A demonstrator holds American and Israeli flags during a protest calling for the release of hostages, Tel Aviv on March 9. Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters.

Americans can sympathize but not empathize with Israelis

As much as Americans support Israel in its conflict with Hamas, 82% in the last Harvard-Harris poll said the most they can do is sympathize, not empathize. To empathize means you have lived similar life experiences, which most Americans have not. We here [in the US] are blessed to have oceans on each side. Let’s leave the US southern border for another time.

The majority of Americans have not sent their children to the army, fought or volunteered themselves for the armed services, and the American home front has never had to fight a terrorist enemy on its borders. I have seen firsthand, covering many Israeli wars – from the Second Intifada to the Second Lebanon War to the five Gaza wars – that Israelis are often literally fighting and protecting their homes, with Hamas and Hezbollah rockets flying overhead.

For those who are critical of Israel, living in the intersectional delusion that places Jews as oppressors and Israel as a victimizer – a binary choice – they refuse to challenge their one-sided narratives, putting themselves in the shoes of Israelis. To see the vulnerability of Israelis, the moral justice of their cause would unravel their armchair-spun narrative that if only Israel hadn’t occupied disputed territory, October 7 would never have happened. That logic falls like a house of cards when you listen to Hamas and the Palestinian Authority speaking in Arabic.

Israelis are all just one degree of separation from October 7, whether they are the families of hostages, those killed or wounded, or are now placing their sons and daughters in harm’s way to defend their homes and country from a genocidal threat. Almost all Israelis have been in the army themselves, developing strong social networks that last a lifetime. So many of their children are in active combat today as part of the regular army or on the front lines as reservists.

My Jerusalem-based friend Prof. Gil Troy, whose children are serving in combat units and have lost friends and comrades during this war, shared with me the last words of a soldier written in case he fell in combat, and his mother’s words eulogizing him at his funeral. This is a short excerpt with minimal editing. It is hard to imagine many Americans relating to the following words.

This is a letter from Ben Zussman, age 22. “I’m writing you this message on the way to the base. If you’re reading this, something must have happened to me. As you know about me, probably no one is happier than me right now. I’m mamash [really, really] on the verge of fulfilling my dream soon. I’m happy and grateful for the zechus [privilege] I have to defend our beautiful country and Am Yisrael.

Sgt. First Class Ben Zussman, 22, of the Combat Engineering Corps’ 601st Battalion,
was killed fighting in Gaza on December 3.

“Even if something happens to me, I don’t allow you to sink into sorrow. I had the zechus to fulfill my dream and my mission, and you can be sure that I’m looking down on you and smiling a huge smile. I will probably sit next to Saba [Grandfather], and we’ll make up for lost time… “If chas v’chalilah [God forbid] you’re sitting shiva [Jewish mourning ritual], transform it into a week of friends, family, and fun. There should be food – fleishig [meat], of course – beers, sweet drinks, nuts, tea and, of course, Ima’s [Mother’s] cookies. Make jokes, hear stories, and meet all my friends you haven’t met yet. I’m jealous of you; I would have liked to sit there and see everyone.

“Another very important point. If I fall into captivity, dead or alive, I’m not willing for any soldier or civilian to be injured by some deal to free me. I don’t allow you to lead a campaign or anything like that. I’m not willing for terrorists to be freed for me – in any way, shape, or form. Please don’t breach my request. I’ll say it again – I left home without even being called to the reserves. I’m full of pride and a sense of mission. I always said that if I need to die, it will happen while defending others and our country.”

The eulogy of his mother, Sarit Zussman “Ben, we will prevail. We don’t have any other option. We are a people that values life. Not like our vile and wretched enemy, cowards, Nazis and their allies who sanctify death. We will live. We will prosper and we will build. And our leaders must be worthy of us, of the Israeli spirit that pulsates within each and every one of us, of the Israeli spirit that pulsates within our amazing soldiers.

If our soldiers succeeded in putting themselves aside and putting the nation in the center, it is only fitting that our leaders do the same. Leaders who don’t understand this, leaders who walk around with a sense of arrogance, should step aside and make way for those who do know what to do. Because we must prevail. Are you listening, people? Do you hear me, world? Do you hear me, you vile enemies who lust for death and evil?! [Israel lives], forever and ever and ever. Standing tall and with our heads held high. Now more than ever, let’s strengthen ourselves. Let’s believe. Let’s demand good. Let’s insist on the good, and we will prevail.”

It is inspiring, unique, and heartbreaking, but only Israelis can truly relate at a deep, shared emotional level. American Jews cannot empathize but only sympathize with these emotionally wrenching but ultimately awe-inspiring words that explain why Israelis live lives of meaning and purpose.

I heard my dad speak of his American exceptionalism and how he felt about fighting in WW II, but that was nearly eighty years ago. The American experience is influenced by Vietnam, Iraq, and the Afghanistan war, controversial wars fought thousands of miles away.

Going to a shiva for a teenage friend killed in combat or terror is all too routine for Israeli twenty-year-olds. This is incomprehensible for American teenagers and young adults, something they cannot relate to from their personal experience, unable to see a war worth putting their lives at risk for.

Decisions Israelis make as a citizen-army directly affect their lives and existence. So when well-meaning Americans tell Israelis to do better, we should say that with humility and think again before believing we know from 6,000 miles away. Did you hear that, Senator Schumer?

We in America offer solutions, seeing issues in the Middle East two-dimensionally, black and white, in a world of gray five-dimensional complexity. Israelis’ lived experiences, whether as civilians or soldiers, give them insights we don’t have and are hard to understand at both an emotional and an objective level.

However, there is nothing gray about Israel’s goal to destroy Hamas’s terrorist network after October 7. Naïve calls for a ceasefire now, leaving radical Islamist Hamas to physically survive and build an insurgency in Gaza the day after, is to support terror and undermine a vital American ally.

As an American who cares deeply about American national security interests, which to my mind are 95% coincident with Israel’s at present, I write this article as a plea to my fellow Americans to see the war with Hamas and Hezbollah and ultimately with Iran, which wants to commit genocide against the Jewish nation, through the eyes of Israelis, who put their sons and daughters in harm’s way. At the same time, we live in relative safety in the United States.

For Jewish Americans, with the rise of antisemitism throughout America, your security has become more precarious than at any time in your lives. With antisemitic macro-aggressions and violence tolerated against Jews on college campuses, subways, and sidewalks, and from some antisemitic extremists in Congress, American Jews may become acclimated to hate and begin to understand what it is like for Israelis to be surrounded by Jewish hatred.

Perhaps at that time, Jewish Americans could start to empathize with Israelis if the assaults, intimidation, and lack of protection of Jewish Americans, coming from the far Left and Right, continue on their upward
path. ■

This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Report for April 8. 2024.

The writer is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network) and Mandel Strategies, a consulting firm for business and government officials in the Middle East. He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides.

By mepin