Waiting for Capote

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.

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4 Responses to Waiting for Capote

  1. levari says:

    A problem for a lot of Aspies is that- contrary to the commonly held belief that they feel nothing- they feel all the things, all the time, in an overwhelming tsunami of emotional information. They’re not good at detecting deception, because that’s not a logical thing to do, and their desire to avoid conflict is such that they’ll accept the worst abuse and shameless lies, turning their rage instead on the safe people in their lives, ironically their only advocates.

    This is the Israeli mentality. Our schizophrenic bible, with its ‘kill all the babies but be gentle with the cows and the poor foreigner within your gates’ has created this schism within our society, and the growing global mentality of polarization isn’t helping. My advice is to listen to CS Lewis and teach a lot more logic inschools. Even Aspies pick this up eventually.

  2. Keefe Goldfisher says:

    From a distance Israelis often look like they’re eating themselves. I’m Tirtzu would have seemed beyond reproach to me for exposing the harm NGOs do, which has led to the even more telling further revelation that they are basically foreign-run enterprises of propaganda operating as loss leaders in Israel in the competition to undermine the state.

    American mendacity in the person of Obama and his small coterie of fellow travelers may have induced and heightened this schizophrenia, and the desire to show rectitude (when Netanyahu said Arabs were going to the polls in droves, the public had to criticize this) overrides common sense about the actual words and where and when they were said. Feeling everything, all the time, and expressing it against the state, feeds into many bad narratives abroad that are on the march. The EU, for one, should not ever hear a word that makes them feel good about their views. Palestinians receiving sympathy for a history of lies and terrorism because someone’s conscience is being aired out, is a poor substitute for public display of morality.

    Bully for a robust democracy. Have a little sense about who’s listening. It’s not Godot.

  3. Shalom Freedman says:

    This is an especially interesting piece as it addresses a question which has long troubled me. I also think the answer is in some degree correct, for I notice that in Israel those in Humanities and Social Sciences tend more to the Left while those in hard sciences tend more to the right. That is of course simplistic as is the alleged reason i.e. that the Leftists see and feel the other side, while the Rightists firmly see what they are as right and refuse to see the other side.
    Except having known many Leftists of various kinds including many in Israel I was often perplexed and even angered at their often dismissing Jewish victims of terror especially if they were so – called settlers. I noticed that many of the Leftists seemed more concerned with looking good in the eyes of non- Jews than with really caring for Jews who had been injured or killed.
    So I think that the Empathy they have is too a conditional Empathy. And it is often Empathy which makes them feel they are going to be liked by humanity, part of greater humanity , higher than any parochial attachment to their own ‘tribe’ or ‘people’.
    I then would be less generous than you in seeing a fundamentally positive motivation in their ‘caring’. It is often a ‘caring’ for self- justification purposes. It too most often involves a neglect of,an indifference to , and even a hostility to Jews who suffer.
    Instead of caring more for their own family, people, nation, they assert their superiority by putting the ‘other’ first.

  4. Shalom,

    I am not arguing that all leftists are like this. After all, Stalin was a leftist! But I think it’s one of factors that pushes creative people — artists, writers, actors — toward the Left.

    You are quite right that they lack tribal feelings. But maybe this also comes from an excess of empathy.

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