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Tragedy, pain, and empathy across the Israeli-Palestinian divide

 
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NEW YORK – Nomika Zion and Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish first encountered each other near the end of Israel’s three-week military campaign in the Gaza Strip.

Both had been invited to share their thoughts on the conflict with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh via Internet hookup.

Zion, a mother from the besieged Israeli border town of Sderot, had gained national attention in Israel after publishing an essay warning that fervent support for the war was undermining the ability of Israelis “to see the other side, to feel, to be horrified, to show empathy.”

The next day Abuelaish, an obstetrician who for years had worked with Israeli hospitals, also would become a household name in Israel.

During a live TV broadcast in Israel, Abuelaish called one of the journalists on the air to report that Israeli forces had just fired on his Gaza home and killed three of his daughters and a niece. As a teary Israeli television journalist held his cell phone aloft, Abuelaish can be heard screaming for help.

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Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, left, from Gaza, and Nomika Zion from Sderot received the Niarchos Prize for Survivorship on April 29 in New York. Survivors Corps

“Suddenly, the Palestinian pain, which the majority of Israeli society doesn’t want to see, had a voice, had a face,” Zion said last week in New York, where she and Abuelaish shared a stage to receive the Niarchos Prize for Survivorship — an award presented annually by a Washington-based group called Survivor Corps that helps victims of war recover and rebuild their lives.

“The invisible became visible,” Zion said. “For one moment it wasn’t just the enemy — an enormous dark demon who is so easy and convenient to hate. There was one man, one story, one tragedy, and so much pain.”

Both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide have experienced much tragedy and pain. Yet while those on the front lines of the conflict often are the most strident, both Zion and Abuelaish have bucked the prevailing views of their surroundings.

Amid overwhelming support in Israel for the army’s Gaza operation in late December and January, Zion helped found Other Voice, a coalition of Israelis living in communities near the Gaza Strip who back a cessation of violence and greater cooperation with Palestinians. She calls herself “a lonely voice in the dark.”

And while some Palestinian leaders in Gaza called for Jewish blood following the Israeli operation, Abuelaish declined to join them even after the deaths of his daughters.

“Is it going to help me? Is it going to return my daughters? It will worsen the situation,” he told JTA after the awards ceremony. “We have to look forward.”

Abuelaish says he doesn’t know why he reacts so differently from many of his compatriots who have been hurt directly by Israeli firepower, but he suspects it may have something to do with his mother’s influence.

It is time for Middle Eastern women to “take the upper hand” in decision-making, he says, and Abuelaish is laying the groundwork for a new organization to empower them by supporting their health and education. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and journalist Christiane Amanpour both have agreed to join the board of the group, the Three Sisters Foundation, he said.

“If you train a man for fishing, he will eat alone,” Abuelaish said. “But if you train a mother or a woman, she will feed first the children, the husband. And if she has excess, she will give to the neighbors and to the community.”

A native of the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza, where he still lives, Abuelaish was educated at Gaza University, the University of London, and Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree in public health. His view of the world is refracted through his medical training, which he says leads him to see all human beings as essentially the same.

“Revenge is a disease,” he said. “No one wants to be a disease. All of the people, I think, want to be healthy and be in good shape.”

Abuelaish’s views stand in stark contrast to that of another famous Gaza doctor, the late Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a pediatrician and top-ranking Hamas official who was killed by Israel in 2004. Rantisi once told a reporter he wouldn’t help an injured Jewish child.

I am “not in a position to judge,” Abuelaish said when asked about Rantisi.

Despite the loss of his three daughters and niece, Abuelaish refuses to abandon his coexistence work. Zion feels the same way, even as rockets continue to fall in Sderot.

“It’s our obligation to make our leaders talk, to compel them to tell us for a change a different story,” Zion said. “Maybe, one day, our voice will be heard.”

JTA

 
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Israel eases conversion procedures

Orthodox rabbinic group Tzohar claims victory

On Monday morning, Rabbi David Stav’s inbox was overflowing.

During an interview at a Teaneck cafe, he apologized for looking at his phone as the messages came pouring in. (He was in the area after spending Shabbat at Manhattan synagogues; he is scheduled to be scholar in residence at Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah in February.)

But that morning — well, afternoon, Israel time — the Sephardi chief rabbi of the State of Israel — Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef — had denounced Rabbi Stav by name in a radio interview, and his friends were letting him know.

Rabbi Stav heads Tzohar, an organization of Israeli Orthodox rabbis that tries to bridge the gaps between Israel’s established Orthodox rabbinate — which regulates marriage and divorce in the country — and the secular public.

 

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When Benjamin Winik of Haworth finished his bachelor’s degree in political science at McGill University in Montreal, he considered teaching English in France for a year. Then he received an email from Taglit-Birthright Israel — he’d participated in a free Birthright tour of Israel in 2010 — informing him of the possibility of teaching English in Israel through Masa Israel Teaching Fellows.

“I liked how the program in Israel sounded; they give you a lot more support,” said Mr. Winik, now 24. “Moving to a foreign country is never easy, so you need that support system.”

 

NCJW immigration panel decries “broken system”

Participants praise President Obama’s executive action

President Obama’s recent speech on immigration — and his decision not to deport some 5 million people — most likely was driven, at least in part, by the advocacy efforts of groups such as the National Council of Jewish Women.

The Bergen County section, which held a forum on immigration reform last Tuesday, was in the process of sending a letter to the president when his formal statement was issued.

“It was a packed house,” Bea Podorefsky of Teaneck said of the forum, which drew 300 attendees. She and fellow NCJW member Joyce Kalman chaired the event.

“We prepared a letter for attendees to sign urging the president to take some action,” she said, joking that one of the program’s panelists, Rabbi Greg Litcovsky, said she must have had a “connection” to a higher power, given the president’s subsequent action.

Ms. Podorefsky said that the forum’s goals were “to educate ourselves, to educate the community at large, and to work together with our coalition partners.” The coalition, created around last year’s NCJW forum on human trafficking, consists of 24 organizations, ranging from Project Sarah to the Palisades Park Senior Center.

 

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