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Why do so many people struggle to express empathy in the Israel-Palestine conflict?



Peter Ullrich,

A banned pro-Palestine demonstration takes place in Hamburg, Germany, 21 October 2023.
A banned pro-Palestine demonstration takes place in Hamburg, Germany, 21 October 2023. Photo: IMAGO / Moritz Schlenk

The sociologist Friedhelm Neidhardt defined the key conditions for escalating processes of violence. In addition to specific conflictual issues and actual causes, his definition includes both a fundamental conflict of values and the absence of authoritative third parties or groups that could play a moderating or intervening role in stopping conflict.

Peter Ullrich is a sociologist, an alumni coordinator at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a senior researcher in the field of “Social Movements, Technology, and Conflicts” at the Center for Technology and Society, and a fellow at the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University Berlin.

The escalation of conflicts automatically perpetuates a process that ends up reinforcing the differences between conflicting perspectives: how people view the world and the events that inform these views diverge ever further. In these moments, perception becomes increasingly selective, meaning that what the two sides “notice” in the first place diverges more and more.

The end point of this is that the harshest measures against the other side seems necessary or even imperative. Eventually, any real trigger events lose their meaning, and the established enmity becomes reason enough for conflict. In this state, it becomes impossible to even partially comprehend the perspective of the other side — not even in the sense of understanding it for the sake of showing empathy, but rather the very fact of being capable of having the same cognitive processes. Escalation maximizes the differences in perspective and therefore, minimizes empathy. 

Middle East Conflict of the Second Order?

Every escalation of the conflict in the Middle East finds its sad double in the “second-order Middle East conflict”, in conflicts between those who comment, are scandalized, or express solidarity from a distance.

In the actual conflict in the Middle East, open warfare has reached the most extreme level of escalation. This includes, first and foremost, the cruel attacks against the Israeli civilian population by Hamas, which include scenes of horror, degradation, torture, murder, hostage-taking, and continuous missile strikes on predominantly Israeli Jews. Hamas attacked a clearly unprepared Israel and quickly produced horrifying images that stunned the rest of the world. The brutality of the attack was unprecedented and left Israel in shock.

Israel’s response must also be considered an escalation, one which caused a humanitarian catastrophe of extreme proportions for the people of Gaza and is underscored by the genocidal intentions of extreme right-wing Israeli politicians. The civilian population in Gaza are exhausted by bombings, restrictions of aid, water, and gas, and orders to relocate have led to a four-figure death toll.

The escalation of the conflict detailed above is also spreading at breakneck speed as part of the social media fuelled second-order Middle East conflict. As Caroline Emcke pointed out in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 21–22 October, it is astounding how rapidly a proliferation of immediate and resolute words were found where shock and even speechlessness might have been expected or necessary. The first thing to fall by the wayside, even in progressive or left-wing discourse, is empathy with the diverse victims of the escalation of conflict.

The German desire to outlaw antisemitism is obviously structured in a way that it grants preferential treatment to people of a certain heritage.

Compassion for the victims of the Hamas attack is obviously not to be taken for granted as a response from the progressive spectrum. Naturally, most statements from leftists distanced themselves from the actions of Hamas. Some, however, expressed an abstract solidarity for all victims and called for an end to violence.

My impression of the situation is that even pro-Palestine groups do not generally express support for the actions of Hamas. However, many left and pro-Palestine groups strangely remained silent and groups like La France Insoumise cannot bring themselves to condemn the attack. Some people are calling for solidarity with the people of Gaza without mentioning the actions of Hamas, including some extremely renowned international sociologists at various German universities who are signatories of this open letter. Lastly, there are also sympathizers, in some cases from the “Left”, who celebrated the terrorist attacks.

Traditional communist groups in particular, including an increasingly active militant youth group scene in Germany, trivialize these terrorist acts against Israel’s civilian population by calling them “military operations” and show unconditional solidarity with the “Palestinian resistance”, including its most reactionary elements. Left-wing activists were present or co-organizers at various marches and demonstrations, some of which expressed solidarity with the actions of Hamas. Anyone who accepts or approves of such acts in their solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation must actively ignore the images of murder, persecution, and torture, or the despair of the relatives of Hamas hostages in order to discover something progressive or even something towards which one can be neutral.

Conversely, in recent heated debates, the slightest reference to the actual historical context of this escalating conflict is repeatedly dismissed as a relativization or defence of terrorism. For example, pointing out that the actions of Hamas can only partly be explained by its reactionary, Islamist, misogynist, nationalist, antisemitic ideology, and support from Iran, and suggesting that the actions of Hamas also stem from the injustices of a decades-long occupation and its indirect continuation in the blockade of Gaza. The current occupation is characterized by structural violence and an intensification of the manifold violent practices of the right-wing settler movement emboldened by the current radical right-wing Israeli government.

Patterns of Racist Interpretation

In light of this, it is concerning that almost all pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Germany have been banned, especially in the first two weeks of the current conflict.

