Letter to The Guardian, 25 January 2019
Simon Baron-Cohen’s proposal for empathy-building between Jews and Palestinians is a welcome contribution towards establishing a just and sustainable peace. But for it to gain traction, the stories we tell each other – and ourselves – must be as complete as possible.
By placing responsibility for initiating empathy-building with Israelis, “because they are the stronger party”, Baron-Cohen’s argument for “rehumanising the other” makes a rare acknowledgment of the power disparity at the heart of the Israel-Palestine trauma. Rare too is his foregrounding of the Palestinian experience: his story describes the devastation wrought on a people who have paid a huge price for but played no part in the Holocaust.
However, for each people to work with the other’s painful history, more needs adding to the mix: that Zionist leaders untruthfully “sold” Palestine to desperate European Jews as a “land without a people for a people without a land”; that in Baron-Cohen’s “two major waves of antisemitism”, the majority destinations of choice among Europe’s fleeing Jews were English-speaking countries, not Palestine; that millions of Israel’s Jews come from other Middle East countries, with a story largely ignored by Israel’s Holocaust-based narrative.
There’s also a more extensive Palestinian experience. Where are the millions of Palestinian refugees and children of refugees within Baron-Cohen’s vision? And though surely unintentional, when he named “Israelis” as the “stronger party”, he wrote out of the empathy stakes the Palestinian 20% of Israel’s citizens. Always treated as second-class, Palestinian citizens of Israel are now legislatively reduced to interlopers within their own country by the new and nakedly racist nation-state law.
Naomi Wayne is an Executive Member of the British Shalom Salaam Trust and a former Executive member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians