Posted on: April 14, 2022 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

Refugees from Ukraine (photo by dailyrecord.co.uk) and Palestine (photo by Reuters).


By Nick Stulga, News Editor

When Russia invaded Ukraine several weeks ago, the outpouring of empathy was immediate and immense. Americans expressed their support for the Ukrainian people who were suffering. Donations poured in from around the country.

But some people, including students and staff at Moraine Valley, are wondering why conflicts in the Middle East and Africa have not produced a similar reaction.

Photo by Vox
Tensions arose during 2021’s Israeli-Palestine conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas following controversy in Jerusalem.

“I feel a little bitter,” said Sabreen Absi, an American-Palestinian student at Moraine who wonders where the outpouring of empathy was during the Israeli-Palestine conflict of last year.

“I know as a Palestinian, me and my people will never get the amount of attention the Ukrainians are getting.”

Moraine counselor Souzan Naser is also feeling overwhelmed by the amount of support Ukraine has garnered, and at the same time, underwhelmed by the response to the last year’s Israeli-Palestine conflict.

“It seems that every corner I turn, I’m hearing about or seeing efforts in support of Ukraine,” Naser said. “While paying for my groceries at Jewel, there was a prompt on the machine where I insert my credit card asking me to donate to Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, Naser couldn’t help but notice the lack of support for Palestine last year: “University faculty and administrators across the U.S. scrambled to compose and issue letters of support for Ukraine, and I wondered, ‘How many of these institutions crafted a letter of support in May 2021 during the Unity Uprising in Palestine?'”

Media coverage of the war in Ukraine is causing many people to question this kind of “selective empathy.”

One incident that provoked outrage online involved CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata stating that Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”

How does ‘selective empathy’ work?

Moraine psychology professor Julia Whalen-Musil said the concept of mirror neurons could explain part of the reason people in the West more easily empathize with Ukrainians.

“If we see someone being hurt and their neurons are firing,” she said, it can cause “the other person’s neurons to fire the same way.”

Photo from Psychology Today
A rough depiction of how mirror neurons work, referencing the reason behind empathy.

These mirror neurons, coupled with the fact that Ukrainians look more similar in appearance to those who run Western media, seem to give Ukraine the edge in media coverage.

In an interview in Greater Good Magazine, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran says mirror neurons are helpful in “constructing a theory of your mind—of your intention—which is important for all kinds of social interaction.” 

Theory of mind, which allows us to describe other people’s mental states and understand them better, is related to empathy, which allows us to share that mental state with another person.

If we have not spent time with people outside our own “tribes,” empathy for them may not come as easily.

“Individuals who spend more time with people different from themselves seem to have a more empathetic view of other people,” Whalen-Musil said. “Therefore, to build empathy, [we must] seek out and embrace the diversity in our world.”

It seems that every corner I turn, I’m hearing about or seeing efforts in support of Ukraine.”

Souzan Naser, MV counselor

Absi and Naser say they feel it’s still hard for Americans to see those of Middle Eastern descent as members of their own tribe. Absi believes the lack of support is due in part to “how America and society has viewed Palestinians as terrorists and anti-Semites.”

She notes the role that 9/11 has played in these harsh stereotypes: “When 9/11 comes around the corner, we are all terrified. There’s a lot of hate crimes towards people with a mask around their head. They still blame and generalize a whole group of people for causing the death of so many people even though we had no contribution to that.”

When Palestinians try to defend themselves, “they’re terrorists, but when the Ukrainians do it they’re heroes,” she said.

Naser also believes there is a clear double standard when it comes to the treatment of the Palestinian people.

Palestinians–who have the right, under international law, to resist the colonial occupation of their lands–are branded as terrorists by Israel, the U.S., and the West,” Naser said. “Palestinians living in the U.S. who are vocal and organized for the liberation of Palestine are criminalized.”

From a historical perspective, the Ukraine conflict may have received more attention than Palestine because it’s a greater national interest for the United States to focus on.

“Administrations (both Republican and Democrat) have gotten involved in conflicts or supported allies based on how they felt the conflict served the interests and security of the United States,” said Moraine history professor Joshua Fulton. “It can be both stirring to note America’s current support for Ukraine, while also sensing a selective role in the process.”

In order for people to see your humanity you have to fit this cookie cutter mold of what a victim is like.”

Sabreen Absi, MV student

Fulton lists reasons for the heavy U.S. involvement in the Ukraine war as seeing European security as a way to help ensure U.S. security, as well as “the development of NATO, the EU, and legacies of the Cold War Era.”

MV mathematics professor Jason King, who has been following the Ukraine war closely, says there are a few reasons this war fosters more empathy than other conflicts.

“It focuses on an area of the world students of military conflicts tend to recognize from World War II, features a well-defined historical adversary in Russia, has a clearly defined beginning, and is a peer-to-peer conflict focused on one army against another and one well-defined nation against another one,” King said.

No matter the history behind it, Absi sees the reason for the selective empathy as clear cut: Her people will never fit the ideal American image of a victim with whom to sympathize.

“In order for people to see your humanity, you have to fit in this cookie-cutter mold of what a victim is like,” Absi said. “The U.S. will insert themselves when they feel like.”