Forty-one minutes into his powerful speech in Jerusalem, President Obama went off script. This spontaneous moment wasn’t the one replayed endlessly on cable television, when he paused to describe meeting with Palestinian young people his daughters’ ages. No, this diversion was only four words, easy to miss, but significant.
It was in the “peace is possible” segment of the speech, an assertion he knew would be greeted skeptically by Israelis and Palestinians, in which Obama implored the audience to build trust in one another and recognize their shared human strivings. “That is where peace begins — not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people; not just in a carefully designed process, but in the daily connections, that sense of empathy, that takes place among those who live together in this land.” The words in italics weren’t in the president’s prepared remarks destributed by the White House.
Obama is an inscrutable man, and we won’t speculate what prompted him to name empathy as a necessary precursor to a viable Palestinian state living next to a secure Israel. Some dismissed the words as naive. We disagree.
Empathy can be a brilliant strategic tool to achieve a successful negotiation. Some lawyers call it “a martial art.” The imperative to look across the table and really understand what is driving your opponent’s anxieties, reluctance, anger, intransigence — that is a skill that even the most accomplished negotiators treasure. Dennis Ross, the former ambassador in the first Bush and Clinton administrations, has written about what he calls an “empathy rule.” As he writes: “To gain the hardest concessions, prove you understand what is important to the other side… (and know) why certain concessions are so painful for it.”
This is precisely the time in both the Jewish and the geopolitical calendar to employ the “empathy rule.” Passover is the ultimate in empathetic holidays, when we are literally commanded to imagine a life of slavery and dislocation. As the writer Yossi Klein Halevi recently observed, “Purim Jews” are motivated by alertness to threat. “Passover Jews” are motivated by empathy for the oppressed. “Both are essential; one without the other creates an unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of Jewish history and values,” he writes.
Klein Halevi believes that too many liberal American Jews have failed to acknowledge that a Palestinian state is both an existential necessity to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and an existential threat “that could turn greater Tel Aviv into the next Sderot.” He is right. But too much of the rhetoric from Israeli government officials has reflected the opposite view, emphasizing threat over empathy, prioritizing Iran and domestic concerns over the ticking time bomb of the occupation.
In a recent academic paper, two behaviorial scientists from the University of California, Irvine posited that gaps in moral empathy can exacerbate political conflict by contributing to the perception that people who do not share our moral opinions are unintelligent or have malevolent intentions. Doesn’t that describe how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have glowered at each other for years?
It is time for Israel and all who support her to defy the naysayers and employ the “empathy rule.” The cycle of seasons instructs us to leave behind the anxieties of Purim and embrace the empathy required of Passover. In his speech, Obama called Israel the “most powerful country in the region.” The powerful can afford to be empathetic; indeed, it may be the surest, most moral way to retain that position.