Re: "Blinding Tribalism" and the Lines of Sympathy

From Eyal Press

Shortly after the war in Gaza began, I received an email from a family member urging me to imagine the plight of terrified civilians "living under constant danger of bombs, running to shelters, children in danger of being killed."  It's been hard to avoid reading about such things in the past few days, as the news from Gaza grows increasingly grim.  But the reference in the email I received wasn't to Palestinians trapped in what the International Red Cross is now characterizing as a 'full-blown' humanitarian crisis.  It was to Israelis subjected to Hamas rocket attacks.  The suggestion that I hadn't given sufficient thought to their concerns unsettled me less than the unspoken corollary: that no parallel exercise is necessary when it comes to civilians on the other side.  That, indeed, it would be disloyal for me or anyone who cares about Israel to think too much about the suffering of Palestinians, particularly when a conflict has erupted and 'our side' needs defending.

In an article to which Ta-Nehisi linked last week, Glenn Greenwald described the perils of "blinding tribalism" and argued that the indifference of some Jews to the suffering of Palestinians was rooted in a sense of moral superiority.  The belief that "the group with which I was trained to identify is right and good and just and my group's enemy is bad and wrong and violent" leads many people to judge acts on the basis of who did them rather than their moral content, Greenwald maintained.  He's right, of course, but in the case of Israel there is another factor at work that fosters a selective sense of sympathy: the belief that one is entitled to reserve one's concern for one's fellow Jews, and perhaps even has a duty to do so, on account of having suffered from exceptional trauma in the past and seen how little the outside world was bothered.  Given how few people lifted a finger for us back when Jews were being persecuted and annihilated, the argument goes, why shouldn't we privilege our own suffering?

As the son of someone who was born in a Nazi labor camp, I can understand this sentiment.  It is an outlook common among survivors.  I imagine a vaguely similar set of feelings has impelled some African-Americans to embrace (or at the very least sympathize with aspects of) black nationalism in this country.  But saying something is understandable does not make it any less regrettable or dangerous, as some survivors have themselves observed.  Many years ago, the Israeli scholar Yehuda Elkana published an essay in which he noted that there were two lessons one could draw from the horrors he'd witnessed as a boy at Auschwitz.  The first was "this must never happen again."  The second was "this must never happen to us again."  Of the two, wrote Elkana, a member of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace-International, a network of scholars committed to ending the occupation and promoting a just settlement of the conflict, "I have always held to the former and seen the latter as catastrophic."