Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Empathy with the "Other" - a Jewish Rabbi's perspective on President Trump's Jerusalem declaration

(I might subtitle this reflection, "Intercultural growth as peacemaking potential - Seeking peace through understanding the narrative of the 'other'")

In IDC (Intercultural Development Continuum) terms, intercultural growth involves moving from an ethnocentric way of relating to others (Denial – being basically unaware of difference, or Polarization – being pushed away by difference / pushing difference away, feeling threatened by it, negatively stereotyping, etc.), i.e., experiencing my own way of seeing things, my own value system, my own interpretations, etc., as the only real and true way of being human (corresponding, simply, to “how things really are”), to an ethnorelative or global perspective on others. As we move into Acceptance and Adaptation (in how we experience difference), we become open to difference, curious about it, respectful of it. We come to see things from the perspective of others, and to be able to appreciate those different perspectives, to see them as real; and to see those different others as equally (though differently) human.

A great example of this, I think, is reflected in the writings of Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, including this recent reflection on the declaration of intent of President Trump to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem - https://www.myjewishlearning.com/rabbis-without-borders/torn-between-a-particular-truth-and-a-mutual-peace/.

Rabbi Hanan demonstrates the intercultural (which you could also simply call human or interpersonal) skills of empathy, ability to see things from the perspective of the other – the ability to understand and reflect and even accept a different narrative of how things are.

Rabbi Hanan reflects a deeply held, deeply felt Jewish perspective on Jerusalem (see the article for details), concluding with the words,

“For most Israelis, the refusal of the world since 1949 to recognize Jerusalem as our capital has been a bewildering affront to our dignity, our identity, and our sovereignty. Many would attribute it to irrational vestigial anti-Semitism. United States president Donald Trump is to be commended for finally correcting the painful and unjust slight and doing justice to the Jewish State. We are deeply thankful and we feel vindicated, as the greatest power on earth has recognized the truth at the foundation of our millennia-long identity.

At this point you think here’s one more person “taking sides” in the deeply polarized non-dialogue about the status of Jerusalem. But this is not the end of the article. Rabbi Hanan proceeds to say,

"I write the above words with fervor and conviction. It is all true. But it is only a part of the truth. There is another truth as well, and there will never be peace as long as we hang on to only part of the truth as if it were the full truth."

And he then lays out a Muslim Palestinian narrative of (perspective on) Jerusalem, in terms which I think most Muslims would recognize and agree with; and he concludes that section of his reflection with these words about President Trump’s declaration:

"From this perspective, President Donald Trump’s momentous announcement was a prodigious slap in the face. Its various caveats did little to soften the sting of humiliation. It gave a piece of the greatest prize to Israel, while the Palestinians still have nothing. Blatantly violating international consensus, it stole from the Palestinians and from the Muslims their last remaining sliver of dignity and hope. It recognized reality indeed, the reality of Israeli’s usurpation of their holy city. It gave the ultimate seal of approval to injustice after tragic injustice perpetrated against the Palestinian people and the Muslim religion."

He goes on to conclude,

"We have here two truths. Both are valid, reflecting part of human reality. Each, however, becomes false when they separately present themselves as the full truth, the only truth. If we want real peace, we must take both into account (emphasis added).  If we really want peace, there is no room for the blind hubris of exclusivity. We must work it out together. There is no place for unilateral measures. We must not lend a hand to any move that triumphantly tramples the last shred of the other side’s dignity. We must make our music heard in harmony with the concert of nations."

"I am deeply torn between (a particular) truth and (a mutual) peace, but if I must decide between them – and indeed I must – I will come down on the side of a mutual peace."

This is all the more remarkable because of the deep and deepening polarization between the Palestinian and Israeli sides in their conflict, where neither listens to the other (there’s plenty of shouting at each other, though), and in fact, where there is hardly any relationship or contact between those on the two basic sides of the conflict.

Rabbi Hanan represents the human potential to understand the different “other” (even one with which our own people are in conflict), to meet the other as a fully human being, to enter their world and empathize with their perspectives and values. And this not only represents a positive model of “intercultural” growth and development, but also shows how this growth can be relevant to peacemaking in a situation of intractable conflict.