This call to empathy is both common and understandable. In fact, it is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. However, as I read article after article this summer calling the American Jewish community to show empathy for the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, I began to question the premise that a call to empathy is the correct starting place for ethical behavior.
First and foremost, I simply have doubts about the human capacity for empathy, for several reasons. First, religious and political leaders would not have to spend so much effort encouraging people to cultivate empathy if it were not on some level an unnatural, or at least difficult, accomplishment for humans. Second, there are good reasons for the human spirit to limit its capacity for empathy, especially in the modern world: true empathy, the ability to feel the feelings of others, would be utterly incapacitating in the face of the horrendous news that confronts us on a daily basis. And third, in many cases there is little incentive to cultivate empathy for others