Sympathy and Empathy in the conceptualization of the other:

The Case of Israel


Presented for the New Europe at the Crossroads

Dr. Ariella Atzmon

York 1997

Copyright © Ariella Atzmon, 1997
All rights Reserved

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Sympathy and Empathy in the conceptualization of the other: the Case of Israel

What is an Israeli identity? or who is a Jew? These questions are related to the crucial question of whether Israel is a Jewish democratic state or a civic democracy for all its citizens? An analysis of the concepts 'sympathy' vs. 'empathy' may resolve the confusion around the conception of identity vs. identification. The concepts of assimilation and integration as related to sympathy should be presented along with the concept of hybridization as related to empathy, in order to illustrate the entire range of attitudes towards the 'other' in Israel. On the grounds of the dilemma: How should it be possible for an empathic communication to leap beyond the boundaries of distinguished discourses? Judaism and Zionism will be questioned in a confrontation with the Levinasian ethical idea of 'otherness' as linked to responsibility, reciprocity, and diversity.


An examination of the distinctions between the concepts of 'sympathy' vs.'empathy' may contribute to the exploration of the entire range of attitudes towards the 'other'. Dialogical styles among rival discourses are affected by the prospects of empathic communicative conduct. I would like to relate the dyad empathy/sympathy to the concepts of Identity/Identification, in the context of the possible creation of hybrid identity.
If 'Identification' means to be constituted through community, state, ethnicity, or gender, then 'Identity' should be understood as what is blocked and negated. The expression 'Israeli identity' can be understood as a call for identification. A call which strives to fixate Jewish citizens into discourses which ignore the logic of difference.

Since Judaism is defined as a religion and a nation at the same time, Israel portrays a unique case, in terms of the meanings of citizenship, nationality, religious belonging, or 'home', 'exile' and 'Diaspora'. The fact that Israel had been established as a Jewish state, denotes the way in which the meanings of 'resident', 'migrant', 'stranger' and 'foreigner' are interpreted and signified. If we try to deal with the question: 'what is Israeli identity'? we find ourselves involved with two other disturbing questions: what is the judicial statutes of immigrants in the state of Israel? and 'what is considered Jewish in the context of the 'law of return'?
The fact that Judaism signifies a national group and a religion at the same time, is the foundation for an intense need to maintain the spirit of Judaism, based upon common destiny and a deep belief in God's promise to his chosen people. This spirit is revealed in the verse "For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations" (Bamidbar) . In light of this verse, we can detect an aversion to intermingling with 'others, and a strong repulsion to missionarism, manifested by the creation of obstacles discouraging conversion to Judaism.
This deep seated spirit ends with a lack of empathy for what is non-Jewish. The state of Israel portrays a new society which proclaims brotherhood within the so called 'melting pot' designed for those who are defined as Jewish. Other minorities who are called 'cousins' at best, or strangers at worst do not count.
In the case of Israel, the meaning of identity is confused with identification. The question is whether identity should refer to the concept of citizenship, or to religious belonging. This intricate situation brings about the unbearable permanent preoccupation with the question: Who is a Jew? If citizenship is conditioned upon a sense of religious belonging, then the legitimacy of conversion becomes an acute problem. In the light of another verse: "converts are as difficult for Israel as psoriasis", all political crises around the procedures of conversion to Jewishness become clear. Whenever personal identity is confused with identification, we can trace a sharp inclination towards modes of assimilation and integration. Both modes are related to sympathy.

In his book 'The Order of Things' Foucault illustrates sympathy as "an instance of the Same so strong and so insistent that it will not rest content to be merely one of the forms of likeness: it has the dangerous power of assimilating, of rendering things identical to one another, of mingling them, of causing their individuality to disappear" (Foucault, 1973:23) The principle of sympathy transforms and alters things in the direction of identity, "so that if its power were not counter-balanced it would reduce the entire world to a homogeneous mass, to the featureless form of the same" (Foucault:24). This tendency is opposed by the compensating force of antipathy which "maintains the isolation of things and prevents their assimilation [by keeping every being within its] impenentrable difference and its propensity to continue being what it is" (Foucault, 24).
By the constant counterbalancing of sympathy and antipathy, identities "can resemble others and be drawn to them, though without being swallowed up or loosing singularity" (Foucault, 24).
To the concepts of assimilation and integration as related to sympathy, I would like to juxtapose the concept of hybridization as adjacent to the notion of empathy. The word 'Empathy' links 'em', as putting into, to pathos. To empathize according to the Webster's Dictionary means to recognize diversity as the "the action of understanding, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another or either the past or present, without having the feelings, thoughts and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner" .
On the contrary, 'sympathy' means: to experience 'sym' similarity, "having common feelings, emotions or experience..... unification and harmony that metaphorically means the capability of communication in the same medium" (Webster's Dictionary), linked to pathos. Sympathy is an expression of unification and harmony and the capability to communicate in complete agreement.

