Tonight, I heard a great man. I witnessed brilliance. I heard love and grace. Love that conquers hate. Hope that vanquishes cynicism. Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish spoke tonight at Seattle’s Town Hall on his national tour, which will take him to around 20 American cities between this month and April. The above is a video filmed by Todd Boyle at Bellevue’s Temple Bnai Torah two days ago. Thanks to him for performing such a good deed.
On January 16, 2009 (today is three days after the second anniversary of the massacre) Dr. Abuelaish and his family were sheltering in his home from the IDF assault on Gaza. He had just left his daughters room when an Israeli tank shell tore through his home killing his beloved eldest daughter, Bissan and two younger daughters. His niece also died. One of his daughters survived, just barely, along with another niece. The day after the massacre, Israel accepted a ceasefire and the war ended.
On September 16, 2008, only three months earlier his wife had died of leukemia. With her death, Abuelaish not only lost a beloved spouse, but the mother of his children and the anchor of his family. It was a devastating loss for all of them.
Only two weeks earlier, just before the war began, he had taken his daughters to the Gaza beach for a break from the despair of twelve weeks of mourning for their mother. At the sea, his daughters wrote their names in the sand. Thankfully, he managed to take a picture of the three of them enjoying their time there. It would be one of the last happy times they would have together.
Just after the second shell hit, when Dr. Abuelaish was most anguished, his youngest son, 12, said to him:
Daddy, don’t be sad, now my sisters are with Mommy and they are all happy together.
In his talk tonight, Dr. Abuelaish said many things that in the mouth of another speaker might’ve come across as cliches. Coming from a man of such deep humanity as him, they came across as not only genuine, but profound and deeply moving. He talked about hate as poison, as a fire that consumes the hater. When a Palestinian during the Q&A asked how he could speak of love in the face of the murder the IDF rains down on the Palestinian people, the doctor made one of the most moving statements of his entire talk. He said:
My daughters were the most important thing in my life. My duty in life is to them and their memory. If the Israelis would bring to me the soldier who lauched the shell that killed my family and said I could do anything I wanted to him, if I killed him would I bring back my daughters? No. So I thought, what can I do for my daughters? That’s what I want to do with my life.
As a result, he has established a foundation that will provide scholarships to girls to pursue their education and realize projects that make the world a better place. He plans to award scholarship to girls of all nations of the Middle East including Israel. His eventual goal is to open a school in Gaza. He sees women as the key to the future, the key to peace. That’s natural since he’s a gynecologist and infertility specialist. But this is not a professional matter for him. It is personal, deeply so.
The Gaza doctor spoke of a life steeped in suffering from his birth in a Palestinian refugee camp. Growing up, his family had so little. Life was hard. In the past few years, since Israel began its siege in 2006, all of Gaza suffered.
But his overriding message, one that he delivered with overwhelming conviction, was on behalf of hope, on behalf of love. But please do not get the impression that this was touchy-feely or passive or weak. Not at all. He says:
Be angry. Be angry at injustice. But do not let it turn into hate. Don’t despair. Don’t give up hope. Do something. The best antidote to despair is success.
As I said, one should not confuse this with weakness. Dr. Abuelaish is a fierce opponent of the Occupation and Israeli policy. And the power of his opposition is only amplified by his message of love and non-violence. This is not the love of romance. It is the love of justice. One that embraces active resistance to injustice.
Another important point of his talk is that Israel and Palestine must not be alien, they must not be strangers. Rather, they are conjoined twins. Their fate is entwined. The justice of which he speaks is not justice for only one side. There is no such thing. If we save the lives of Palestinians, we are saving the lives of Israelis as well. What is good for Palestine is good for Israel and vice versa.
There is much nonsense out there, reflected in Gershom Gorenberg’s essay in the Weekly Standard, asking where is the Palestinian Gandhi. With the implication being that Palestinians have betrayed their cause by lapsing into hate and violence instead of rising to the best traditions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I’ve always hated this notion that Palestinians owe it to themselves and the rest of the world to rise above their human impulses. As if someone who hasn’t suffered has a right to tell someone who has how they should respond to it. Would we allow a German to tell Jews how their ancestors should’ve acted in the face of the Holocaust?
But Izzeldin Abuelaish is a truly great figure in that tradition. He represents the finest values of not just the Palestinian or Arab nation, but all humanity. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year. Unfortunately, the wrong man won (Barack Obama).
For a deeply moving profile of the Gaza doctor read Rachel Cooke’s story from the Guardian. Hear him if he comes to a city where you live. If not, read his book.
I noticed that the usual Stand With Us crowd waltzed into the hall led by its Pied Piper of Hamelin, David Brumer. He may’ve even brought with him a few of the SWU’s young IDF hasbara representatives who make the rounds of schools spreading the Gospel According to Bibi. I said with disgust to my friend Assaf Oron: “Omigod, they’ll try to harrass him.” Assaf said they wouldn’t dare. He was right. Brumer walked out in the middle of the talk. I think, as Assaf suggested, even he realized that Abuelaish was outside his league. He and SWU simply have nothing to say in the face of his message. How can hate resonate in the presence of such a man?