Educating Towards Empathy and Awareness

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Don’t be harsh. Don’t be naive.

To paraphrase the words of Yossi Klein Halevi from his book Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist: The Story of a Transformation, I am struck by the two Biblical injunctions: “Remember you were strangers in Egypt. Be good to the ger,” and “Remember you were attacked without provocation by Amalek. Never forget.”

Klein Halevi teaches us that this dialectic is a core piece of Jewish collective identity. On the one hand, the lesson from Egypt is: Don’t be harsh. Have empathy. Remember what it’s like to be weak. Take care of the oppressed. Reach out to the vulnerable. On the other hand, the lesson from Amalek is: Don’t be naive. Protect yourself. Ensure security and create a world in which others cannot take advantage of you.

Over the past two weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the Palestinian experience during the Israeli elections, specifically after listening to the Palestinian-born Fadi Quran give his perspective on the recent Israeli elections in the New York Times’ “Daily” podcast.

At the same time, I’ve also thought a lot about the incident at Berkeley where anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist comments were made at a student government meeting. One only needs to watch this video posted to Facebook to be unnerved about what just happened there. Of course, this past week’s tragic shooting in a San Diego synagogue, as well as the offensive New York Times cartoon, are additional examples of terrible anti-Semitism (more on this next week).

It is in toggling between these two paradigms – remembering Egypt and remembering Amalek – that I find myself thinking about in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

We have the opportunity to teach the generation of Jewish young people we are educating now to be neither brutal nor naïve. Let’s use the case studies of Fadi Quran and the student government at Berkeley to explore how.

As we enter in the “Yom” season, let’s make sure our students internalize this message.

Remember Egypt – Don’t be harsh. Remember Amalek – Don’t be naive.


Don’t Be Harsh

However heated the Israeli elections became, they reminded its citizens and people around the world of Israel’s unwavering commitment to the pursuit of democracy. From a Jewish educational perspective, we learned the ins and outs of the parties and leaders, reviewed the results, and we are watching as the final coalitions form. Some of us were happy with the results of the Israeli elections, and some were less pleased, but we are proud that Israel relies on its people to determine its leadership.

But how did the Palestinian community react to the elections?

Palestinian-born Fadi Quran gave his perspective on the recent Israeli elections in the popular New York Times “Daily” podcast. Quran described his time at Stanford and how he infiltrated a Stanford Hillel as a Mizrachi Jew from Iraq. At one point, he watched a movie about the Holocaust with those Jewish students and began to feel empathy for the Jewish and Israeli experience. He was truly horrified and felt real empathy. By no means did he agree with the Israelis, but, in his words, ”These people created so much more nuance in my head… Now I understand them.”

At different points in the podcast, he talks about his exposure to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Israeli soldiers. And, listening to him, one can begin to feel empathy (not necessarily agreement) with his perspective and his experience as a Palestinian who has not experienced true democracy within his own corrupt government (see below in the reflection section). It is the act of listening to someone from the Palestinian side try to understand the Jewish side which can help motivate us to understand and empathize with the Palestinian people and the challenges they live with.

Don’t Be Naive

Was there an element of deception in the podcast? The host of the “Daily,” Michael Barbaro, introduced his guest in a benign way. “We hear the perspective of one young man living on the West Bank. Guest: Fadi Quran, who grew up in a Palestinian community near an Israeli settlement.”

But who is Fadi Quran? The New York Times is not a high school newspaper that can be forgiven when leaving out important context.

According to an Algemeiner article from 2017, Quran is a Palestinian activist and former Stanford graduate student who told the a Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) conference that “guerilla disobedience” is needed against Israel. Quran, who was arrested by Israeli security forces in 2012, told his fellow participants that activism was not enough. Instead, they must become “freedom fighters.” Quran is also the former president of Students for Palestinian Equal Rights (SPER), which preceded Students for Justice in Palestine. In the past, he has encouraged his audience that in order to “save the lives of innocent people” they should sign a divestment petition to “suck the money out of the people that are causing the violence.”

Does the messenger of the message matter when hearing the experience?


Don’t Be Naive

At UC Berkeley in Northern California, the governing body got together to discuss the disqualification of some of the candidates for their student elections. At this public meeting, people voiced their opinions. After one Jewish student discussed how the disqualification of one of the students would impact the representation of the Jewish community on campus, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic comments were tossed around. To learn more about the background of the story, see here.