While sympathy strives to assimilate the other, empathy stresses difference, and awareness of 'The Differend' as an unsignified communication. Lyotard stamped the title 'The Differend' as "the case of conflict between (at least) two parties that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments [discourses]". The concept of 'the Differend' aims to illustrate precisely the logic of dominance of the hegemonic which ignores the 'lack of the other'. The 'Differend' stresses the idea of language as a limitation of reality. While the Differend signals silence, a litigation is the possibility to settle an argument by using phrases from a common rule. When conflicts are signaled as litigations, differences are ignored and transgressed .
In order to illustrate how the majorityof the Jewish population in Israel became involved in paranoic master-slave relationships, we shall discover that it is linked to the impossibility for a realization of an emphatic course of action in the interrelations among people in the state of Israel.

I shall refer the lack of empathy, characteristic to Judaism, to the way the divine contract with God is grasped as a promise to the children of Israel "you shall be my own treasure from among all people... and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" ((Shemot chap 19 sec 6). The status of the Jews as committed to a contractual bondage creates the existential Jewish desire to be hated and rejected as a cause and effect of being 'God's treasure'. This inspiration became the reason for maintaining Jewish community life throughout history. The rewarded contractuality constructed the most complicated matter where the demand for equality has been confused with the standpoint of the self persuasion of being chosen.

I would like to share the psychoanalytic language in order to apply the concept of narcissism as an answer to a deep sense of loss endured in being Jewish.
Narcissism in terms of mirroring is defined by (Lasch, 1984: 33) as: "a disposition to see the world as a mirror, more particularly as a projection of one's own fears and desires".
Human beings are surrounded with phantasies, that are rooted in loss and desire. Being Jewish means to experience a desire to be validated by the other as chosen, and at the same time to proclaim the demand for equality. This aspiration, which remains as a perpetually unfulfilled desire, becomes the main barrier to empathic conduct. The way in which it was maintained in the Diaspora is obvious, but since Zionism took over, the lack of empathy became even more severe. The perception of hatred, repugnance and horror, reflected in those who are under occupation, leads over and again to the conditions of paranoia. Since the Israeli Jew is confronted with the returning gaze of enmity, the wishful urge for validation is perceived as undone. The moment the narcissistic demand for validation as superior is rejected, paranoia occurs. Interrelations constructed upon antipathies in principle prevent any possibility for empathy.
Narcissism emerges with the wish to see others as the same as us and at the same time to strive for a victory affirmed by the subjection of others in order to satisfy our desire for validation. Narcissistic pathology manifests itself in: "fantasies of grandiosity and mirror fixation, a mixture of an inflated image of the self and a need to have this image constantly confirmed by others" (Frosh, 1991:74-75). Narcissistic pathology is recognized by self-centeredness and a radical lack of concern for others manifested as an absence of empathy.
We may assume that many human beings are suffering from symptoms of narcissistic pathology. These Symptoms include a lack of self confidence, and involve a dispairing sense of emptiness and fragility. These symptoms involve a dispairing sense of self in danger of dissolution and death. These symptoms, typical of Jewish people, may help in clarifying the obsessive occupation with death and holocaust narrations in Israel.

The experience of loss and unfulfilled desire can produce two opposite movements. Creativity on the one hand, and a regressive turn, on the other hand.
But, since the ability to attain a driving force for creativity, and a new shift of identity, represents a threat to the amalgamation of a collectivity, we can grasp why the regressive turn takes over in Israel. Singularity as the enemy of homogeneity, comprises a surplus value of the creation of an hybrid identity. Following Hegel's philosophical thought, identification is coupled in dialectic relations with multiple negations, which embodies the possibility to extend a new shift of identity. However, When a denial of difference occurs and brings about regressivity, the possibility of an identity shift is shut off.
Since cultural aspirations originate with an experience of loss, the regressive turn is manifested by the production of historical myths stressing the lost golden age. Fabricated legends which are related to a primary fall from grace, find their way into many societies, (many ethnic groups share the myth of being chosen). A nostalgic clinging to the past, searching for 'roots', keeps groups in a monolithic structure of similarity. On the contrary, creativity, is a process of re-imagining the future. The permanent drive to fill in the gap of loss may bring about creativity only in the case of juxtaposing a new collage of hybridic identities .
In Israel the yearning for a reunification with lost objects is disclosed through the wish to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, including a 'recovery' of biblical worship. The regressive turn is entangled with heaps of all-inclusive bans and prohibitions, to keep 'the chosen people' those who are appropriate, completely available. It is manifested by a tendency to protect the Children of Israel from being 'contaminated' (hybridized) by what is non-Jewish. The logic of equivalence , which fits the terminology of similarity, sympathy, assimilation, up to integration, are signified as homogeneity and purity - purity as opposed to contamination, as opposed to hybridization.

