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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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Ari Teman’s laughing matters

Teaneck native’s Rocket Shelter Comedy entertains Israelis under fire

What’s the toughest part of working for the Hamas Propaganda Unit? You need equipment to stage films and you can’t go to B&H Photo.

Teaneck-bred standup comic Ari Teman brought a suitcase of jokes like this one when he flew to Israel late last week to headline a series of comedy shows in regular venues as well as bomb shelters and army bases.

With fellow American standup Danny Cohen and Texan-Israeli comedian Benji Lovitt, Mr. Teman’s Rocket Shelter Comedy (http://RocketShelterComedy.com) shows took place from this week in cities including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beersheva, and Modi’in. All proceeds are to be donated to the Friends of the IDF Lone Soldier Fund.

When asked how he got the idea for the comedy mission, Mr. Teman — a graduate of the Torah Academy of Bergen County — explained that it resulted from a memo from his attorneys at the Israeli law firm GKH.

 

Working with lone soldiers

Young Teaneck woman recalls summer at Michael Levin center

Lone soldiers — Israel Defense Force members whose parents do not live in Israel or cannot support them — have been much in the news this harsh summer.

Estimates put the number of lone soldiers at about 5,800, and add that at least 750 of them are American. Two of those lone soldiers — Max Steinberg, 24, from California, and Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, from Texas — died this summer as they fought for Israel in Gaza.

Despite the idealism that brings young recruits to the IDF, and that sustains them as they fight, it is a hard path that they have chosen. Luckily, there are organizations, including the New Jersey branch of the Friends of the IDF, that work to meet some of their needs.

In Israel, the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin provides, as its vision statement says, a “warm, supportive, inclusive community for lone soldiers … before, during, and after their service.” The young man whose name the center carries, a Philadelphia native, moved to Israel, joined the IDF as a lone soldier, and died in Lebanon in 2006 at the hands of Hezbollah. He was 21.

 

People over politics

Sharing a message under Muslim-Jewish hashtag

#JewsAndArabsRefuseToBeEnemies.

To some, it’s just a hashtag. To others, it’s a way of life.

When Israeli Abraham Gutman and Syrian Dania Darwish, students at Hunter College in New York City, recently posted a photo of themselves holding signs with the above hashtag on Facebook, they didn’t know it would create a worldwide sensation.

“We are not politicians, not PR people,” Gutman told JNS.org. “We are students. We know a hashtag won’t solve this long conflict, but we wanted to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

 

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Did heated rhetoric play role in shooting of Giffords?

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