Empathy and Humanity
What does it mean to be human when we're witnessing so much inhumanity around us
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I’ve been thinking recently about President Obama wiping away tears after the tragic mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
On December 14, 2012, the day of the massacre of 20 students and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary, President Obama cried as he delivered these remarks (lightly edited for space):
“We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years. And each time I learn the news I react not as a President, but as anybody else would -- as a parent.
The majority of those who died today were children… They had their entire lives ahead of them -- birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own…
So our hearts are broken today -- for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost. Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children’s innocence has been torn away from them too early, and there are no words that will ease their pain.
This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another. But there are families in Connecticut who cannot do that tonight. And they need all of us right now. In the hard days to come, that community needs us to be at our best as Americans. And I will do everything in my power as President to help.
Even though Obama signed some executive orders in 2013, he was otherwise unable to bring about sweeping change to our nation’s gun laws. Still, these words are powerful and seem to take on a different significance to me today.
The heartbreak the former president describes of young innocent lives cut short, of the pain of families torn apart by death, and of the coming struggle of those who survived seems to also describe the trauma of the people in Israel and Palestine over the last month.
A decade ago, a president was moved to tears by the death of 20 innocent children, displaying empathy and humanity.
Yet today, we face a crisis of death more than 400 times larger, a crisis that is ongoing and with no end in sight.
According to Reuters (emphasis added):
“Palestinian officials said on Friday 11,078 Gaza residents had been killed in air and artillery strikes since Oct. 7, around 40% of them children.”
Many people around the world are showing their humanity in this moment. We are watching the videos of dead and dying children, bleeding, covered in rubble, being hand carried to full hospital wards because there are no ambulances. We see the families ripped apart by bombings targeting civilians. The mothers and fathers crying over their dead children. The orphaned children weeping over the body of a dead parent. We are witnessing what is happening and we are saying enough is enough.
300,000 people took the streets of London yesterday to demand a ceasefire, with protests also happening in New York, Paris, Baghdad, Karachi, Berlin and Edinburgh, according to Al Jazeera.
Yet our leaders, including prominent Democrats, are choosing to look away, to not acknowledge, to not show empathy.
On Friday, President Biden was asked by a reporter about a ceasefire. According to the White House’s transcript, here’s how the exchange went:
Q: What are the chances of a Gaza ceasefire?
THE PRESIDENT: None. No possibility.
The group Vets About Face shared a video from outside of the Capitol this week where veterans were being arrested for protesting against the war. Senator John Fetterman walks by and laughs, waving the flag of Israel.
In another video from the same group, a veteran directly asks Fetterman why he’s not calling for a ceasefire, he responds “I think you should be protesting Hamas.”
When Senator Elizabeth Warren was approached in a restaurant by a constituent who identifies herself as “a refugee from Gaza and a constituent of yours,” Warren responds with “It’s nice to meet you, I’m having dinner.”
The woman continues “I understand, but 68 members of my family were killed over the last three weeks and I just want to know how many more have to die before you’re going to call for a ceasefire.”
In the video shared by Jewish Voice for Peace Boston, Warren does not appear to offer any response and the constituent is asked to leave the table by an unidentified man.
How would you want somebody to respond to you if you had lost 68 family members in a month?
I would want somebody to say “I’m so sorry.” To offer a hug. If that person were in a position of power to possibly stop the death, I would hope they would at least listen to me and acknowledge my suffering.
In the video, Warren does none of these things, she continues eating her dinner.
If you watch the video and feel yourself thinking the Gazan refugee was wrong in approaching Senator Warren, I think it’s worth asking if you would feel differently had she introduced herself as having lost a family member at Sandy Hook or the World Trade Center?
We have been conditioned to see death in the Middle East as part of life in that region. We have been desensitized to the visuals of bombings, shootings, and mass death. We have been told by the media and our politicians that these people are somehow “different” from us because of their language, their skin color, their clothing, or their religion.
I hope that all of us, including and especially our politicians, can look past those differences and see the basic humanity in every life lost over the last month.
Every one of those people who died came from two parents, four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents, just like you and me. They are part of a long line of humanity that was cut short in the last few weeks. They played games as kids. They dreamt of life as an adult. They cooked food, they broke bread, and they had their traditions, family stories, and old family photos.
I want to be clear that in asking for empathy, I am not “choosing sides” in this debate.
Hamas attacking Israel and killing 1,200 civilians was wrong, despicable, and completely unacceptable and I mourn for the kidnapped and killed Israelis just as much as I do for the dead and injured Palestinians.
I also recognize that the actions of the Israeli government and the Israeli Defense Forces do not represent all of the citizens of Israel or Jewish people around the world. Many Jews are courageously speaking out against the Israeli government, at a time when increased antisemitism makes that more dangerous.
Israel is a close ally of the United States and many politicians seem to root their support for the current war in that alliance.
But as most kids learn in elementary school, a friend is not really a friend if they ask you to be complicit in their bad behavior.
Until and unless we start acknowledging the sanctity of every human life- Israeli, Palestinian, American- this tragedy and others like it will continue. I am again asking all of us to continue to witness what is happening in Gaza, to empathize with the human suffering, to continue to speak out, and to do everything in our power to make it end.
Journalists have been especially targeted by the violence in Gaza, with Jewish Voice for Peace claiming 39 journalists have been killed since the conflict began. Jewish Voice for Peace also shared a list of journalists working in Gaza now that are worth following on Instagram.
Their feeds are often gut-wrenching, showing the raw destruction of war and the pain inflicted upon the victims. But I think it’s more important than ever to witness what is happening through first-hand accounts, rather than solely rely on legacy media platforms, who may either have limited access or are censoring imagery or information.
Please give a follow to these accounts:
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