The urge for Purity is a direct expression of regressive narcissism. "'Purity' is what 'ideologies seek; the preservation of their own image, at all costs. Purity is therefore, a direct expression of regressive narcissism. (Frosh: 90).
The concept of Purity is one of the most obscure issues that emerge from the readings of the old testament. In Vayiqra (chapter 19 sec19) we can find: "Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and wool come upon thee". What was originated as a command intended for a rural society, turned into a general taboo on hybridization, in Jewish tradition. A ban on all acts that increase disorder, carry contamination or lead to a decrease in purity. (The panic of disorder and the growth of entropy can be interpreted as a latent primordial fear of chaos and death ).

As opposed to regression, creativity points to the 'gaps' of the inexpressible, darkened zones that are related to the banned, repressed, censored or forgotten. In order to discuss the possibility for a creative comprehension of reality, I shall introduce Lacan terminology relating to the three levels of human existence: The Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real.
When Lacan asserts that the 'Real is impossible' he means that the 'Real' is richer than any finite number of generalizations of particular realities. The Real that resists symbolization creates an abyss between groups which are constructed by distinct symbolic discourses. It is the 'Symbolic' which, by its very nature, imposes blind spots precisely around the focal points of a collective group's repressed desires.
Each fragment of experience which is rejected in the linguistic process (under cultural-social supervision), will remain unknown! The unknown or the inexpressible is what draws the contours of the group profile. The fact that language defines what the subject is able to know about the world and about himself, is related to the reconstruction of history and the fabrication of our most inner experiences. Written materials such as historical textbooks, government official propaganda publications, are all enlisteas collective membrane for meanings in use. Therefore, if we accept the idea that identity is located in the 'Real', the Real which will never be covered by the meaning in use, then personal identity is doomed to be silenced.
But, paradoxically the more the symbolic order works as a constructive negation, the greater the striving for creativity. It may end with the creation of an hybrid mutation, the plunging into the abyss of the inexpressible, the kingdom of the empathic act. The fact that any language is condemned to an absence of words, is the driving force for the production of new meanings by means of shifts from existing repertoires. Israel reflects a regressive tendency to 'signalize' past events into a common accepted single interpretation. Group identification becomes conditioned upon the up-lifting of the past events of a particular group at the expense of the past events of other groups. We can realize in the Israeli Jewish society that an inacceptance of the main national ethos raises the most ferocious clashes. And this is before we start analyzing the brutal conflict with the Arab-Palestinian society which is internally divided as well.
The splitting of identification occurs while represented national memories, cease to be matters of general concern. In the case of the Holocaust, a national trauma, which distinguishes Jews from non-Jews, recently Ethiopian new comers and people born to families of Asian or north African origins, reject the call to participate in the Holocaust memorial events. If 'Identity' is what is blocked and negated, thus empathy can be activated in the scar between the symbolic order signified by identification and the muteness of identity. At this point one should stress the insoluble dilemma: How can empathy be actualized, if a deliberate expression can be constructed only at the price of an impoverishment of the 'I''. How could it be possible for an empathic communication to leap beyond the boundaries of language?

