I SHALL NOT HATE
by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
This humbling, courageous and profoundly important book goes straight to the heart.
At 4.45pm on January 16th, 2009, during Operation Cast Lead Dr. Izzeldin Abulelaish's three daughters, Bessan, Mayar and Aya were killed in their bedroom, together with their cousin Noor, by two shells fired from an Israeli tank. The horror and misery of their fate reached millions in minutes. Dr. Abuelaish had been giving daily telephone interviews with his friend Shlomi Eldar on the Israeli television network Channel 10 - one of the few ways personal news from Gaza could reach Israel.
In anguish over his other injured children, whom he realised could only be saved by the facilities available at an Israeli hospital, he phoned Eldar who, acting on some sixth sense, took the call live on air:
"The Palestinian pain, which the majority of Israeli society doesn't want to see, had a voice and a face. The invisible became visible…there was one man, one story, one tragedy, and so much pain".
Dr Abuelaish's entire book is a plea for healing. "All that was fired out of our house", he writes, "was love, hugs, and acts of peace - nothing else, ever". Even after his family's tragedy, what he seeks most is partnership and understanding.
Dr Abuelaish was born in the Jabbaliya refugee camp. His grandfather had been mukhtar in the village of Houg near Sderot; the family were famed for their hospitality. In 1948, amidst rumours of massacres, they left.
Life in Gaza is described in all its harshness. During his childhood, Izzeldin's whole family lived in one tiny room, all sleeping on a single mattress strapped to the wall by day. Izzeldin would be woken at 3am by his mother, to earn money before school. Hunger and tiredness were perpetual. The sole hope was education: remarkable teachers inspired him to believe in its power and his school books became his greatest treasure.
Among Gaza's best students, he gained one of the few places to study medicine in Cairo, specialising in obstetrics. Advanced studies subsequently took him to Saudi Arabia, London and Belgium. He was motivated to work in the field of obstetrics by a deep love of life, and compassion for women who longed to be mothers.
Returning to Gaza he made contact with Israeli colleagues in the field and thus became the first Palestinian to join the staff of an Israeli hospital. Eventually his international qualifications in public health policy brought him to join the outstanding team at the Sheba Medical Centre in Tel Aviv.
His motivation for writing this book, after the appalling tragedy that befell him and his family, is his unbroken desire and determination to act as a bridge:
"To reveal the secrets of Gaza, the truth about the pain of dislocation, the humiliation of the occupation, and the suffocation that comes from a siege, so that once and for all Palestinians and Israelis can find a way to live side by side".
One of the features of his life, which comes across most painfully, is the endless and insulting delays at checkpoints, even when he had to hurry to Tel Aviv to reach his dying wife Nadia. It is there, to the Sheba Hospital, that his desperately injured daughter Shatha and her cousin were rushed following his call to Channel 10 on January 16. They arrived to: '…passionate blessings from Arab, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian people in Israel who had been watching the drama unfold on television and had gathered in the hospital foyer to wait for us'. Asked if he doesn't now loathe Israelis, Dr Abuelaish's response is 'which Israelis?'. Those who welcomed him as a teenager, his colleagues, those who saved his daughter's life? Indeed, the book, while thoroughly condemning Israeli policy in Gaza and the violence of Hamas, is full of intelligent and compassionate Israeli and Jewish voices. It describes genuine friendships, and good will from both sides.
As the head of the Sheba Centre Dr Rotstein writes: "[Dr Abuelaish's] message [is] that his own personal disaster should serve as a kind of milestone, and from here we should do more for peace in order to prevent such a horrible thing from happening again". I shall never forget the first time I had the opportunity to speak to Dr Abuelaish. Soon after January 16, someone gave me his mobile number and, in misery over what was happening in Gaza, I phoned him. I never expected him to answer, but his quiet voice came on the phone immediately. When I expressed my sorrow over what had happened to his family, his response was: "We must never forget our shared humanity".
I've planted a tree in my garden in memory of his daughters and their cousin, so that I think of his family often, and what we can do so that no one, neither Israeli nor Palestinian, has to suffer a similar fate.
His heartrending story has the power to change the Middle East with its love, humility, wisdom and extraordinary strength of character. But it must be read, not in a spirit of self-justification or recrimination, but with shame, pain, an open heart and, ultimately, hope and faith in our ability to act together for good.
Jonathan Wittenberg is Rabbi, New North London Synagogue & Senior Rabbi UK Masorti Movement. Please see p.46 for Extract from I SHALL NOT HATE Izzeldin Abuelaish