Tackling the empathy deficit

Welcome to my new blog about empathy – the art of stepping into the shoes of other people and seeing the world from their perspective.

I believe that empathy can help us escape from the narrow confines of our own existence and guide us towards more adventurous and fulfilling lives. Empathy is also a radical tool for social transformation that has the potential to bring about change not through new laws, policies or institutions, but through a revolution of human relationships. Barack Obama has said the most fundamental problem in modern society is ‘the empathy deficit’. Harnessing the transformative power of empathy is the great challenge of the twenty-first century.

This weekly blog will contain my own thoughts on empathy, the stories of empathetic adventurers, interviews with key empathy activists and thinkers, and act as a global portal for empathy news from around the world. I also hope it becomes a place where people can share their personal experiences of looking at life through they eyes of others.

I would like to launch this blog with a story that I hope you find as inspiring as I do.

The Locket

‘It was a sight I will never be able to forget, and it changed my life completely,’ remembers Rami Elchanan, an Israeli graphic designer. On a Thursday afternoon in September 1997, his daughter Smadar, a vivacious fourteen-year-old who loved modern dance and dreamed of becoming a doctor, had gone shopping for new school books with friends on Ben Yehuda Street in West Jerusalem. At three o’clock Rami heard news reports on his car radio of a Palestinian suicide bombing nearby that had injured hundreds and left several people dead. He immediately went looking for his daughter, frantically running from street to street, from hospital to hospital. Finally he found her. Smadar’s body was laid out in a morgue.

Rami’s immediate reaction was rage. ‘When someone murders your little daughter, the one and only thing you have in your head is unlimited anger and an urge for revenge that is stronger than death.’ Gradually the anger subsided and his life became enveloped by an unbearable grief for the loss of his child. A year after the bombing Rami was invited to a meeting of the Parents Circle – also known as the Bereaved Families Forum – which brings together Israelis and Palestinians whose family members have been killed in the conflict. Initially reluctant and sceptical about the usefulness of such an organisation, he eventually agreed to take part. He watched with detachment as other Israeli families began to arrive. And then he witnessed something extraordinary. ‘I saw Arabs getting off the buses, bereaved Palestinian families: men, women, children, coming towards me, greeting me, hugging me and crying with me. I distinctly remember a respectable elderly woman dressed in black from tip to toe and on her breast a locket with a picture of a kid, about six years old. A singer sang in Hebrew and Arabic, and suddenly I was hit by lightning. I can’t explain the change I underwent at that moment.’

Until then Rami, who was forty-seven at the time, had never shaken hands with a Palestinian, let alone embraced one. The meeting, for him, was a new beginning. He realised that there were Palestinians who had suffered the same sorrows as him and his family. They were united by a shared experience that allowed them to understand one another’s lives. ‘What connects us is the pain,’ he says. ‘Our blood is the same red colour, our suffering is identical, and all of us have the exact same bitter tears.’ Through his involvement with the Bereaved Families Forum, Rami was able to humanise the enemy, to see that Palestinians, not just Israelis, were victims of the conflict. ‘I had gone through a long process of demonizing them,’ he admits. ‘By meeting the Palestinian bereaved families, I saw Palestinians as human beings, not caricatures in newspapers or articles or history items, but real people, crying with me. That was my turning point.’

Rami Elchanan with Palestinian members of the Bereaved Families Forum, Mazen Faraj, Fadi Abu Awwad and Aziz Abu Sarah.
Rami Elchanan (far right) with Palestinian members of the Bereaved Families Forum, Mazen Faraj, Fadi Abu Awwad and Aziz Abu Sarah.

Since that first meeting Rami has dedicated himself to the cause of Israeli -Palestinian reconciliation and the pioneering work of the Bereaved Families Forum, whose membership comprises over five hundred families. He took part in a unique project where bereaved Israelis travelled to a hospital in Ramallah and donated blood for Palestinian victims, while bereaved Palestinian families went to Jerusalem and donated blood to the Israeli Red Cross. Another initiative, called ‘Hello Peace’, is an unusual form of answering service. You dial a freephone number and if you are Israeli you can speak with a Palestinian, and if you are Palestinian you talk to an Israeli. Since it began in 2002, there have been over a million conversations between the two sides. While some calls begin as screaming matches, others have led to lasting friendships.

Rami Elchanan, the son of an Auschwitz survivor, is regularly abused and ridiculed in Israeli circles for fraternising with the relatives of suicide bombers. But he knows that there is no hope of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without mutual understanding, without conversations between strangers that erode the distance of ignorance: ‘We must be prepared to listen to ‘the other’. Because if we will not listen to the other’s story we won’t be able to understand the source of their pain and we should not expect the other to understand our own.’

7 thoughts on “Tackling the empathy deficit

  1. thanks for sharing the information about the Israeli and Palestinian families meeting – especially in these times where the Goldstone report on the Gaza war has caused such turmoil.

    reading the photo caption, I was struck at how becoming a parent leads to such a change in identity for a person in some Arab traditions – a woman’s name changes to Umm-[name of child] (Mother of…) or Abu-[name of child] (Father of…). I don’t know what happens to the name of the parent if that child dies… something I must ask Arab friends. But I can imagine that it makes the loss of that child even more of an anguished daily reminder if his or her name remains part of your name.

    Good luck Roman with this blog, I hope it brings new ideas and new people together.

  2. I was deeply touched by the story of the victims of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict trying to understand each other’s pain. As a parent of a beautiful teenage girl, my heart aches to think of what the Israeli father had to do to find the strength to meet with ‘the enemy’. It must require great strength and courage to rise above the natural urge to hate those who hurt us so deeply and attempt to feel empathy for them.
    What a dream you have, Roman. It tugs at my heart.

  3. Roman,
    Congratulations for your new blog and thank you for writing about this beautiful story about the work of the Bereaved Families Forum.
    I truly hope in a universal empathy revolution.

  4. Roman,

    I really like the idea behind this blog. I hope it goes well. After reading this post, I know I will be following, especially if the content remains as good.

    As Paul stated, it is very difficult to understand how it must have felt to embrace the “enemy”, but quite easy to understand that moment of realization that those “enemies” are not Palestinians, but fellow parents who have lost their children.

    This type of adjusting of perspective can be practiced every day with everyone we meet. Look past the initial judgment, categorization, or stereotype and find the common ground. From that common ground, you can begin to understand others. How does the saying go? Seek first to understand.

    Be well.


  5. Great idea! Just think, if every Govt in the world set up an Empathy Dept where brilliant people were given budgets to match the defence spend and charged with using their creative genius to find ways to improve the empathy levels within the individual ( self-self compassion), between individuals and extending to communities, both intranational and international: I wonder what would be the outcome……just a dream probably….

  6. Thank you for this blog, Roman, and for starting with the Israeli/Palestinian story. It is difficult to comprehend how our two peoples have managed to live side by side for over sixty years now, to make each other suffer so much and to know each other so little. Most Israelis never personally met a Palestinian, and vice versa. Thanks to blogs like yours, and to other efforts which are now being made by the new generation (but not only), this shall change.

    Daniela Norris (co-author of Crossing Qalandiya – Exchanges Across the Israeli/Palestinian Divide from Reportage Press, UK).

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