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> Columns > Boston Globe > Wrestling with empathy on Mideast conflict

Wrestling with empathy on Mideast conflict

By Cathy Young | April 8, 2002

A FEW DAYS AGO, Eric Alterman, a columnist for The Nation, published an article on decrying what he regards as the unthinkingly pro-Israeli bent of much of the American punditocracy. To my shock, I found that his list of ''commentators who can be counted upon to support Israel reflexively and without qualification'' has my name on it - which is rather baffling, since I have never written about the Mideast. (My e-mail to Alterman was unanswered.) Ironically, the main reason I haven't touched this issue is that my sentiments about it are too ambivalent.

While I am Jewish and have close relatives in Israel, I have always believed that this should not determine my judgment of whose cause is right. As the chilling images unfold on our television screens, I find myself moved and appalled by the human suffering on both sides.

There is the sheer horror of Israeli men, women, and children being blown to pieces in cafes, in shops, on buses. (I wish commentators would stop talking about ''women and children,'' as if men killed under such circumstances were any less innocent or defenseless.) There is the unsettling thought of living with the knowledge that terror may strike anywhere, any time. We had a brief taste of that after Sept. 11, but most of us can't imagine what it's like to live that way constantly.

The pain of the Palestinians is real too. The distinction between attacks that deliberately target civilians and military operations in which civilians are unintentionally killed is an important one, but the survivors grieve just the same. It's impossible to remain unperturbed by the sight of people sorting through the rubble of their bulldozed homes or by reports of children being killed during raids on refugee camps in search of terrorists.

Empathy, however, cannot be a reliable guide to policy. To have an informed opinion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one needs an in-depth knowledge of its history that I do not have. But some things seem fairly clear.

For the duration of the peace process, the Palestinian leadership continued to foment hatred of Israel (and Jews) among its people, particularly the young generation. We are now seeing the fruits of that hate in the suicide bombers. There is overwhelming evidence that the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat himself have at least winked at terrorism, and at worst actively aided it.

Israel's intransigence on some issues, such as Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, may have contributed to the escalation of hostilities. But no Israeli policies could have appeased those who, like the radical Islamist group Hamas, openly seek its destruction.

For all its faults, Israel is the only country in the Middle East that has a functioning democratic government, a free press, and other liberal institutions. Yet its treatment of the Palestinians is being deplored by Arab regimes that are guilty of far worse abuses - and public opinion around much of the world seems to agree, focusing on Israeli misdeeds while ignoring the atrocities of its enemies.

Tragically, Israel's liberal values are both its virtue and its weakness. No democracy can keep a people under forcible occupation without losing its soul; a reminder of this can be seen in the disturbing sight of nonviolent peace protests by Israeli Arabs being put down by the Israeli police. Yet at the moment, ending the occupation is impossible without compromising Israel's safety.

My cyber-friend Hamutal Yellin, a graduate student living in the city of Be'er-Sheva, is one of many Israelis who have much sympathy with the Palestinians' grievances - and for whom being seen as oppressors is no less painful than being targeted by terrorists. ''I'm sure at some point we'll have to give [the occupied territories] back,'' Hamutal wrote to me a few days ago. ''I think we should, regardless of whether we're forced to. But we can't do it right now. It's too dangerous, and it sends the wrong message at this moment. We can't afford to give them up without getting anything in return. And this time, we know we can't trust the Palestinian leadership.''

Morally, ambivalence is perhaps the only appropriate attitude toward the conflict in the Middle East. Politically, no constructive solution seems to be in sight. Still, the fact remains that Israel is an ally which shares our basic values, while the Palestinian nationalists have cast their lot with a terrorist network that threatens us. Israel is not entitled to America's reflexive or unconditional support, but it does deserve our loyalty.

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