One might have expected the response to the October 7th Simchat Torah massacre, the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust, to be compassion for the victims. Instead, the event has fueled the rising flames of antisemitism across the nation, with many expressing empathy for the Hamas terrorists who committed the attack rather than their Israeli victims. This response demonstrates how empathy is not always beneficial but can instead be harmful and toxic.
This surge in anti-semitic sentiments and threats following Hamas’s attack last month has been terrifying to those of us with Jewish heritage. However, the feeling behind this movement is unique; it's not motivated by fear of Jewish “replacement” like Charlottesville or the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre. Instead, this antisemitism is rooted in empathy.
Antisemitic protests abound with appeals to “solidarity,” “shared commitment to decolonization,” and more. Support for Hamas and opposition to Israel are identified as an LGBT issue, a feminist issue, a reproductive rights issue, and dozens of other Progressive causes. It’s genuine empathy; it’s just toxic.
Empathy is not always a positive response to perceived injustice. When we aren’t victims ourselves, but pretend to share some special perspective with those we perceive as victims of injustice, empathy becomes toxic and harmful to both others and ourselves. This toxic empathy, called “victim justice sensitivity” by psychologists, blinds us to our own values and the complexities of real-world situations, making effective change impossible.
It might seem odd that Hamas are seen as “victims,” given it was Israeli civilians who were slaughtered. However, Hamas’s charter intentionally weaponizes progressive language to manipulate toxic empathy. By depicting themselves as victims of “colonialism” and “imperialism” (ignoring indisputable archeological, linguistic, and genetic evidence of Jewish indigeneity to Israel), Hamas plays on the far left’s tendency to personalize perceived injustice, thereby blinding them to the incompatibility of their values with their words and behavior.
Previously, the left has emphasized how speech can produce harm. However, toxic empathy drives many on the far-left to ignore this when chanting “glory to our martyrs,” “globalize the intifada,” or even just “gas the Jews.” Toxic empathy has also blinded the far-left to how their rhetoric legitimizes and empowers anti-semitism.
Posters of kidnapped Israeli children are torn down. Leftist professors condemn using the word “terrorism” to describe Hamas’s massacre, while colleges host calls for and celebration of antisemitic violence. Even when actual violence erupts, like trapping Jewish students in a university library during a “pro-Palestine” rally, toxic empathy downplays or legitimizes it.
The same people who fear the U.S. “theocracy” excuse Hamas as “freedom fighters,” despite the Hamas charter openly calling for Islamist theocracy and violence against those who rebel — including Jews, Christians, members of the LGBTQ community, and even other Muslims.
Toxic empathy leads to terms like “apartheid” and “genocide” being haphazardly (and inaccurately) thrown around, ignoring both political reality and the lived experience and voices of Israeli Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Indeed, when members of these groups, like activists Nas Daily, Mohammad Zoabi, and Bassam Eid, support Israel and oppose Hamas’s actions, they are threatened and marginalized.
Ironically, toxic empathy has led the far-left to act indistinguishably from their ideological opponents on the right.
When left-wing protestors tokenize fringe groups like Neturei Karta or Jewish Voice for Peace to support their “anti-Zionism isn’t antisemitism” narrative, it’s no different than the far-right justifying George Floyd’s murder by appealing to Candace Owens. When Hamas’s unfounded accusations of Israeli war crimes are blindly accepted while downplaying or willfully ignoring Hamas’s well-documented atrocities, it’s indistinguishable from far-right Holocaust denial.
The far-left’s toxic empathy has also left them blind to effective solutions. Calls have abounded over the last weeks for a “ceasefire,” ignoring that Hamas already broke such a ceasefire in their terrorist attack on October 7th and have promised to do so again. Similarly, calls for a “two-state solution” ignore the historical rejection of such plans by Hamas and the PLO. Because toxic empathy makes it “all about us,” we think that if we consider a solution “reasonable” or “obvious,” the supposed victims of injustice will too, regardless of how disconnected to reality that assumption might be.
Not all empathy is toxic. However, true empathy requires objectivity, not self-aggrandizement or self-righteousness. One can (and should) support the Palestinian people without supporting murderous terrorists. However, without the baseline motivation to help others, empathy becomes impossible. As the complex situation in Israel is negotiated, we must ensure that toxic empathy does not rob either ourselves or others of dignity and humanity.
Dr. Aaron Pomerantz is a social psychologist and researcher in Houston, Texas. His research examines the cultural and ideological forces that lead us to support harmful attitudes and behaviors towards ourselves and others in politics, law, and society. He can be found on Twitter @pompom9211.