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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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What’s it like to be Jewish in Great Britain?

A visiting Brit, former Board of Deputies head, talks about similarities and differences

In a way, British Jewish life can seem to us, here in the United States, to be an alternative universe version of our life here.

Most British Jews have backgrounds similar to our own — most are the descendants of eastern Europeans, some of whom can be traced back three or four generations, others who are Holocaust refugees or survivors. A smaller number of them are Sephardi.

British Jews celebrate the same Jewish holidays, speak the same language, share many Jewish and general cultural references. They even can trace their mythic origins in their country to the east side of its biggest city — Manhattan’s Lower East Side for us, London’s East End for them.

There are many differences as well, though. To begin with, we do not say a prayer for the Queen during our prayer services. Our community is much larger — they have fewer than 300,000, representing about .4 percent of all Britons. (That’s roughly the number of Jews in northern New Jersey.) We have somewhere between 4.2 and 5.3 million, depending on which definition of Jewish the statistician uses. That’s about 1.8 percent of all Americans. They have those lovely, dancing, enviable accents; we plod along in our flat heavy Americanese.

 

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.

 

‘Uncertain Justice’

Joshua Matz looks at the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and preconceptions

As we have seen once again in the last few weeks, as its session drew to its usual dramatic end, Supreme Court decisions tend to be 5 to 4.

The winning side triumphs –often, it actively gloats — and the losing side slinks off to mutter darkly about idiocy and misreading and blatant politicization.

That is an entirely reasonable thing for those of us who are not Supreme Court justices — and that is everyone except nine of us, and none of those nine people read this newspaper — to feel, but it is neither accurate nor particularly helpful to do so, Joshua Matz says.

Mr. Matz, who grew up in Suffern, is the co-author of “Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution.” Working with Laurence Tribe, the lawyer and Harvard Law School professor whose name was mentioned for decades as a likely Supreme Court nominee, Mr. Matz contends that in fact the justices are more different from each other than their glibly applied labels might imply, and that their own histories, beliefs, and casts of mind mean that the decisions they make are fueled by something more powerful, more interesting, and more worthy of attention than the certainties of 5 to 4 might suggest. (Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”)

 

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Did heated rhetoric play role in shooting of Giffords?

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