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The balance of compassion

  • 30 October 2023
On October 7, the world was left reeling from Hamas attacks that killed 1400 Israeli civilians. In the aftermath, I’ve spoken with friends and family about the attacks and one particular response stuck with me. ‘I can’t understand all this pro-Israel stuff,’ a friend said. This was only a couple of days after the attacks when the scale and sheer depravity of the violence was only starting to become clear. I asked what he meant. ‘You know. Biden and Albanese. Saying they support Israel.’

I suggested it was commonplace for world leaders to vocalise solidarity with nations that have experienced a terrorist attack of this scale. For Jewish people, this was their 9/11. My friend scoffed, suggesting any sympathy expressed towards the victims of the Hamas attacks merely eclipsed the much greater suffering of Palestinian peoples in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. This begged the question: Must empathy for one tragedy necessarily diminish compassion for another? And we sort of just left the topic there, hanging in the air for the rest of the night. 

This friend is deeply compassionate. Yet his reluctance to condemn the mass murder of civilians unequivocally, (or perhaps his hasty reminder to everyone that Israel were the bad guys), left me disconcerted.

The Hamas attacks on civilians evidently posed a profound ethical conundrum for some. And it’s been sad to see progressives, who have for years sympathised with the plight of the Palestinian people and followed the actions of hard-line Israeli governments with dismay, attempting to downplay or rationalise the brutality of Hamas. This insinuates that the suffering of some is justified or, worse, even deserved. The oppressor is always wrong, the oppressed are always right, and October 7 was justifiable revenge. So the logic goes.

There are stark contradictions in play here. How can people who are generally far more aware of injustice in the world, and quick to call to account those responsible for it, seem morally unsure how to respond when infants are butchered in their cots? This inconsistency reveals a significant wider ethical problem: the failure to recognise that any crime like the one perpetrated by Hamas on October 7 is a crime against humanity.

Most people I know maintain a worldview — a commendable one, rooted in principles of justice — that attempts to recognise and redress historical wrongs and past atrocities. However, the moment this perspective starts rationalising new atrocities and tacitly condoning