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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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The converso’s dilemma

Local group goes to New Mexico to learn about crypto-Jews

Imagine that you were raised as a Catholic. Then one day — perhaps as a beloved parent or grandparent lay dying and leaned over to whisper something in your ear — you learned that your family once was Jewish. Your ancestors were converted forcibly some 500 years ago.

For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

 

Noted chef to help raise funds for ELEM

Organization for at-risk Israeli teens raises consciousness in Bergen County

In 1982, a group of professionals and volunteers took note of the fact that Israel’s population of at-risk preteens and teens was not only growing but also sorely underserved.

In response, that group — Israelis and Americans — created ELEM/Youth in Distress.

Efrat Shafrut, the group’s executive director in Israel, said the organization now works with at least 20,000 kids each year. She estimates that there are more than 200,000 at-risk 12- to 18-year-olds in Israel.

“We work with immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia who moved here over the last 10 or 20 years, single-parent families, the poor, people with drug problems, prostitutes, Arabs, Bedouins, ultra-Orthodox religious kids, whoever needs help,” Ms. Shafrut said. The goal is to “extract them from their situation and help them find their place in society.”

 

Billionaire debutantes

Russian philanthropists take Bloomberg to the ball

JERUSALEM — There were ballerinas, a full dance ensemble, soloists, a harpist, a video tribute to Jewish luminaries in many fields, a multimedia orchestra performance celebrating the enduring light of creation, a speech from the prime minister, stand-up from Jay Leno, and an audience packed with top Jewish communal movers and shakers from both sides of the Atlantic.

Officially, it was a night at the Jerusalem Theater to honor former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg with the first $1 million Genesis Prize for embodying Jewish values in achieving excellence in the spheres of business, politics, and philanthropy. Mr. Bloomberg made a day of it, appearing with Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat to discuss urban innovation and holding a briefing with the media before showing up for the grandiose ceremony to take home what some are calling the Jewish Nobel.

 

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