Life & Culture

Why empathy is a priceless antidote in this painful world

An anti-Israel demonstration at Auschwitz turned my stomach but an Arab-Israeli delegation to the death camp and a Holocaust survivor who refuses to hate, are a cure


Lessons for us all: Naomi and two of her children with her father's cousin Helen, a Holocaust survivor

I think it’s fair to say that most of us as Jewish parents and grandparents have found these times challenging. When our kids are out on their own, we may worry about their physical safety. We see hostility at universities, and fear for our kids’ futures. We see the openly antisemitic rhetoric on our streets and wonder what this country may become. We may feel anxious about frequenting the places in the hub of our daily lives – the schools, shops and synagogues that are possible targets. And the endlessly depressing news cycle of grief, anger and hatred on repeat is constantly lingering, clouding our minds.

There have been so many concerning news stories that have pinged up on my phone in the past eight months. But one that turned my stomach last month was about anti-Israel demonstrations outside Auschwitz on Yom Hashoah. Just a few days earlier my father’s cousin Helen had been to my house for lunch. At 97 she is one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors in the UK. As we sat around the table she started talking about the past, and we were all spellbound by her deeply moving stories of survival in the Lodz ghetto and of her liberation.

A demonstration outside Auschwitz felt like such a violation of her experience and others who survived years of unimaginable horror – and a violation of the memory of those who died within those walls and in other concentration camps. So when I say it turned my stomach, I don’t say it flippantly. My body did whatever it’s programmed to do when the mind detects something uncomfortable.

Auschwitz being a target of hate feels so low. So lacking in empathy. So disrespectful of the trauma Helen and others went through. That’s the thing about this conflict and its fall-out – despite dominating discussion on the world stage, at times it feels so personal it can hit you in the stomach. And when those moments hit, they can be hard to shake off.

I’m sure that feeling would have stayed with me were it not for something else that caught my attention. A picture a fellow journalist sent via WhatsApp taken by his mother, who was also at Auschwitz. This picture did not appear in any papers I read. And it wasn’t doing the rounds on social media. It was a simple image of a group in matching T-shirts holding a banner with an Israeli flag – one banner read “Proud to be Israeli” and the other ‘Proud to be Arab’. This was the Arab-Israeli delegation paying their respects to the victims of the Holocaust at the camp.

If for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, this image was the Newton’s Law of hatred – a snapshot of empathy and connection and the antithesis of the demonstration outside. So often what we see in the world – both in the media and social media – are two angry sides pitted against each other. But small examples of understanding and friendship are so important to hang on to – oases of empathy in an endless landscape of hostility and division. And they’re important for our kids to see too.

Intrigued, I found some information on Israeli news outlet i24 – a short documentary about the group’s visit. In the clip, Yusef, the leader, says: “We’re here as the voice that says ‘no’ to racism.” Another school-aged girl in the delegation explains her motivation for the trip: “We live with people who experienced it [the Holocaust], or whose grandparents experienced it… we need to know their history, where they are from and what they experienced, in order to live side by side.” Later walking around Auschwitz the same young girl is in tears. “It’s hard to process,” she says. “It’s unfathomable.” As one Jewish lady also visiting Auschwitz is captured telling them all, their visit is a truly heartwarming scene.

So while there was disregard for others’ pain outside, there was also something more powerful going on inside. And I want to veer my children towards that powerful emotion of empathy, and also to ensure that they do not disregard others’ pain in this conflict either. With that comes a need to acknowledge that there are many shades of grey when it comes to opinions. We must understand our own history and be clear in our own perspective, but be open to seeing others’ too. Of course, unfortunately, there is not love all around us. And many of us have had to talk to our children about antisemitism – or schools, friends or detractors would have done it for us. We don’t want our children feeling hated but a certain level of awareness is, of course, prudent – and whether it’s blatant antisemitism or aggressive anti-Israel sentiment, we can’t always control what they are exposed to. But amid the negativity it’s important for our children to see examples of empathy too – and to feel it within themselves for others.

One thing that stayed with me from our lunch with Helen was her saying that she’s often asked if she feels hatred. Her response is always “no”. It seems impossible that someone who has been the target of such horror herself could be so generous-hearted in her outlook. So much so, I had to email her to check I understood her correctly before including her words in this piece. (Yes, 97 and tech-savvy). Her reply came swiftly: “You can never hate anyone if you are not in this same situation.” That is certainly easier said than done, but if Helen can live by that ethos, so can we all.

What’s for sure is that those instances of empathy, whether in the Arab-Israeli delegation to Auschwitz or in a Holocaust survivor who refuses to hate, are a priceless antidote to a painful world.

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