Empathy First

By Heather Renetzky

(as part of our Stories of Inspiration series)

Avital Hahamy joined the program “Between Memory and Reconciliation” in 2008, primarily motivated by the program’s trip to Japan. What she came away with, however, was a lot more than a trip abroad.

This program was based on a yearlong dialogue between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, and included a 10 day study tour to Japan. For Avital, the program was a “real milestone” in the way that she views the conflict. Before joining the ICCI, she never had meaningful interactions with a Palestinian person, and her view on Palestinians was therefore mediated by (mostly negative) reports in the media. Her perspective has since become more complex, and this change of view was accompanied by a thought provoking process.

One such process was the exposure to multiple historical narratives which Avital gained by participating in the dialogue group

“I was amazed to find out that the ‘absolute truth’ that I learned in school, was not considered true by others,” she said.

“I tended to think of history as based on mere facts, but I realized historical narratives are greatly shaped by interpretation of events.”

Avital said that it took her a while to reach this conclusion, and it required some retrospective reflections.  This was partially due to the intense emotional reactions that arose during these meetings and made the dialogue experience difficult at times. Avital said that she can now better understand the emotional processes gone through by both sides, in part because of knowledge of psychology she has gained since the program.

She explained one instance in which the dialogue group visited Kvar Etzion, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, where Jewish people were murdered in a massacre that occurred during Israel’s war of independence. During the visit, the Jewish group members were frustrated by the lack of empathy the Palestinian members expressed for the Jewish victims. Now, in retrospect, she can understand why it was difficult for Palestinians to express such emotions.

“Can the weaker side really afford to express empathy for the stronger side?” she questioned.

“There’s a relationship between how much power you feel you have in a dialogue, and how much empathy you can actually afford” she explained.

She also added that the narrative of each side is profoundly shaped by such emotionally loaded events, which are seldom experienced in an empathic way by the other side. In that sense, accepting the existence of a different narrative first requires understanding the pain of the other side, and that can be extremely difficult when you predominantly feel your own pain. Avital, however, doesn’t feel it is essential to reconcile these narratives.  Instead, she believes we should focus on the present.

“I sometimes feel that historical claims help each side feel like the ‘true’ victim of the conflict. Adopting such a view emphasizes our own pain, and therefore prevents us from showing empathy to the pain experienced by others. Perhaps if we could stop focusing on who we feel was right, we could focus on how to put an end to this situation now. ”

For Avital, dialogue is an integral part of this process, as we “need to acknowledge what hurts” for all people involved:

“Engaging in dialogue is very important because it’s the only way to understand how the other side feels. If you’re willing to go to places that are emotionally hard for you, you will gain insights about yourself and about your surroundings. Dialogue could really offer an exceptional opportunity for both individuals and societies to grow.”

Heather Renetzky, a Core 18 Fellow interning at ICCI this summer, is finishing her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and Religious Studies from Macalester College.

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