Saturday, June 4, 2011

I Shall Not Hate, by Izzeldin Abuelaish--A Review and Discussion

In my previous post, I recommended I Shall Not Hate, A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity, by Izzeldin Abuelaish, as helpful in viewing Israel-Palestine. I had heard him speak twice but hadn't read his book. Now I have, and here are some comments.

First, Dr. Abuelaish tells the truth about a number of areas that are frequently subject to political distortion. For instance he does not try to deny the reality of terrorism. It sounded like he was going to take that tack early on (p. 21), where he says a checkpoint's purpose is to "screen for what Israel called terrorists." Subsequently, though, he refers directly to terrorism without denying or justifying it. He doesn't try to deny that the events of September 11, 2011, constituted terrorism. He talks directly about the sponsoring of suicide bombers by Hamas. He deplores the election of Hamas, saying the hand of Gazans was forced by elections pushed on them too soon. He does not equivocate about calling what went on in Gaza between Hamas and Fatah civil war. He openly deplores the shooting and maiming of PLO security men in Gaza by Hamas. Those PLO workers, he says, were not outside agitators. They were sons and relatives and friends who had jobs as security personnel. He is also fairly honest and direct as to past wars. He does not try to claim that Israel started the 1967 war to gain territory. He does say Israel's cabinet voted to launch an offensive, but not without describing what the Arab countries had done first: how Nasser had closed the Straits of Tiran to Israel, and how the other Arab countries massed behind Nasser. He is also straightforward about Jordan and Egypt's pre-1967 goal of extending their own territory and ruling the Palestinians rather than setting up an independent Palestinian state. He is fairly direct about the frustration and inhumanity of checkpoints whether manned by Israelis, Egyptians, or Palestinians themselves. He is highly critical of Hamas as well as of Israeli leadership.

It may appear that by enumerating the above points I am setting a low bar for truth and honesty, but these are points frequently denied by those who wish to avoid any appearance of legitimizing Israel or even recognizing the humanity of Jews. I have had someone try to tell me, for example, that Israel started the 1967 war to seize more land. Some news outlets routinely refer to terrorism against Israeli citizens as "so-called terrorism" or "an understandable reaction." So when Dr. Abuelaish does not do that but rather is upfront on such matters, he is signaling that he has not set out to write a polemic or otherwise justify a preconceived narrative.

He also totally lauds what goes on in Israeli hospitals--how people are treated according to their needs, whether Jews, Christians or Muslims--or whether Palestinians. That good treatment included the repair of maimed knees Palestinians had suffered as a result of the civil infighting and retaliation. In fact, it's from the medical model at its best, which Dr. Abuelaish experienced in Israel, that he has derived his vision of Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement. He describes how he has made lasting friends among fellow medical staff in Israel, and how they advanced his career, supporting him in arranging internships and circumnavigating the considerable obstacles, and how they sustained him in all difficulties. He freely contrasts those experiences with the corruption in Gaza hospitals, where, he says, how you are treated depends on who you are and who you know, not on what you need.

On the other hand, the first 85 or 90 pages of the book are a lengthy report of what the Palestinians have suffered. Although the author says he finds it more helpful to look forward than back, many pages of his book are devoted to looking back, and primarily from the Palestinian point of view. The effect is such that he gives the impression of perceiving his mission as one of advocacy as well as peace.

In case it seems that I only think he is sometimes one-sided because I am a Jew and not a Palestinian, here is an example that has nothing to do with Israel or the political plight of Palestinians. In describing his family, he tells how his father left his first wife for a second woman he married after he fell in love with her. He explains that the norm among Muslims in his community is not to have a lot of wives at once, but that if a marriage is not working out, the husband will replace the first wife with a second. The author is describing the difficulties of being the children of the second wife, and how the grandparents preferred the first wife and those other grandchildren. His words express continuing resentment about how he and the rest of the second family were treated. He tells how his father never divorced the shunned first wife. My point is that even as an adult writing this book, the author expresses no empathy for the first wife's predicament of being tethered to a man who had rejected her but never divorced her so she could also seek happiness with someone else. The impression is that his continuing resentment has eclipsed any empathy he might feel. At least with the Israeli-Palestinian situation he is actively struggling, even though his line between advocacy and peace may be fuzzy at times.

A case in point is his clinging to the right of return. He discounts the argument that Israel is too small a country to accept the Palestinian refugees back, since "Israel has plenty of room to bring Russians, Argentinians, Ethiopians, and others of the Diaspora to the Promised land" (p. 214). But he fails to mention the Jewish immigrants or their parents or grandparents who were forced out of their former countries or fled debilitating persecution both before and after the founding of the state of Israel and who have no right of return.

