October 19, 2023

SCHECHTER | Empathy Among Rockets: A Lesson from a Palestinian Best Friend

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I am a proud Jewish American. I’m not deeply religious, but I had a Bar-Mitzvah when I was in seventh grade, and I go to temple on the High Holidays. 

While deeply fascinated by Middle Eastern politics, I am no expert. I need to connect with humanity about what’s happening in Gaza.

For answers about the deeply personal side of the Isareli-Palestinian conflict, I called one of my oldest friends, Sal.

Sal is a proud Palestinian American, born in Dallas, with dual citizenship from both America and Jordan. His dad is an Egyptian immigrant with a Palestinian father, and his mom is a first-generation American. 

Over the last fifteen years, Sal, an olive-skinned Arab man alongside whom I’ve grown up, has taught me to see into his world. His world is one where TSA doesn’t let him leave the country without pulling him out of the security line for extra security screening. It’s a world where, when his parents try to pass through Israel to see family in Palestine, airport security drills holes in the soles of their shoes to check for explosives. 

For years, I’ve heard about the indignity that my friend and his family endure because of their Palestinian heritage. Over the last decade and a half, he’s shown me a perspective about the deep struggles between Israel and Palestine that I never saw at home or in my Jewish Sunday school.

When I called him, I wasn’t on the hunt for a detailed history, but instead, something I knew I wouldn’t find in a headline or on social media: an honest, emotional response. I wanted to connect with a real person whose psyche I know like the back of my hand, because only someone like that could tell me something I needed to hear.

Through years of fierce debate and discussion with Sal, I’ve seen him get angry about the issue. I’ve seen him get sad. He’s shown me the errors in my own modes of thought that used to border on Zionism. Last week, though, was the first time I heard Sal envision a new reality for Palestine: one where the world rushes to Israel’s side and wipes out his homeland. I was surprised to hear Sal reflect without the fiery passion that I’m used to. Instead, he had a certain measured sadness, as if the situation was finally out of his hands.

To place myself into his mindset, I probed him about a future, after the end of this conflict, where Sal is worried that there might not be a Palestine anymore. He took a pause as he imagined his homeland wiped out; I could hear generations of layered emotion in his voice as he imagined a time when there would be no land to show for his people’s generations of struggle.

While he thoroughly understands the humanitarian crisis, Sal sees the conflict in the Middle East as more than just an attack on Israel, and I completely agree. Hamas’s attack is the spark that has pushed the Palestinian desire for recognition to its absolute tipping point — the straw that broke the camel’s back. Sal and I agreed that this was inevitable. After decades of pure Israeli might pushing against iron Palestinian will, all this powder keg needed was a spark to set the world spinning.

Sal’s worldview reorients me when thinking about the land that Israelis currently hold. It reminds me that for every Israeli girl who feels the ground shake with another mortar round, there’s a Palestinian boy whose family was ripped from their ancestral homeland.

It’s naïve to think the conflict ends here after thousands of years of struggle. My only tool to understand the complicated mess is empathy. And when I feel myself spiraling toward the Israeli side, I remember Sal’s fear of a world without a Palestinian homeland, a soul-crushing hypothetical. Sometimes there’s only one person who can change the mindset of a Jew like me: his Palestinian best friend.

Henry Schechter is a second-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. His fortnightly column Onward focuses on politics, social issues and how they come to bear in Ithaca. He can be reached at [email protected].

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