After Loss, Choosing Love

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published April 29, 2009, issue of May 08, 2009.
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Gingerly, gingerly. You likely recall the heart-rending case of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Gaza physician three of whose daughters were killed in their home by an errant Israeli tank shell back on January 16, one day before the cease-fire that ended Israel’s assault on Gaza.

There are many chapters to Abuelaish’s story. A master’s degree from the Harvard School of Public Health, a residency at the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, an in-vitro fertilization specialist at the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, an advocate of peace and reconciliation — and a new widower, whose wife died of leukemia last September and who was left as the single father of eight children.

These musings are not, however, about the good doctor, to whom all hearts go out, whose tragedy continues to reverberate, to give pause, to evoke tears. They are, instead, about the reactions to his resolute advocacy — even after the tragedy — of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians. That advocacy has been the leitmotif of Abuelaish’s many appearances during a tour of the United States these last weeks, and it has by and large awed his interviewers and his audiences. Again and again, he is asked how he has been able to sustain his devotion to peace in the wake of his losses.

I mean no disrespect to the doctor, not at all. His story is indeed compelling, and his devotion to peace is indeed praiseworthy. Yet I cannot help being somewhat puzzled that those who have heard him tell his story have expressed such intense surprise at his steadfastness. As if the “normal” response, the expected response, is unmitigated anger, a resolute commitment to revenge and retribution.

Why is that? Do we really believe that the Darwinian imperative is revenge? Do we assume that in a confrontation between hate and hope, it is hate that must prevail, that we are genetically predisposed or even programmed to “get even”? (To say nothing of just what “getting even” can possibly mean in the context at hand.)

Might it not be, instead, that the experience of trauma builds on and perhaps even exaggerates the predispositions of the traumatized, whether to meanness or to generosity? If, for example, I believed in peace on January 15, might not my own direct experience with the horror of war on January 16 lead me to become still more determined to reach out for peace?

Does a family really arrive at “closure” when the murderer of their children is hanged? Irving Kristol once famously remarked that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Well, maybe that was Kristol’s experience. But reality’s mugging can just as easily come to teach us about the urgency of changing reality as it can lead us to abandon our beliefs and commitments.

In the Israel/Palestine context, can we not in fact agree that Abuelaish’s response to his miserable tragedy was, in fact, the most rational response available? True, people who experience what Abuelaish experienced do not always respond rationally, and if they do, it is often only after a period of intense mourning and withdrawal, whereas Abuelaish was almost immediately and quite publicly clear about his pacific convictions. There were some who found his refusal to “go private” for a time unsettling, even unseemly. But whether his timing was off by a bit or not, he now joins a distinguished assembly of people who had a right, as it were, to shrivel up, to become sour and nasty, to be and stay angry, and who chose differently. I think of Nelson Mandela, after 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island, and of Rep. John Lewis, after being clubbed in 1965 by a state trooper not far from Selma. I think of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, an international organization based in the United States composed of family members of victims of criminal murder, state execution, extra-judicial assassinations and “disappearances” who oppose the death penalty in all cases.

And, of course, I think of Parents Circle-Families Forum, a grassroots organization of bereaved Palestinians and Israelis, their sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters each other’s victims, an organization that brilliantly promotes reconciliation as an alternative to hatred and revenge. (The documentary “Encounter Point” tells its compelling story and is available on DVD.)

And no, that does not mean that the hurt of loss must be glossed over, that anguish and anger have no place. Wisely, Jewish tradition ritualizes grief and mourning — seven days, and 30 days, and 11 months. The answer to blood is not more blood, nor is it saintliness. The answer to blood is to bind up the wounds and to seek, somehow, to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is what Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish knows. It is ancient wisdom, and timely, too.


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