The right-wing Im Tirtzu group was hit by a storm of criticism, after it called a large group of Israeli authors, actors and other artists ‘moles’ or ‘foreign agents’ in Israeli culture, because of their leftist views (the Hebrew word used translates literally as ‘plants’).
This was too much for practically every political figure in the country, including PM Netanyahu, who harshly criticized the organization. Naftali Bennett, the head of the Beit Yehudi party, considered the most right-wing element in the government, called the campaign “embarrassing, unnecessary and shameful.” The founder of Im Tirtzu admitted that they went too far, and its director apologized.
The cultural establishment in Israel tends to hold strong, even extreme views, opposed to Israel’s continued control of the territories, critical of the government, strongly anti-war, and supportive of Palestinian aspirations. But Israel prides itself on maintaining freedom of expression despite the difficult security situation, and there is a difference between having opinions critical of the government and helping the enemies of the state. It would be particularly wrong to call authors David Grossman and Amos Oz, both strong Zionists, ‘plants’, despite their oft-expressed views.
This made me wonder why it is that so many artists and writers do espouse left-wing causes. I think it is in part because their capacity for empathy is much greater than normal. Empathy – the ability to put oneself in the position of others, to see the world through their eyes – is one of the most important talents of a writer or actor. How could it be possible to write fiction or play a role otherwise?
Empathy is in general a good quality, a humanizing one. A person that cannot empathize with his or her spouse or children will not have a successful family life. A lack of empathy for others, for poor people, the disabled, animals, and so forth may express itself as cruelty. A lack of empathy for members of different ethnic or racial groups is the basis of racism.
Some people are even capable of empathy for vicious criminals. The writer Truman Capote tested the limits of empathy when he researched and wrote his book “In Cold Blood,” a highly detailed account of a sadistic, pointless murder of an innocent family, the backgrounds and motivations of the perpetrators and their thoughts as they faced execution. One can imagine him thinking that if he could empathize with these creatures, no human evil would be beyond his understanding.
Empathy is one of the factors that we call on to help us make moral decisions. Should I give this beggar a couple of shekels? If so, how much? Empathy makes us generous.
Can a person have too much empathy? Sometimes. Empathy must be balanced with other considerations, like justice and self-preservation. If everyone had a strong sense of empathy and none for justice, then no criminals would be punished. If someone puts a knife to your throat – and this is not an academic discussion in Israel today – that is not the time to empathize with your aspiring murderer, but to fight him off.
The psychological makeup of Oz and Grossman that makes them such wonderful writers also makes them poor political analysts. They can give us deep insight into human behavior, but they live in a world where wishes can be reality. They can make their characters do whatever they want; in the real world you need an army for that. We shouldn’t criticize them too much for their empathy, but we shouldn’t think their political judgment is any better than that of the average taxi driver.
The Palestinian Arabs have strong feelings. They are people, just like my family are people. I can empathize with them to a certain extent. I understand that they feel humiliated and victimized and they have a need to recapture their honor and get revenge. I understand that in some ways their lives are poorer than mine.
Empathy pushes me leftward. Why can’t they have the state they say they want? Why do we humiliate them in so many ways? But empathy for the Arabs isn’t the only principle active in my deliberations. There is the question of justice, based on my understanding of history and politics. There is the question of self-preservation. And there is my tribalism, the fact that I feel more empathy for my own people than I do for others.
Creativity can be associated with an overdeveloped – ‘over’ because it becomes anti-survival – ability to empathize. These individuals feel the Arabs’ pain so keenly that it overrides their sense of justice, and even their sense of self-preservation. They empathize so strongly with all humans that their tribal feelings are attenuated (indeed, the Left often criticizes the Right for its tribalism which they see as atavistic, a sign of a lower moral consciousness).
The Palestinian Arab culture, on the other hand, appears to have an underdeveloped sense of empathy, as evidenced by their cruelty to women, children and animals – and above all, to their Jewish cousins whom they are capable of slaughtering like the countless goats they kill on Eid al-Adha.
The Left, creative and otherwise, doesn’t realize this. Despite – or maybe because – of their powerful ability to empathize, they don’t seem to be able to understand that their neighbors lack that ability.
Perhaps they are waiting for a Truman Capote to explain it.