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A Failure of Empathy
August 11, 2010
A Failure of Empathy

Posted by Sy Friedland, Chief Executive Officer
Reposted from WorldwideSy

I don’t know if you had a chance to read Thomas Friedman’s piece in the New York Times on August 7th. The column entitled “Steal this Movie” was about a new Israeli documentary, “Precious Life,” by the Gaza reporter for Israel’s TV Channel 10 news, Shlomi Eldar. It tells the story of a 4 month old Palestinian baby suffering from a rare immune deficiency who is treated successfully in an Israeli hospital. The child’s surgery which cost $55,000 was paid for by an Israeli Jew whose own son was killed during military service. What makes this a story different from the expected heart-felt tale is the Palestinian mother’s proclamation after the surgery that she hopes the baby will grow up to be a suicide bomber to help recover Jerusalem. This statement at first discouraged the director Eldar from completing the movie, but then against the backdrop of the war in Gaza he decided to complete the movie as an account of not only mutual hatred, but also the less visible substrate of compassion in both lands.

Friedman’s column reminded me of the HBO documentary “To Die in Jerusalem” directed by the Israeli filmmaker Hilla Medalia. This film provides a compelling look at two mothers who both became victims of hatred, but were unable to reconcile in their grief. The film is an attempt to bring the two together. One is the mother of 17 year old Israeli Rachel Levy killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. The other is the mother of 18 year old Ayat al-Akhras who was the bomber and who also died during this act. The mothers who live only four miles apart could not be brought together physically, and had to talk with each other via satellite TV. They never bridge the physical distance or the emotion that keeps them apart. In watching the film you want the mothers to understand each other’s loss and grief, but they can never quite achieve this.

The notion that it is human empathy that allows us to live together is tested in these two stories. The failure of this empathy has been demonstrated all too often in history; from the many holocausts and genocides to the meaning of acts in war, as in the case of Hiroshima. As a psychologist, one reads many articles about the importance of empathy in psychotherapy, but many fewer works on re-building empathy across societies so that people different from ourselves are not just regarded as “the other.” It sets a challenging, but important goal for those of us who work in human services.

Sy FriedlandAbout Me
I am a clinical psychologist by training and for the last 16 years have been the CEO of JF&CS of Greater Boston. I am interested in photography, art, and music. I try to combine these with a great deal of enthusiasm about travel.

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