He describes his family as having been landowners who left their home in 1948, thinking it was just for a little while until Israel was overcome and they could return. Instead they ended up becoming refugees. Many other Arab families stayed put, neither leaving on their own like Dr. Abuelaish's family nor being driven out, so that they are now Israeli citizens making up 20% of the population. Krista Tippett (On Being) has included reports on them with her stories on the region from this April and May 2011.

Families in similar situations during those decades who got to make such decisions had to do the best they could with the information they had. In Israel, Muslim and Christian Palestinians who stayed were the winners. In the 1930s, Jews who made the decision to stay in Europe met disaster. In still other situations in the world around that time families and individuals got no choice at all--witness the brutal events surrounding the partition of India and Pakistan where those people got no right to stay and no right of return.

There is a long section toward the end of Izzeldin Abuelaish's book on Operation Cast Lead and the killing of his daughters. After the war began, the media had no access, and so Dr. Abuelaish made himself available for phone interviews on Israeli television. So I expect he has already said everything on TV that he later writes in his book. Since there was no visual, only audio, I imagine his picture on TV as his words were broadcast, just as I have seen for stories on American TV from Sudan and other places where there is a reporter but no camera. He writes about the tank driver who advanced on his and other homes but retreated after the author got a call through to friends in Israel to tell what was happening, and about the eventual explosion that killed his daughters and niece in their bedroom. His call for help in the aftermath was also broadcast live. The newscaster who took the call believes that dramatic interview changed the Israeli public's perception and led to the cease-fire that occurred shortly thereafter.

He also describes how bad he felt later when an Israeli woman accused him of its being his own fault, that he must have been harboring terrorists. I think it can be said that one group's telling a second group that their suffering is deserved entails the dehumanization of that other group--no matter who they are.

When people expected him to demand reprisals or otherwise urged hate on him, Dr. Abuelaish says it's a disease to "use hatred and blame to avoid the reality that eventually we need to come together (p. 188)." He goes on to ask which Israelis he was supposed to hate. The ones who gave him work as a teenager? The doctors who struggled to heal his other relatives who were injured? Babies he had delivered? "Hatred is an illness. It prevents healing and peace." He says the loss of his daughters even strengthened his peace orientation but that at the same time he is also consumed with the craziness of what happened. He says anger is a sign he doesn't accept what happened, and it spurs him on to make a difference. But he says one must choose for anger not to spiral into hatred and revenge, which will only "drive away wisdom, increase sorrow, and prolong strife." He espouses non-violence. He says that truth has to be pursued through talking with and respecting each other. If the leaders won't, it's up to the people.

In the words of the author's friend, the Israeli physician Zeev Rotstein, Palestinians entering Israeli hospitals for treatment say they never imagined Jews were human. They have been incited from birth and say they were expecting monsters. If it's necessary for people on both sides to get to know each other, that's part of what has to be overcome.

Izzeldin Abuelaish says people have to have the will to solve the problem instead of keeping hate and anger front and center. He encourages kavod (respect) and shivyon (equality), and for that, people do have to know each other. He says that Israelis and Palestinians are alike. He hosted Israelis in his home or the homes of friends prior to the second intifada. "We'd have coffee and sweets together--all of us, the Israelis and the Palestinians. We'd discuss and argue. These get-togethers brought home to me how similar we are when it comes to socializing. We're expressive. We talk loudly, and the decibel level goes up with the intensity of the conversation. The more interesting it gets, the noisier we become. That's how Palestinians and Israelis are."

The author also comments, "I feel I cannot rely on the various spokespersons who claim they act on my behalf. Invariably they have some agenda that doesn't work for me." On February 17, 2011, I went to hear him speak. The presentation was sponsored by a literary group but took place at a church whose sanctuary could accommodate the large audience. The question-and-answer period afterward was hijacked by a group who used the time to speak out against Israel in a one-sided way, to which Dr. Abuelaish reiterated his mantra that though anger can be appropriate, hate is not. This book could never be fitted into the pro-Palestinian anti-Israel agenda because of the author's emphasis on people's knowing each other and respecting the humanity of all.

Because of my criticism of Dr. Abuelaish's attitude toward his father's first wife, I would like to make clear that, like many other writers on the subject of peace and reconciliation, he sees women as central to the establishment of peace and democratic progress. He says that where you can easily find 1000 men in favor of war you would be unlikely to find five women. He is for the reform of Arab society in its attitude toward woman and opportunities for them.

Finally his courage in writing this book can't be overestimated, given the danger to moderates who speak out.
(Post completed on June 12, 2011.)