My journey from loss to empathy to action

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In today’s appeal for donations, we share a letter from Robyn Brown, one of the four donors who have created a $50,000 Challenge Fund to mobilize the maximum possible support this month for Mondoweiss: Journalism That Powers Justice. Robyn writes:

Dear Fellow Mondoweiss Readers,

I have pledged as large a gift as I possibly can this year and I urge all of you to join me in contributing to Mondoweiss. It’s simple: no other source informs so many people of the horrors visited upon Palestinians, and how U.S. policy enables these outrages.

My heart ached, for example, when I read last July how George Khoury was turned back at Ben-Gurion airport although he has been an American citizen for 40 years. Khoury was deported simply for his Palestinian background. An official asked sarcastically, “How do you want me to honor your American passport? Do you want me to kiss it, to hug it, or to worship it? You are a Palestinian.”

I remember my own experience at that airport in 2003. On that occasion, I—a privileged American—got a glimpse of the system so much harsher for others.

That night, I waited many hours, sometimes separated from other passengers. Eventually, I asked what was happening. That question landed me alone in a room with seven officials. Three rifled my suitcase, and then I was told to go with a female officer to another room and strip. I refused several times. Finally, angry and exasperated, I started tearing off my clothing right there. The men turned their backs, the women insisted I stop. When I was down to my underwear, I stopped and they quickly put me on the airplane. I never knew why they were so concerned about me—a 5’2” American woman—but it was clear that challenging them triggered even more authoritarian behavior.

So my own experience of Israeli disregard for basic human dignity has been part of what brought me to value Mondoweiss and the journalism that powers justice.

In one way, I am glad that I had this horrifying experience. It confirmed for me in a deeply personal, emotional way the Palestinian experience. And it made it clear to me how nakedness—exposure of every kind—is a weapon of humiliation in the hands of the oppressor.

Robyn Brown was moved by George Khoury's shocking story of being denied entry to Ben Gurion airport. Please join her in supporting journalism that powers justice.

Robyn Brown was moved by George Khoury’s shocking story of being denied entry to Ben Gurion airport. Please join her in supporting journalism that powers justice.

But how did I come to care so deeply about Palestine in the first place? I grew up sheltered, a white Anglo in a California farm town. The town was diverse, with one tiny school for the children of field laborers and landowners—Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, black, white. People cared for animals: horses, dogs, fallen fledglings. Later I realized that I entered adulthood a fledgling myself. Kindness had pervaded my world.

Yet while I was ignorant of so much, early experiences of intimate loss did develop in me a capacity for empathy. When I was 14, one sister died; less than ten years later, my other sister and my father died in the same heart-shattering year. I used to wonder why abuse of animals and people touched me more than most people…and came to understand that cumulative loss can open the heart wide to the losses of others.

I came to human rights by way of animal rights. During my college years, UC Berkeley was building a laboratory for vivisection of animals. Demonstrators’ placards showed horrifying animal images. From there, the whole world of widespread animal abuse came into clear view. I became a committed activist, jailed multiple times for civil disobedience.

My understanding that humans too were subject to atrocities came slowly. Amazingly, I didn’t learn of the Holocaust until the TV movie “Holocaust” in 1978, when I was already a young adult. That movie shattered my sheltered view of life. Years later, “Schindler’s List” sent daggers into my wide open heart again: “How can human beings do this to animals?” became “How could human beings do this to other human beings?”

Maybe in the naive question, “How could human beings do this to other human beings?” lay the answer: I’d never realized there was an “other”.

A voracious reader, I picked up Edward Said’s “Representations of the Intellectual” at a bookstore one day. As I read I was dumbstruck. To learn that a people called Palestinians were being oppressed by another people, the very people who themselves had been oppressed—annihilated—was stupefying, the cognitive dissonance mind-bending. The struggle for human rights became impossible to not see.

Multiply your donation to Mondoweiss by supporting our year end challenge.

Multiply your donation to Mondoweiss by supporting our year end challenge.

But why did I feel this particular abuse so deeply? I think it hit home because I had married a Jewish man. He didn’t practice Judaism; we both said we practiced love. We were married by a rabbi in my parents’ garden, the huge elm tree our huppah.

Later, in hopes of providing our children with a community, I considered converting (quite an idea for an atheist—but I understood that for our children to be Jewish, their mother would need to be Jewish).

So when I read Said, I had the sense that Jews were my people. I’d been embracing them for a while in my heart. These abuses felt more personal. I felt a responsibility. And ultimately that sense of responsibility took me to Israel and the West Bank to see for myself in 2003.

I faced guns at a checkpoint, rode in a car over mountains with a Palestinian mother and child, baby bouncing off-road, mother staring outside. Each experience left me more wide-eyed, further saddened.

