I was interested to read a recent Toronto Star column by Haroon Siddiqui about the Palestinian medical doctor and peace activist Izzeldin Abuelaish. Dr. Abuelaish was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in promoting peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Siddiqui says that in spite of those credentials (or perhaps because of them) some Palestinians in Canada think that Abuelaish is being used by Israelis and the West in a propaganda war against Muslims, and that he is selling out.
Tragedy in Gaza
I have written about Dr. Abuelaish previously. Likely you have heard of him. His parents had their land taken away by Israelis after 1948. He grew up in a refugee camp but went on to study medicine and become a gynecologist. He lived in Gaza and practiced medicine both there and in Israel. His wife had died of cancer. He was at home in Gaza on January 16, 2006 with his eight children and other family members. Two weeks earlier Israeli tanks and troops had launched a ground invasion in response to Hamas rocket attacks on Israel. A shell fired from an Israeli tank hit Abuelaish’s house and killed three of his daughters along with a seventeen-year-old niece. Another of his daughters and a second niece were injured.
Refuses to hate
Abuelaish has since moved to Canada with his five surviving children and is a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Health. Despite his heartbreaking losses, Abuelaish refuses to hate and has continued to speak to anyone who invites him about the need for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Siddiqui describes his book, I Shall Not Hate, as “a moving ode to forgiveness and reconciliation.”
In nominating Abuelaish for the Nobel Prize, the Belgian parliament described him as “an inspiring and authoritative new voice in the tradition of Thoreau, Tolstoy, Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King.”
But Siddiqui says Canadians Arabs are suspicious of Abuelaish and feel that he is giving the Israelis a free pass. His reporting provides a perspective for what had been a puzzling experience for me in January 2012.
Profiles in courage
I was invited to speak to the Consortium for Peace Studies at the University of Calgary. After some discussion with the centre’s director, Professor George Melnyk, we decided that the talk would be called Profiles in Courage, and that it would highlight the peace witness of several prominent Canadians. I believe that one has to show courage to advocate for peace at a time when in our country there is such a persistent drumbeat in favour of militarism and war.
Those who I profiled included Murray Thomson, an elder and peace activist who enlisted in the Air Force while a student during the Second World War. He says that he became a pacifist when, in 1945, the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. Now in his late 80s he is still spreading the word about resisting militarism and building peace.
The others were Douglas Roche and Ernie Regehr. Roche is a former Conservative MP and was later an independent Senator. Roche was also Canada’s UN Ambassador for Disarmament and is best known for his work in trying to have nations agree to get rid of their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Regehr is the co-founder (along with Murray Thomson) of the inter-church peace group Project Ploughshares. And he is working with both Thomson and Roche in trying to convince all recipients of the Order of Canada to call upon the Canadian government to take a leading role in advocating for international negotiations to achieve a verifiable treaty on the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.
I was speaking to the Peace Consortium about Canadians working for peace. I decided to make of Dr. Abuelaish an honourary recipient of a profile in courage because he is now living and working in Canada, and because he was to be awarded the Calgary Peace Prize in March 2012.
When the question period began following my talk, the first person to speak identified himself as Palestinian Canadian. He said that Abuelaish was just the sort of Palestinian persona that North Americans and Israelis like – someone prepared to turn the other cheek no matter what suffering and indignities have been suffered.
I was caught by surprise and merely allowed the comment to stand. No one else in the audience rose to Abuelaish’s defence either. Now, reading Siddiqui’s column, I see that what happened in Calgary was not an entirely isolated sentiment. The sides are only too clearly drawn.
When I spoke at a United Church on the following evening, I was upbraided by two fundamentalist Christians who accused me of telling the Abuelaish story but not that of Israelis who were the targets of rockets being fired from Gaza where Abuelaish lived when his house was hit. (Actually, I had been clear in my description of those attacks from Gaza).
Martyrs for peace
The Belgian parliament compared Abuelaish to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I believe it is usually unwise to compare living people with those whose reputations have become mythical – in this case both of them martyrs for peace. Gandhi was gunned down by a Hindu fundamentalist who believed the Mahatma was selling out his people to the Muslims. King was regularly vilified by racists and white supremacists and killed by a man who feasted on that menu of hate. In fact, it takes only a quick on line search to discover that both Gandhi and King remain the objects of vilification.
Courage and vision
Let’s just say that Abuelaish, like Gandhi and King, is a man of courage and vision. “I can fight without a gun,” he told columnist Siddiqui. “It is important to speak the universal language of mutual understanding.”