The Jewish Newspaper of California (JNC) reported the most problematic of the statements, namely:

  1. The complaint of “white tears, Zionist tears,” which was met with applause, and one person shouting, “F*ck Zionists.”
  2. Anti-Semitic conspiracies, like claiming the Israeli Defense Forces train American police to kill black people.
  3. Claiming that being friends with Zionists implies complicitness in “oppression, the prison-industrial complex, and modern-day slavery.”
  4. Using words like “Zionist,” “Israeli,” and “Jewish” interchangeably, which indicates that when calling for the exclusion of Zionists from the campus, they were calling for the exclusion of Jews altogether.

In a statement signed by UC Berkeley’s Alpha Epsilon Pi chapter, the Berkeley Hillel student board, J Street U at Berkeley, Bears for Israel, and the Greek Jewish Council, they said:

Using Zionism as a code for Judaism, and subsequently conflating this with white supremacy, is completely ignorant of how white supremacy is founded on anti-Semitism and victimizes Jews. The words we heard last night mirror the anti-Semitic rhetoric of white supremacy and contribute to the oppression of Jewish people on this campus and beyond.

According to the Dailycal, Chancellor Carol Christ sent an email addressing “disturbing expressions of bias” at the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) meeting, but did not specifically mention the Jewish campus community.

Don’t Be Harsh

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov, lamented that it is tragedy which too often unifies the Jewish people, saying, “Jews are compared to sand. Each particle of sand is distinct but through fire they come together. Similarly, the Jews are unfortunately divided and only though calamities do we come together.” Certainly, this week’s shooting in San Diego is an example of Jewish unity after tragedy.

On the one hand, it is heartening to see the San Diego Jewish community, and various Jewish organizations on the Berkeley campus, unite in response to the anti-Semitism. On the other hand, is it necessary for trauma to be the motivator for unity? While it is useful in the construction of communities, can we create bonds without needing to be victims? As Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik said: “The Jewish people were not put in this world simply to fight anti-Semitism.”

Discussion Questions

  1. After listening to the Fadi Quran interview, what new insight did you gain into the Palestinian story, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
  2. How do you think the average Palestinian views Israel? What contributes to this outlook?
  3. Typically, left-wing Israelis who live in Tel Aviv or other areas have minimal interaction with Palestinians and support a two-state solution. Those right-wing Israelis, who live in the West Bank, however, and interact with Palestinians regularly are more likely to support complete Israeli sovereignty. (This recent election map indicates this trend, as, on the whole, Israelis who live in areas with Palestinians voted for right-wing parties, while Israelis who voted for left-wing parties do not.) Why do you think this is?
  4. Many people point to the fact that Palestinians haven’t held elections in 2005, when they elected Hamas in Gaza. Polls show that Hamas would likely be elected in the West Bank as well. Given this fact, along with the value of democracy, do you think elections should be held in the West Bank?
  5. Why do you think that Jewish communities typically come together around trauma instead of peace/joy? Do you think this is unique to the Jewish community, or is it true of communities in general?

Reflection Questions

  1. Look through the story of the Jewish people. When have we made attempts to remember Egypt and shown empathy, and when we have made attempts to remember Amalek and shown a lack of naivete?
  2. In thinking about your own life, when have you shown the values of remembering Egypt, and when have you shown the values of remembering Amalek?
  3. While the Israelis were engaging in a democratic process to elect the new leadership, the same cannot be said about the Palestinian Authority. In fact, you might have missed that the Palestinian Authority has a new prime minister, as President Mahmoud Abbas appointed Mohammad Shtayeh to take the lead. He will potentially become Abbas’ successor, given Abbas’ age and unstable health. The juxtaposition of Abbas’ appointing a new prime minister and the lack of Palestinian elections in over a decade, and Israel’s vigorous democracy in full action is jarring. When thinking of the challenging position that many Palestinian people are in, how much consideration do you give to their own approach to leadership?
  4. In considering the story of Fadi Quran, what role does media have in shaping your opinion?
  5. Do you think it was the New York Times’ responsibility to share Quran’s full background as a way to provide context for his perspective or was it unnecessary?

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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