I have seen how loss can lead to empathy, help a person learn to connect with others and step away from comfort into action. We have seen all too often, however, that loss and trauma can also shut the heart down, for pure survival.

That dissonance between conditions in the world and what the heart needs can destroy a person’s moral sense. I know that’s happened to many Israelis, and some Jews in the U.S., and Palestinians, too. Syrians and Iraqis, the list goes on and on. And in the American context, so many have lost their moral direction through the trauma of living a racist reality. It’s all so tragic, these circles of loss.

I value Mondoweiss because I feel it helps people move beyond trauma and develop that capacity for growth and learning. What these writers are doing to make public what is happening to Palestinians—simply, it is critical. For me, and probably for many reading this, Phil Weiss himself was the catalyst. Phil’s courage in speaking uncomfortable truths inspired me when I discovered Mondoweiss in 2007. I invest in Mondoweiss today because Phil has continued to be the voice of conscience—and has built an institution with so many others standing with him.

I’ve been to many demonstrations, conferences, written letters and emails. But for myself, I feel the best I can do to make change is to support Mondoweiss in what they’re doing. This site publishes all the facts, unlike the New York Times and its ilk.

And week by week, they are reaching more and more readers. We have to speed up the spread of their work. And so I make donations, smallish sometimes, largish other times—and I challenge you to do the same.

What Mondoweiss is doing is huge. Because of these writers and their work, I retain a little hope that someday all who live in that region of the planet will be able to live peacefully, raise their children, their crops, their businesses, their dreams.

All you who share my hope, please join me in contributing to Mondoweiss. Together, we can make a difference.

About Robyn Brown

Robyn Brown is a caring Californian, who has worked for social causes for decades.

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5 Responses

  1. Citizen
    December 17, 2015, 4:58 pm

    In 6th Grade, I wrote my first article for the student mimeograph news sheet, entitled, “Why do we hurt animals?” I was thinking of cruel pranks we pulled on cats, etc. It was 1953. I experienced being the “new kid on the block” quite enough. I never liked bullies. I discovered the Holocaust on my own in the mid 1960s–a happenstance result of my long interest in military history that itself grew from playing at war as a child; so I arrived at the history of the Nazi era. Thus, I discovered Auschwitz. It horrified me; I wondered why and how humans could do Holocaust, industrial murder of civilians. Psychology, ideology, religion, philosophy, world literature, culture studies, more history; eventually I arrived mentally, imaginatively–in Palestine–sometime, I guess, in the late 1990s. The I-P conflict sucks in the most ramifications for the human temper. Making Lermontov macro: What is to be done?

  2. Kris
    December 17, 2015, 5:39 pm

    Thank you very much for this very moving essay, Robyn Brown, and for supporting Mondoweiss so generously.

    I know from my own experience that Mondoweiss is making a big difference. I have been facebook-sharing Mondoweiss articles for years, as well as talking about what I learn from Mondoweiss, and in the past year or so, I have been seeing real changes in the attitudes of my friends.

    This is amazing, considering how afraid these people were a few years ago of criticizing Israel at all, both for fear of being accused of “antisemitism” and because of fear of offending our Jewish friends. But once people have been exposed to enough evidence of Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians, they can no longer keep looking the other way.

    Mondoweiss has helped let the genie out of the bottle.

  3. Annie Robbins
    December 18, 2015, 3:08 am

    wow robyn brown, what an incredible essay. and to think i have never even heard of you before. it took me awhile to read this article assuming — i don’t know – fundraising and all that. but this is the best read i’ve read in a long long time.

    also, like you, for me phil has been my catalyst for expressing myself — an immeasurable inspiration supporting my activism. so thank you for saying that. i was actually trying to figure out a way to express this in a current post .. he’s just —- well. i can’t find a way to express it. you’re in california, me too. i would love to meet you.

    thank you so much, for the article, revealing yourself, and for your uber generous support.

  4. Kathleen
    December 18, 2015, 4:07 pm

    What a great piece Robyn. Said’s writings and Vanessa Redgrave’s actions were the first people back in the 70’s to help open my eyes and mind. To think so much tragedy and abuse had all ready taken place by then.

    Sorry for your very sad losses in your own life. Yes personal tragedy can open the heart and mind more and help develop empathy and as you pointed out close hearts and way too often crimes committed by those who have been terribly abused.

    However I think empathy and compassion are in people from birth either to be cultivated or smothered by personal needs that are encouraged.

    Whatever the source for empathy it is growing by leaps and bounds via Mondoweiss and other outlets committed to justice in the I/P conflict.

    Thank you so much for sharing your journey.

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