By praising unification and blurring existential personal dilemmas, Israeli Jews are torn between being Jewish or being Israeli. The conflict is conditioned upon the question of whether Israel is a Jewish state, or a state that promises full rights for Jewish people. The essential principle of democracy as majority rule, embodies the definition of the group to which this regime is directed. In the case of Israel, 'Identification' is confused between a commitment to the state as a defined territory, under a democratic constitution on the one hand, and a commitment to a national, religious ethnic group, on the other hand. The second choice immediately excludes all citizens that are not Jewish as predestined to a lower status. The Israeli Jew is torn between the Zionist revolutionary promise for a new Jewish identity, and a nostalgic attachment to the pre-revolutionary stage. The verse 'one nation and one heart', signifies the hegemonic power of Jewish brotherhood, which negates the creation of a new identity and exhibits a cancellation of 'otherness'.
The logic of equivalence which prevails in Jewish society abates any possibility for an empathic communication. The terminology of 'the empty signifier' (Laclau, 1994:105-114) supports the argumentation concerning the distorting mechanisms of the logic of equivalence: "it consists...., in a double process according to which between closure as an impossible operation and the particularity of the object incarnating it, there is a mutual dependency in which each pole partially limits the effects of the other. ........equivalence deforms and weakens the particularity of each of its links. What we have to add now is what happens from another angle:the effects on the structuration of the chain, of what remains of those particularities. These remainders are absolutely essential for any equivalence for if they were to vanish, the chain would collapse into simple identity."
The transmitted imperatives toward unification are supported by rhetoric which insists upon common destiny, and the fact that Jews are permanently persecuted by enemies and anti-Semitism. This is why, the Holocaust becomes the main issue in every agenda, including school curricula, academic courses, political confrontations, conferences, etc....... All these facts point to the symptomatic conditions of a regressive inclination.
We may conclude that questioning Judaism and Zionism, should be confronted with the Levinasian ethical idea of 'otherness' as linked with responsibility, reciprocity and diversity. Despite the radical oppositionary streams in the case of Israeli democracy, the meanings in use are elaborated under the same "rider" . The imposition of an assimilative style of communication is followed by an inability to accept the discourse of the "other". To go along with the discourse of the other means to approve an alternative way for the fabrication of the past. In other words, to take into account abolished events, giving these events (another) significance, to include other people's collective memories in the dialog between the present and the past. The reading of other narratives, with tolerance for other interpretations, means to plunge into the abyss between two or even more symbolic orders. It means an unawarded permanent attempt to negotiate meanings in use with an endless effort to tentatively fill up signifiers with ad hoc significations.
Such a view is conceived as a clash with the perception of the existence of the state of Israel as vanguard of the jewish Diaspora as a whole, sustaining the biblical jewish spirit since the primordial God's promise to Abraham. If a litigation (Lyotard, 1993:351), as distinguished from the Differend, is the possibility to settle an argument by using phrases from the hegemonic discourse, the Differend signals silence (as a negative phrase) as a result of common rule. While all conflicts are assigned as litigations, the differences are forgotten and the uncontrolled Differend is transgressed.
Those who consistently insist upon Jewish brotherhood and common destiny manifest the demand for assimilation (similarity, sympathy) of all the colors in the wide spectrum. The verse declaring that "the temple mount was destroyed due to unfounded hatred reflects a denial of conflictual oppositions. It insists upon an Israeli identification, constructed by blurring the meaning of being Jewish and being Israeli. Since the pressure of censorship is loosened in conflictual situations, that is precisely when the subject has a chance to get closer to him/herself. Only by sharpening conflicts is there any chance to create linguistic collages. The production of a linguistic mutation necessitates empathy which is entangled with social hybridizations.

Zionism is comprised of ideological nuances which unfold into the entire range in between two poles. The continuum ranges from the idea that conceives of Israeli identity as established upon a citizenship based upon territorial grounds, to the notion that Israel is the shelter for all Jews around the world. The first strives towards a civic society perceiving Israeli identity as a new entity in the process of becoming. An entity which insists upon a complete liberation from any commitment and common destiny with the Jewish Diaspora. The second version firmly declares that 'all Jews are responsible for one another. We can realize that this second view represents a continuum from the assimilation type of identity production up to the 'melting pot' type which coordinates with the integration mode of Identity production. This version coincides with the 'sympathy style' of communication expressing suspicion and antipathy aimed at every voice that signals a threat to the wholeness of Jewish entity.
By definition, all modes of Zionism manifests a demarcation between two different kinds of Israeli identities: Arab identity which is excluded by different degrees of hostility (antipathy), Israeli Identity which is something vague up to the present.
The radical pole, which must no longer be called Zionist, is inclined towards a production of an hybrid identity which consists of all the ingredients of Israeli groups. It includes the demand of being cut off from any obligation to the rest of the Jewish community abroad. This radical version, which is shared by some Arab Palestinians as well, attempts to charge the concept of Israeli identity with the spirit of citizenship in a democracy defined as a civic society. The reshaping of the understanding Jewish Identity opens creative channels for a new synthesis of hybrid identity in the process of becoming which is conditioned upon empathic communication.
To sum up we may say that Judaism is characterized by forms of sympathy in an attempt to maintain boundaries on the one hand and blurring diversity within those boundaries on the other hand. The question of Identity has to do with language, meanings and Differend, and empathic interrelations, rather than with social, cultural and the political parameters. The new trend among sociologists and historians towards a revision in the articulation of Zionism reflects a conflict among those who fight to maintain forms of identification, and those who stand for hybridic expressions of identity. The second version should be excluded at the end of the day as non-Zionism. The redefinition of Israeli democracy is conditioned upon the distribution of power between the bearers of these two trends.


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