I was that new, shy kid in the corner of the classroom. My parents had just enrolled me in Hebrew school with the intention of preparing me for my Bar Mitzvah, but I was about to walk away with much more than a memorized paragraph of the Sh’ma.
The Second Intifada had recently broken out, and Mora Shira wanted to engage us in discussion and debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She divided our class into two; one side would assert the Israeli position and the other side would present the Palestinian point of view. I was placed on the Palestinian side. Immediately, I felt myself being confronted with an internal self-struggle. How was I to argue against my own people, my own blood?
Mora Shira poked and prodded and encouraged us all to think outside the box. She went to great lengths in an attempt to show us that understanding every point of view, and thinking both critically and analytically, is a core concept of our own Jewish heritage that should not be feared.
In that classroom, I learned the meaning of empathy.
You may question the wisdom of a teacher bringing politics into a fifth-grade classroom, but what I learned that day reverberates in my day-to-day life halfway through my twenties. Being exposed to such an experience in my formative years showed me that love for Israel and Zionism could be a moral, just, and righteous enterprise that has the ability to take all vantage points under consideration.
In the years since that early lesson, I have never felt like I was standing on shaky ground when I discussed Israel with friends, family, and acquaintances. I have learned much and gained much from dialogue with those that hold various perspectives, but I always feel confident with the argument I put forth because its defining characteristic is morality. I’m not afraid to admit mistakes made by “my side” and I never hesitate to eagerly advocate for Israel when she is unfairly placed under attack. But first and foremost, my early experiences taught me that the sooner that we make human connections with the innocents on both sides, the sooner we will be able to live with them, side by side, in mutual acceptance and dignity.
I do not recognize support for the Palestinians, support for Israel, and a joint endeavor of support for peace as mutually exclusive propositions. I was taught to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of humanity, rather than attempting to advance a myopic agenda that has been tailored for the sole purpose of bringing down the other side. It’s not always black and white for me—I am secure enough in the merits of my position to have empathy for the other without concern for what it does to my own argument because displaying empathy will always protect the credibility of your position.
Sure, much of the conflict is tribal. We are constantly tempted to revert back to our most primal positions of “Us" versus "Them.” But when I see vile, xenophobic, racist ideas being spouted off by extremists, it enrages me. Small people with small minds and no room for compassion in their hearts call for the other side to be wiped out, without fully appreciating how irresponsible those sentiments are.
All too often, we forget that the first step towards understanding is mentally preparing ourselves for that very possibility. The purpose of this piece is not to point fingers or refer to the various unproductive social media posts, but rather to simply encourage us to open our minds and be aware that we not let any one emotional trigger strip us of our sense of humanity.
By further advancing dehumanization of the other side, zealots on both sides serve as the lifeblood of fringe elements. Although most radicals conceal their destructive views and actions behind the shield of remaining “principled,” they cannot run from the fact that they are condemning the people they ostensibly represent to continued bloodshed and heartache. These dark elements, wherever they may be, hold no hope for reconciliation— no room for compromise or coexistence. When confronted with the ideas espoused by fanatics, I am often left to wonder: Where was their Mora Shira? Was their classroom ever divided into two and asked to see things from both perspectives?
Earlier this week, Staff Sergeant Tal Yifrah, a twenty-one year old Israeli from Rishon Lezion, was laid to rest after falling in battle against Hamas in Gaza. Noam Bar, his loving girlfriend, eulogized Tal with heartbreaking pureness and sincerity. She had envisioned spending a lifetime with the man who made her whole. She wanted to be the mother of his children. She wanted to build a loving home, a family, and a life with him. That is only one casualty of this ceaseless war. Think about that for a moment and let it sink in. How many daughters have had to walk down the aisle without their fathers? How many mothers have had to bury their sons?
We all have a right to be mad. We should be furious. However, with each additional escalation of violence, we are given all the more reason to commit our passion and energy towards the noble undertaking of a pragmatic drive for reconciliation. Each innocent life lost is a calamity that could, and must, be avoided. We must recognize and seek to correct tragedies as they occur, regardless of the identity of the victims. Our collective discourse must be held up to a higher standard; our compassion and empathy must be retained, and we must constantly, unapologetically fight for a future our children deserve.
Michael Yadegaran attends Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles and previously served as the Executive Vice President of 30 YEARS AFTER.