individuals, afflicted children and so on. But it can also be manipulated, and often is, to achieve political, economic, social or military objectives.
Empathy for people we do not know depends on our capacity to see them as being as human as ourselves, and that fact is simultaneously the key to expressions and actions of solidarity with people we do not know, and in the absence of empathy to successfully oppressing, enslaving, colonising, and even attempting to eradicate people. Examples of these things abound throughout history, and it is worth looking at two examples, one from recent history and one which is ever-present today.
When the English set out to conquer Ireland, and throughout that centuries-long failed process, a permanent feature was the portrayal of the Irish as less than fully human (the yardstick of full humanity being English ‘civilisation’). Never mind that the Irish had, prior to the attempted conquest by first the Normans and then the English, a fully developed social system including a very advanced and enlightened Brehon Law system, and a highly developed scholarly tradition – good enough to spread learning throughout Britain and continental Europe. For the conquest to succeed, the Irish had to be thought of as deviant, uncivilised and uncivilisable, child-like, and even simian (ape-like).
When Anglican clergyman, novelist, university professor and ‘christian socialist’ Charles Kingsley visited Sligo in 1860 he wrote “I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don’t believe they are our fault. I believe … that they are happier, better, more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours”.
Another ‘civilised’ man, Robert Knox, an Edinburgh surgeon who was deeply implicated in the Burke and Hare body-snatching enterprise, saw the English Anglo-Saxon as superior to all others. As for the Irish – classified by the British as Celts and therefore not Anglo-Saxon – in his book “The Races of Men” Knox has this to say, among other similarly racist assertions, “…the source of all evil lies in the race, the Celtic race of Ireland. There is no getting over historical facts … The race must be forced from the soil; by fair means, if possible; still they must leave. England’s safety requires it. I speak not of the justice of the cause; nations must ever act as Machiavelli advised: look to yourself. The Orange club of Ireland is a Saxon confederation for the clearing the land of all papists and jacobites; this means Celts”.
But, some would say, that was then and this is now. Such rendering of the Irish into a sub-human species – so that they could more easily be driven from their lands, starved, flogged, enslaved, bought and sold, imprisoned, raped, hanged by the neck at will and sometimes drawn and quartered to emphasise the dehumanisation of the individual and the deliberate terrorism of the act – that could surely not happen in today’s more civilised world, or could it?
Of the myriad of similar examples available in the world today, let us take a look at the plight of the Palestinian people, with whom the Irish should, if they knew the facts of the total oppression of these indigenous people, be able to empathise.
When Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, issued the Balfour Declaration in November 1917 he laid the foundations of the State of Israel, eventually imposed without their consent in 1948 on the indigenous people of Palestine. This declaration by the British came about after intense lobbying of various governments in Europe by the Zionist movement whose principal advocate was Austrian journalist Theodore Hertzl, who founded the political movement known as Zionism in 1897. The movement’s principal plank was the right of Jewish people to establish a national homeland in Palestine based on ethnic ties and rights established by religious practice.
There was one not inconsiderable problem to this. Palestine was inhabited land, with a population made up in 1922 of 75% Muslims, 12% Jews and 11% Christians. But Hertzl had a plan, as an extract from his diaries in 1895 shows – “we shall endeavour to expel the poor population across the border unnoticed – the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly”. In other words, the indigenous Muslims should be expelled from the land of their fore-fathers and mothers, and the land thus stolen and made vacant be given to the Jewish immigrants from Europe and elsewhere. This is the genesis of the ongoing crimes against the Palestinian people, facilitated then by the British.
When the facts of the attempt by Hitler and his Nazi Party to exterminate as many European Jews as possible became known, a wave of empathy swept the world. That empathy was turned into the fuel that fired Zionists in a war against the British who were mandated to govern Palestine, and more importantly against the indigenous population. A catalogue of extreme atrocities against the Palestinian people ensued, with entire villages being slaughtered in a Zionist terror campaign, coupled with forced expulsions into the Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The 14th of May, 1948 marks the beginning of Al-Naqba or The Catastrophe, a catastrophe that has continued ever since.
