Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish (photo by Bob Talbot)
I was born in Soroka Hospital in Be’er Sheva, southern Israel. My father, an Israeli-born Jew of Tunisian descent, began his residency in obstetrics and gynecology the following year. Joining him in the program was a Muslim-Palestinian doctor from Gaza, the first to do so in an Israeli hospital. Through their respective residencies, they grew to become close friends and remain so to this day. This is the story of how that doctor from Gaza taught me the advantages of remaining level-headed during disputes, by his mere demeanour and the way in which he converts misfortunes into valuable life lessons. This is the story of how Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish changed the way I appreciate my parents, invest in my future and, most importantly, how I listen.
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish was born in 1955 in Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, in conditions most of us can’t even comprehend. His school bag was an old, fibre bag, he owned a single pair of pants sewed from scrap materials and his school eraser was so valuable he had to wear it on a string around his neck. His mother, the “Lioness,” as he often refers to her, knew education to be the most powerful weapon of choice in their limited arsenal. Consequently, she pushed him to his limits, having him work in the mornings before school and in the afternoons. His teachers saw in him a passion and competence that could elevate him and his family out of their current conditions and, like his mother, pushed him to pursue his studies. He went on to receive a scholarship to study medicine in Cairo, he then went on to receive a diploma in OB/GYN from the University of London, accompanied by a subspecialty in fetal medicine in Belgium and Italy; and onwards to completing a master’s of science in health policy and management at Harvard University.
His road out of poverty was not smooth, but 2009 brought the worst wave of hurt to his life. Only a few months after losing his wife to cancer, Abuelaish’s apartment was shelled by an Israel Defence Forces tank during the Gaza War. His three daughters – 20-year-old Bessan, 15-year-old Mayar and 13-year-old Aya – and 17-year-old niece Noor were all killed. The entire tragedy was caught on live television, as Abuelaish had been communicating with Israeli media on the effects of war on Palestinian civilians. Destroyed and devastated, his wails were heard all over the world and, for the first time during the war, the Palestinian people had a human face, and a haunting shriek.
Despite this unimaginable heartbreak, Abuelaish refused to let hatred coerce him into visceral action. “Hatred,” the doctor said, “is destructive to the hater, not the hated.” In the face of such trauma and injustice, he remained calm and rational and channeled his anger into a fight for justice, not revenge. He knew that hatred would only hurt his interests and sway him off course.
Abuelaish had friends in the hospitals he worked at, colleagues, patients and others who cared for him deeply, my father being one of the many among them. Abuelaish knew not to let the loudest of political actions silence the intentions of citizens on either side of the border. He knew to listen, to speak out with kindness and courage and through action.
I was formally introduced to Abuelaish for the first time when he came to speak at my university. “You’re the son of Bentov?” he said to me. I replied with a smile and a nod. He was ecstatic to meet me, and I could barely believe I was in his presence. We were both baffled by the coincidence, and rejoiced in the opportunity. After the lecture, the professor and several students went to a nearby café to further discuss the tenets of his talk. He inquired on the well-being of my parents and I shared my vague childhood memories of him. Upon his departure, he left his card with me and asked me to contact him again. I have remained in close touch with him since.
In the summer of 2015, Abuelaish offered to let me work in his office, hoping I could write a research paper under his guidance. Sitting in his office at Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, I gazed around the room, awestruck by the number of awards, photographs with world leaders, diplomas and gifts from supporters and friends that were on display. I remember most my reaction when I saw his bookshelf: the goliath volumes of medicine and politics were overshadowed by the collection of self-help books on overcoming trauma.
