A Senseless Discussion Over 'Who Grieves More,' Israelis or Palestinians

There's no way of settling this question - but what is clear is that empathy for the suffering of Israelis is foreign to tribal Palestinian society.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
Fallen soldier Tzafrir Bar-Or's funeral.
Fallen soldier Tzafrir Bar-Or's funeral. Credit: AFP
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

Just like that, because of a few offhand remarks about bereavement in one of those banal radio talk-show arguments, popular broadcaster Razi Barkai suddenly became a great hero of the left, repelling the fascism that threatens to engulf us. Remember Galileo, who under the threat of torture recanted his claim that the Earth revolved the sun, but allegedly muttered “And yet it moves”? So, too did Barkai half-apologize to the parents of fallen soldiers who were hurt when he compared the Israeli grief with that of the families of Palestinian terrorists, but gave everyone to understand that yet it moves.

To restore some perspectivive, let us agree that the device that can measure the intensity of grief has yet to be invented. We will never be able to assess scientifically who is more pained by grief: Jew or Arab, Ashkenazi or Mizrahi, man or woman. I would add that, according to the Austrian Jewish philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, humans have not yet found a way to verbally describe pain at all, not even a stomachache or toothache, much less the pain that parents feel when a child dies.

So to say, as Barkai did in his apology, that “grief is grief for everyone” is as idiotic as saying the grief of Jews is greater than that of Arabs, because in fact there’s no way to know this. It’s very possible that a Palestinian parent feels less pain than a Jewish parent, as one of the bereaved parents who condemned Barkai said, but the opposite is equally possible. What’s idiotic was to further stoke this fruitless debate, and for that Barkai bears full responsibility.

What can be measured scientifically, more or less, is a society’s attitude toward bereavement and its empathy for someone who sacrifices his life on its behalf. Here it’s possible and permissible to compare Palestinian and Israeli societies, and there are tried and tested ways to do this. But alas, I fear that this particular examination will not be music to the ears of Barkai and the left, who insist on depicting Palestinian society as identical to ours in terms of norms and culture.

The brief analysis that follows is based on the research of Israeli psychologist Ofer Grosbard, who compares the traditional, tribal or Eastern mindset typical of Palestinian society and Arab society in general to the Western mindset that is more typical of Israel. The tribal (for our purposes, the Palestinian) mindset holds to be important honor, identification with the collective, authoritativeness and social cohesion. In contrast, the Western (for our purposes, the Israeli) mindset values achievement over honor, empathy for others over identification with the collective, firmness over authoritativeness and critical thinking over conformity.

Of course, not all Israelis and not all Palestinians fit into these paradigms. But when you see that in Palestinian society people are willing to kill and be killed for honor, and the society respects them for it, it’s clear as day that this is a society that operates on norms of tribal thinking. And while in Israel there is a journalist like Razi Barkai who is able to empathize with bereaved Palestinian parents, the Palestinians — and here everyone will agree — don’t have a single Razi Barkai who will express sympathy for the Israeli fallen or their families. Why is that? Because empathy is foreign to tribal or primitive societies.

In other words, the very fact that Barkai as a radio journalist can use critical thinking and dare to confront authority and understand the pain of loss on the Palestinian side is irrefutable proof that he is wrong and misleading in his attempt to put Palestinians and Israelis on the same level in terms of relating to bereavement. And his insistence on being the journalistic version of Galileo is ridiculous.

In contrast, I must express appreciation for the forcefulness with which Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stressed the profound difference between the sense of bereavement in Israeli society and in Palestinian society. And I can only feel proud that in our society, in contrast to Palestinian society, the authority of the leadership is not automatic. That two such senior officials felt the need to respond to Barkai’s remarks proves that they are aware that Israel is a place that encourages critical thinking and debate.

As a journalist, I must note with some sadness that I’m disappointed in Barkai, who by his inability to simply admit that the argument over “whose grief is greater” was senseless illustrates the danger threatening Israel’s Western norms.

There’s nothing more worrisome than people who have lost their ability to be self-critical and who think they are always absolutely right and that someone owes them something because of what they are.

As noted, that’s exactly typical of primitive thinking.

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