Over the intervening 63 years, the Palestinians have been denied citizenship in their own land. They have no recourse to effective justice, with the courts being in control of the Israelis and no written constitution to provide safeguards. They have been and still are, on a daily basis, driven off their land which is taken by Israeli ‘settlers’. Their sources of water have been diverted to Israeli use. In the territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip occupied since the 1967 war between the Arabs and the Israelis, the Palestinian population is harassed constantly, shot regularly, is the victim of tear gas attacks (and who knows what other gasses?), is denied the right to normal social and economic life, has been walled in, has had to watch major Israeli ‘settlements’ being built on Palestinian land (illegal under international law), has been denied the right to housing, education, medical treatment and to travel internally in Palestinian territories and abroad.
The Gaza Strip, described as the largest prison in the world, has a population of 1.6 million largely destitute civilians locked into an area of just 360 square kilometres, blockaded by the Israeli army, navy and air force, with regular deadly incursions into the Strip by those forces. Not only is normal trade impossible with the West Bank, Israel itself or the wider world, but in December 2008 Israel launched a major ground, sea and air offensive against the Gaza Strip, including using banned weapons such as phosphorous and depleted uranium encased shells. Over 1,300 women, children and men were killed in 22 days, with 13 casualties on the Israeli side, and much of the Gazan infrastructure – hospitals, schools, housing, sewage works and water works, and so on – destroyed.
A common question asked by people who consider what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people is “how could a people who had a grave injustice done to them then replicate that injustice on to other innocent people?”.
The answer is, of course, empathy, or the absence of it. Just as the British – those fine ‘Christian’ folk – thought themselves to be fully human and the Irish to be sub-human, so too have the Zionists thought themselves to be fully human and the Palestinian people to be sub-human.
US journalist Stephen Lendman of the Progressive Radio Network who has written extensively on US imperialism and on the Israel-Palestine issue, quotes a 17-year old Jerusalem high school student, Daniel Banvolegyi: “Our books basically tell us that everything the Jews do is fine and legitimate and Arabs are wrong and violent and are trying to exterminate us. We are accustomed to hearing the same thing, only one side of the story. They teach us that Israel became a state in 1948 and that the Arabs started a war. They don’t mention what happened to the Arabs. They never mention anything about refugees or Arabs having to leave their towns and homes”.
Lendman further describes Tel Aviv University’s Professor Daniel Bar-Tal’s study of Israeli Jewish school texts which revealed a pattern of indoctrination of young minds thus: “The early textbooks tended to describe acts of Arabs as hostile, deviant, cruel, immoral, unfair, with the intention to hurt Jews and to annihilate the State of Israel. Within this frame of reference, Arabs were delegitimized by the use of such labels as ‘robbers,’ ‘bloodthirsty,’ and ‘killers,’ adding that little positive revision occurred through the years with mischaracterizations like tribal, vengeful, exotic, poor, sick, dirty, noisy, colored, and “they burn, murder, destroy, and are easily inflamed”.
Given this de-humanisation of the Palestinian people, it is no surprise that empathy with the Palestinians in their suffering is thin on the ground in Israel and in those societies that support Zionism, particularly Israel’s strongest supporter and supplier of much of the weaponry it uses on the Palestinians, the United States of America.
But Ireland is not Israel, or Britain, or the USA. Ireland – of all of the European countries – should as a result of our historical experience be a repository of empathy for the Palestinian people and for all oppressed people in the world. Their catastrophe should be our catastrophe, just as we have empathy for the Jewish people in the suffering they endured in Hitler’s extermination camps and elsewhere – their catastrophe is also our catastrophe. As a Palestinian man in the Gaza Strip who had just lost his entire family to the Israeli bombs in 2009 asked – “How can they do this. Are we not all children of God?”. Whether or not we believe in a ‘God’, in our empathy we understand what he meant.
The Palestinian catastrophe is a Jewish catastrophe too, for to be Jewish is not synonymous with being a Zionist – many of the world’s most ardent Zionists are not Jewish, and many of the most vocal anti-Zionists are themselves Jewish. The damage that is being done falsely in the name of Judaism in the historical land of Palestine will likely have very damaging consequences for Jewish people throughout the world.
It is right that the Irish people, particularly those who claim to honour the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and the Republic itself, should stand with the Palestinian people by supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction campaign against Israeli Apartheid policies, and by supporting the second flotilla as it attempts to break the illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip. After all, James Connolly, one of the main architects of the Proclamation wished that the Republic would act as a beacon of hope to oppressed people throughout the world.
We must do the right thing – support the BDS campaign and support the flotilla. Indifference just will not do.