One morning, Abuelaish asked me to come with him to see the office of his philanthropic organization, Daughters for Life Foundation. After asking me whether Upper Canada College or University of Toronto Schools, both of which command some $20,000 in annual tuition, are better high school choices for his son’s education, he threw on the same black leather jacket he’s owned for at least a decade and a half, and we made our way to his 1998 Saturn SUV. The priorities he made clear that day and his mere demeanour ingrained in me a sense of proportion that drastically altered the things I hold dear in life. I am unable to articulate exactly how I felt driving in his car that day. I wanted to go home and burst into tears. His humility, his unending devotion to his children, his disregard for material goods. For the life of me, it took everything in my power not to shed a single tear during that car ride.
Before I met Abuelaish, I was an angry young man, easily swayed by inflammatory rhetoric and propaganda. I was arrogant, rigidly opinionated and impatient. When I met the doctor, my father’s friend, I saw a sobering display of the prowess of human endurance – an absolute refusal to remain defeated, even after many severe blows. I coined his philosophy “proactive pacifism,” as I could see no other way to describe it.
I began to realize the many unacknowledged fortunes in my life and the immense efforts my parents made. I also learned the value of listening and the importance of letting others voice their opinions unscathed by my bias. Most of us are quick to see differences, carelessly and lazily dividing people by economic, political and religious beliefs and doctrines. Instead of investing our energies into improving our lives, we spend it on putting or shutting down others, lest they make us work harder to maintain our place in the world or our opinions. Following the change of atmosphere in Europe and the United States, I think Canadians can learn from the valuable lessons of Abuelaish’s actions.
Instead of seeking revenge against those who have harmed him, he has chosen to empower those who have been harmed. In all of the self-help books and all of the various philosophies I have come across, I have never met anyone who embodies the “golden rule” as much as Abuelaish. I’m 20 years old and have had a life virtually devoid of struggle, in large part because my parents worked incredibly hard to provide me with all that I have. I did not fully appreciate this until I got to know Abuelaish.
After meeting him, I also saw the real benefits of allowing speech to flow freely and, when someone speaks, I now listen. As aggravating as that feels sometimes, I know that preserving this right, this freedom, is more important than my reaction to the words being spoken. I am now confident that proving a point means more than shouting out an opinion; it means putting my beliefs into action. After every conceivable reason to give in to hate, Abuelaish not only rose above his many adversities, he used them to fuel his goal of greater peace and cohesiveness between Israelis and Palestinians.
Abuelaish does not stand on the shoulders of giants; he guides them onwards. In 2011, he created Daughters for Life Foundation, which raises funds for academic scholarships for aspiring female students of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other backgrounds from the Middle East. Abuelaish believes that, through the success of other young female students, he can bring to life the ambitions of the daughters he lost.
Abuelaish has accomplished more through dialogue than through dispute. As well, there are hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian children enjoying their lives due to his work as an obstetrician. Because of him, and the few others like him, I firmly believe in the prospect of peace in the region.
Abuelaish is far more than a mentor to me – he is my friend, he is family. The way he endures the many misfortunes in his life, the way he looks after his children, the way he helped me and the way he spoke of my parents are only examples. His many lessons transcend and translate into all aspects of life.
Following the recent election in the United States and a return of nationalist support across Europe, politics divide us now more than they have in a very long time. In an era of sound bites, protests and identity politics, it seems that most individuals have very little interest in listening to opposing viewpoints, lest these views betray their crafted narratives. We are eager to impose our opinions on others, convinced that mere criticism means that someone is an enemy of our noble cause or wants to harm us. This phenomenon is causing divides in parts of the world where diversity has been flourishing for decades. In these times, it would be wise for us to take a breath, to put things into perspective and remain coolheaded, regardless of our differences – or even our similarities, for that matter. If we invest our energies on improving ourselves, and encourage others to do the same, we should be able to get along, even if we disagree. These are just a few of the things I learned from my good friend, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. As he has said, “The energy you want to waste on anger. Convert it to strength and determination.”
To learn more about Abuelaish, his book I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey is available at various booksellers, including online, and the link to his foundation is daughtersforlife.com.
Gilad Kenigsberg-Bentov is a student at University of Western Ontario, where he is majoring in economics.