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Meeting someone with radically different views from mine taught me this important lesson

Editor’s Note: Keith Magee is senior fellow and visiting professor in cultural justice at University College London Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. He is the author of “Prophetic Justice: Essays and Reflections on Race, Religion and Politics.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

It was a car ride that changed my life.

I took an Uber in Cleveland, Ohio, years ago focused only on getting to my destination, and found myself quite by chance being driven by a man whose politics were radically opposed to my own.

Keith Magee - Arron Dunworth
Keith Magee - Arron Dunworth

I might have been tempted to sit in silence or to climb out of the car, but I did something else instead: I canceled my plans and paid him for an extra hour so he could park and explain to me why he was a fervent Donald Trump supporter.

I came away with a better understanding of the fears and hopes that motivated my driver, and a strong sense of human connection despite the gulf between us. For his part, he was moved that an “opponent” cared enough to listen to him. It was a moment that crystallized for me the profound power of empathy.

I think of that encounter from time to time as I ponder the unspeakable violence of the war raging in the Middle East. I’m neither Jewish nor Muslim but like many Americans, I’ve been aghast at the loss of life resulting from the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas terrorists and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza. I’m also heartbroken to witness the profound pain of my Jewish and Muslim friends and their growing fears for their own safety.

In cities around the world, people, appalled by the deaths of so many innocent civilians on both sides, have taken part in protest marches, some of which have been overtly pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli — often accompanied by heated discourse and frequently met by equally heated counterprotests.

Jews and Arabs in many countries say they’re frightened of repercussions from the war, and many of us around the US are also increasingly alarmed as we witness the growing polarization within our own country. Intolerance was already on the rise but the events of the past two months have sent it into overdrive.

Increasingly, we are living in a tinderbox: Widespread antisemitism and Islamophobia, specters of equal horror that we once believed — naively perhaps — that we might have conquered, are once again rearing their ugly heads. One of the most unnerving acts of violence occurred last week when three Palestinian college students were shot in Burlington, Vermont, in an assault the local police chief has called “a hateful act.”

It’s worth noting that in the US, protests take place against a unique backdrop. On one hand, our presidents and their administrations historically wield a great deal of influence in the Middle East. Indirectly, therefore, public opinion in the US seems likely to have some potential impact on the Israeli government’s actions. When you know that, joining a protest can feel like a moral imperative.

But taking to the streets to express your views is one thing; engaging thoughtfully with those who hold a different opinion is another thing altogether.

A recent Pew Research Center poll reported that a majority of Americans are finding it more and more “stressful and frustrating” to discuss politics with people with whom they don’t agree. Faced with divisive issues, we have become accustomed to rushing to declare our allegiance to one of two sides.

Many of us are, inevitably, passionately for or against abortion rights, same-sex marriage, gun control or the teaching of Black history. And some of us are stridently pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel, as if it’s impossible to feel deep compassion and sorrow for the victims on both sides of that tragedy.

Too often, those on one side or the other of a given divide seem to believe not just that they are right, but that those who hold opposing views are wrong. Worse than that, in their view, those who think differently from them are bad. And if they are deemed to be bad, some people are bound to think that they are somehow not fully human. But as the late Bishop Desmond Tutu once said, “All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others.”

As a nation, we have watched polarization poison our discourse and have failed to stop it. We could have boycotted shamelessly partisan news channels, shunned public debates that turned nasty and refused to participate in demonizing the other camp. We could have invested heavily in evidence-based national programs that help people find common ground, taking inspiration from the work of organizations that foster connection across partisan lines such as Braver Angels or multi-faith nonprofits like Interfaith America.

Instead of arguing about which books should be banned, we could have insisted that every school child be taught how to empathize with classmates. We could have made it compulsory for universities to provide brave spaces where students could practice listening to each other and learn how to disagree with others while still recognizing their interlocutors’ humanity.

But we have done none of those things on the scale that is needed. And then we find ourselves ill-equipped to respond to an emotionally-wrenching, highly polarizing conflict like the one roiling the Middle East.

By mid-November, 82% of Americans were concerned that the Israel-Hamas war would lead to an increase in hate crimes here, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/ Marist poll. And it turns out that they were justified in their fears.

We are incredibly lucky to live in a democracy where we enjoy freedom of speech, have the right to peaceful protest and can hope to shift the dial of our country’s foreign policy. Posting online, debating and marching are key tenets of a free society. Hate speech of any kind, however, is not. Our only protection against bigotry is empathy.

The cries of a terrified Israeli child are indistinguishable from the cries of a terrified Palestinian child. The agony of a parent who loses a son or daughter is identical — anguish sounds like anguish. You don’t have to condone violence on either side to be able to imagine the pain of both Israelis and Palestinians.

If you feel compassion for the suffering of civilians in a distant land and are so moved by their plight that you paint a placard and join a protest march demanding peace, that is an act of remarkable empathy. You have that response in common with your fellow citizens who turn out for the counterprotest — it can even be a starting point from which to make the effort to listen to each other.

If solidarity with one minority group comes at the expense of another because of a failure of empathy, that would be a betrayal of our history. Here in America, the struggle for freedom and justice for marginalized groups has a long, proud history. Allyship has played a vital role in the fight for equality, with members of one minority often supporting those from another. By working closely and publicly with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stirred many members of the Jewish community to support the civil rights movement in which Black Muslims, including Malcolm X, also played a crucial role.

In recent weeks, we have seen some inspirational examples of “opposing” factions coming together to lobby for peace. Despite backlash from other sections of their own community, some Jewish groups have marched alongside pro-Palestinian protesters to demand a ceasefire in Gaza. American Muslim and Jewish members of organizations that seek to build bridges between communities, such as the Interfaith Encounter Association, are finding comfort in sharing their common grief, an exchange that starts with their shared feelings of mutual humanity. It’s all been a powerful reminder, as I saw with that Uber driver years ago, that conversations can help lead divided parties, if not to change their minds, then at least to open their hearts.

While I pray for a lasting peace for the Israelis and Palestinians, I also hope that we Americans will refuse to accept further division at home and will instead instigate the empathy revolution we so badly need before it’s too late. Only by valuing all human life equally can we combat hate wherever we find it.

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