Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian obstetrician and gynecologist whose three daughters and niece were killed by Israeli fire during the recent Gaza war and who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize last month, came to Los Angeles not to talk about peace, but to encourage kavod (respect) and shivyon (equality).
On the day his daughters were killed, Abuelaish was at home, the Gaza borders sealed for the duration of the war, he told the audience at Temple Ner Maarav in Encino on April 22. He was on the first floor of the five-story house, which he shares with his brothers and their families, when IDF tanks opened fire, allegedly responding to terrorist gunfire coming from the direction of the house. His daughters—aged 20, 15 and 13—and his 17-year-old niece were killed. Another of his daughters and a son were wounded, along with his brother.
“Let’s leave the talk of peace behind,” said Abuelaish, 53, speaking in Hebrew to an audience of approximately 40 people. “Instead, let’s focus on more realistic goals: working together so that both sides live in equal conditions, with equal rights and with mutual respect.” (For a full interview with Abuelaish, please see Rob Eshman’s column.)
But respect was in short supply at the small, yet boisterous event hosted by Americans for Peace Now. As Abuelaish described the war as a terrible mistake, the audience listened attentively for the most part—one particularly outspoken man called out, “What other alternative did we have?”—but as soon as the moderator, Rivka Dori, director of Hebrew studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, opened the floor for questions, the session immediately deteriorated into bickering and shouting between individuals who expressed different viewpoints.
Abuelaish stood at the front of the room, calmly observing the in-fighting between the group of Israelis with the same poise and patience he has demonstrated for years as an advocate for coexistence. Abuelaish lives in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza and has been crossing the border for years to work at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer near Tel Aviv, where he conducts research with Israeli physicians and treats both Israeli and Palestinian patients.
Fluent in Hebrew, the doctor provided regular eyewitness reports for various Israeli media outlets during Operation Cast Lead and had become well known and respected by Israeli journalists. His live phone conversation with the anchor of Israel’s Channel 10 TV news moments after his home was hit rattled the entire nation. Israelis watched as the anguished father of eight sobbed and pleaded for medical aid for his family. The visibly shaken reporter implored anyone in the army who was watching to send ambulances to Abuelaish’s home.
“I believe everything happens for a reason,” Abuelaish said. “Even this, it has a purpose. It opened Israelis’ eyes to the suffering on the other side. And that’s what I want to tell you today: open your eyes, open your ears, use your head.”
Abuelaish repeated this message as he fielded questions from both sympathetic and hostile members of the crowd. Many of those who raised their hands to speak seemed less interested in hearing what Abuelaish had to say than in expressing their own opinions. Dori struggled to maintain some semblance of order, but people continued to interrupt one another, shouting out comments, talking out of turn and conducting heated side conversations as others were attempting to listen to Abuelaish’s responses.
Some of the questions asked were earnest: “What can we do here as Israelis in the United States to encourage dialogue?” and “It’s great that you’re here talking to us, but are you also making this same plea for peace on the other side, in your own community?”
“Yes, of course,” Abuelaish replied to the last of those.
Other questions had a more accusatory tone: “You speak of dialogue between the two nations, but who do we have to talk to? Hamas? You say we need to respect one another, but your elected leaders are not even willing to recognize the existence of the state of Israel. What kind of respect is that?”
Abuelaish, who also lost his wife to cancer this year and is now raising his remaining five children alone, did not have all the answers to the questions hurled at him and could not offer solutions to every problem raised, but in a remarkable display of dignity and persistence, he continued to stress that there is a way out of this mess and that way involves moving forward, not dwelling on the past.
“Arguing over who did what and who suffered more is not getting us anywhere,” he said. “We have to move on, we have to build trust and mutual respect between the peoples. Leaders like Yassin, Arafat, Haniyah, Rabin, Lieberman—they come and go. What remains are the sentiments among the nations, long after these individuals have passed. And you can’t respect someone who you don’t know. So let’s get to know one another by listening and opening our eyes to the other side.”
Afterwards, David Pine, West Coast regional director of Americans for Peace Now, said that Abuelaish felt energized by the discussion. “He works with Israelis all the time; he understands fully the culture and mentality and was not at all fazed by the shouting. He really was pleased with the event.”
To read Rob Eshman’s column on Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, click here.