The disturbing images of Hamas sympathizers handing out treats after the attack began, violent riots at spontaneous gatherings of people, repeatedly in Berlin’s Neukölln neighbourhood, and not least the rise in antisemitic crimes including tagging buildings with the star of David and the throwing of Molotov cocktails at a Jewish centre in Berlin, seem to provide the basis of the discourse that results in extreme restrictions to basic rights. Demonstrations against the occupation that highlight the humanitarian catastrophe caused by Israel’s attacks on Gaza, including those organized or co-organized by left-wing Jews, were banned on the grounds that “pro-Palestinian symbols” had appeared and that participants might sympathize with Hamas. While the latter do constitute a serious problem, they are still not an acceptable reason to restrict the fundamental human right of assembly to such an extent.

The police, but also political observers, find themselves in a sticky situation here. It is understandable that the level of hatred and violence, including hostility towards the press, inflammatory slogans, and approval of acts of illegal violence at some of these events and gatherings worries people, not least Jewish people, who are currently the repeated targets of supposed criticisms of Israel. The police bans are clearly also based on an offensive and racist attitude toward Palestinians that supposes that Palestinians and their cause are fundamentally antisemitic. In continuation of a that emerged in previous years on the occasion of the “Nakba Day” protests, all Palestinians and their supporters are lumped together.

Contrary to the long history of case law in administrative and constitutional courts, the broad application of pre-emptive bans has its context not only in the processes of legalization and securitization of the Middle East antisemitism debate, but also in the COVID-19 pandemic. Since COVID-19, there appears to be a clear shift towards a more repressive approach to the right to assemble, although this may still be limited to specific segments of the population and specific issues.

It was the Brokdorf decision in which the German Federal Constitutional Court formalized the requirement that the police must take a nuanced approach to participants in protests, and that they must protect the public’s right to demonstrate even if some participants are breaking the law. Pre-emptively putting a blanket ban on gatherings solely because of the nature of the specific issue, references to a specific region, or because a display of anger is expected (according to previous justifications) violates the right to assembly.

Very few third parties, not least from the Left, are encouraging the public to break out of this self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing logic, or are advocating for perspectives and forms of engagement which resist the pressure to escalate the war further and which refuse to renounce empathy for the victims, regardless of their origin.

The police can also intervene and respond in a nuanced manner if necessary or impose conditions before gatherings. This applies in particular to the offences related to opinion and expression, because unlike acts of violence, the police can definitely manage them “calmly” and within the framework of the requirement for nuance. Palestinians and critics of Israeli policy towards Palestinians also have the right to articulate their grievances.

This is an unavoidable aspect in the democratic right to assembly and obviously, these people are not all necessarily Hamas supporters or Jew-haters. This applies particularly to European Jews for a Just Peace, whose gatherings were restricted by the orgy of bans as much as to the “Youth against Racism” demonstration. Gatherings that were able to take place on the weekend of 21–22 October reflect this calm expression of opinions and while they were not without disruptions, they were by no means scenes of uncontrollable violence.

This once again demonstrates the strong externalizing function of German antisemitism debates. While politicians engage in racist characterizations, demanding crackdowns, expedited deportations, and even the revocation of citizenship for Hamas sympathizers, clearly suggesting that antisemites are members of migrant communities, some still remember the Aiwanger exposé. In his youth, Bavarian politician Hubert Aiwanger wrote and distributed a neo-Nazi leaflet trivializing the Holocaust. Instead of losing any public office he held, he was rewarded with excellent election results after the expose was published. The German desire to outlaw antisemitism is obviously structured in a way that it grants preferential treatment to people of a certain heritage.

The Problem with Reductive Discourse

The polarizing patterns of discourse that conceptualize the conflict as an obviously dualistic one are simplistic, analytically reductive, and require absolute partisanship within such a dualism, as illustrated by the outraged reactions to Slavoj Žižek’s talk given at the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Žižek’s suggestion that occupation violence was contextually relevant for the escalation of conflict was taken as a relativization of Hamas’s guilt (even if one can be divided about his ability to empathize with this side). Even his clear condemnation of Hamas and its terrorist acts did not prevent this interpretation.

In the currently climate, it is increasingly difficult to formulate analytic, political, and moral views that defy a clear and homogenizing good/evil classification of the parties involved in the Middle Eastern conflict. Each side in the second-order Middle East conflict demands, understandably from its own perspective, absolute solidarity and by doing so lays foundations for a lack of empathy for other victims and those affected.

The days-long discussions on social media about the reported beheading of Israeli babies by members of Hamas demonstrated the dynamics of this new turf war. The twists and turns of the story — first true, then not confirmed, then possibly confirmed — were only shared by those involved in the discussions when they seemed to give ammunition to their own side. The pattern was repeated after the explosion at the Al-Ahli hospital, where it is still not clear whether an Israeli attack or a misfired rocket from the Gaza Strip caused the devastation there.

Very few third parties, not least from the Left, are encouraging the public to break out of this self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing logic, or are advocating for perspectives and forms of engagement which resist the pressure to escalate the war further and which refuse to renounce empathy for the victims, regardless of their origin.

Translated by Gegensatz Translation Collective.