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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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Reckoning at Nariman House

Looking back at the horror at Mumbai’s Chabad house, finding hope in its rededication

The last time I visited Nariman House — Beit Chabad in Mumbai was in 2009, less than a year after the horrific terrorist attack there.

I had been on my annual visit to India, but I was not sure whether I wanted to see Nariman House again. In 2008, my daughter and I spent a Shabbat at Chabad-Nariman House with Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, whom everybody seemed to call Gabby, and his wife, Rivka. My memories of the house were very positive. I had particularly strong memories of Gabby’s pleasant nature and openness. Still, when some acquaintances at the Indian Express asked to go back to Nariman House, I had mixed feelings.

Until that point, I had only audio memories of that night, when I acted as an interpreter to another Chabad rabbi, speaking to one of the terrorists by phone in an unsuccessful attempt to save the Jewish victims. This visit, however, was much a more real and vivid testimony to the events of Thanksgiving Day, 2008. I noted the bullet holes on the walls of Nariman House, along with the message painted in Hindi and English by the Hindu and Muslim neighbors: “We condemn the terrorist attacks of 26-11-2008.” Over time, there were fewer and fewer newspaper reports, and the memories faded from my immediate consciousness. Still, as a Jew and as an Indian, and as somebody with a close connection to the terrorist attack, I could not forget it entirely.

 

Another decade, another war

Israeli journalist will report on Gaza at federation breakfast in Englewood

Alon Ben-David entered journalism in 1985. He was 18.

That’s when he was drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces; he spent his time in the IDF working for Army Radio.

“It’s considered one of the best schools of journalism,” he said. “They throw you into the work.”

Thirty years later, Mr. Ben-David is the military correspondent for one of the three Israeli television channels, which incongruously is called Channel 10. (Channel 1 is the original, state-run station, where Mr. Ben David started working soon after his army term; the second channel is the privately run Channel 2.) In that capacity, he will come to Englewood next week to speak about the Israeli situation, with specific attention to the ramifications of this summer’s war with Gaza.

A lot of history has happened on his watch. He covered the first intifada, the second intifada, the second Lebanon war, the withdrawal from Gaza, the recent conflicts in Gaza … “All of those,” he said.

 

Challenge from the left

New NIF campaign adopts right’s tools

WASHINGTON — In a strategic shift, the New Israel Fund is arming itself with a set of sharp political tools and picking a fight.

Its target: Israel’s political right.

Its weapons: Opposition research, media monitoring, and staking its claims to patriotism and Zionism.

If NIF’s dramatic language, outlined in a September 18 press release, and its tough new posture seem familiar, it’s because the funder is adopting tactics used by the right to marginalize NIF and its clients.

“Over the past decade, Israel has endured an assault on liberal democratic values and a growing defiance of democratic norms, endangering freedom of speech and conscience as well as minority rights,” the release said. “Overt racism, ultra-nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise.”

 

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