Radical Empathy: An (Un)complicated Act

5 mins read


“It’s complicated!”

So opens the film “Wrestling Jerusalem,” a line shouted in frustration by the sole actor, Aaron Davidman.

That’s right, you read correctly, Aaron is the only actor in “Wrestling Jerusalem,” but by no means is he the only character. Before the film is over, his face will reflect many other faces, and his voice will hold many other voices as he strives to shed light on the people he has met in preparation for the film.

Davidman has listened to the stories of Israelis and Palestinians, whose views clash and harmonize within him in endless ways. “It’s complicated,” as he attempts to answer the questions of “What is the story of this conflict? Who is to blame? Which one of us is right?”

On February 13, the Center for Ethnic, Racial & Religious Understanding collaborated with QC Hillel and the Muslim Student Association to bring this powerful film to QC. There in the Campbell Dome, we watched the film, and at the end, got to meet Aaron himself—us as an audience pelted him with our own questions: why did you choose to be the only actor? Why did you offer no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the end of the film? Why did you advance no side in particular?

And his answer wasn’t so complicated at all.

Davidman told us the aim of his film is to offer no solution at all. “Wrestling Jerusalem” is designed not to pinpoint the exact moment in time of when the conflict began, not to point fingers, and not to tell Israeli or Palestinian officials what to do.

What often happens is that society gets so caught up in drawing maps and advancing our own particular narrative above all others that we lose sight of something much deeper. Davidman said becoming these characters, the people of Palestine and Israel, whose opinions are often immensely different from his own, was an act of what he calls “radical empathy.” In becoming someone whose identity is so different from your own, you draw a connection on the identity that matters the most to you—your humanity.

When Aaron mentioned this idea of radical empathy, it brought to mind another concept, one known as “experience taking.” The term was coined by two researchers, Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby, back in 2012, to describe what happens when a reader gets so lost within a story that they begin taking on some of the traits, behaviors and ideas of the main character. In those moments, reader and character become one. It also reminded me of the class taught by Sophia McGee, CERRU’s director, in which students, learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, cross the boundaries of identity and walk in the shoes of the ideological “other.”

We like to think of the mind as an impenetrable fortress – we guard our identity so fiercely, so fearful of any counter narrative sneaking in and defacing our self-structure. Because of this, we are resilient to adapt new ideas. Whether through experience or radical empathy, taking another person’s identity is terrifying.

Radical empathy, then, is not a complicated act, but a brave one. Davidman may be an actor, but the best actors aren’t acting at all. He never wears a mask when he becomes another character, though you could swear he was a different character. Indeed, radical empathy is not an act reserved for the stage alone.

Throughout the movie, he weaves in the theme of oneness: in one scene, Davidman channels the character of a rabbi and gives a passionate monologue about the holiest prayer in Judaism, the “Shema”– which holds a key message that all things are one. At the end of the movie, Davidman echoes this theme again, singing out the “Shema” – emphasizing his belief of oneness, being a risk worth taking.

For more CERRU events, check out cerru.org, or come by one of our upcoming events: Sunday, March 4, our day-long Crucial Conversations training in Powdermaker 155; Monday, March 5 during free hour, our fellowship information session, Powdermaker 113; Wednesday March 14th during free hour, our Intro to Interrogating Bias, in Powdermaker 113 as well. Hope to see you all there.

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