On International Women’s Day on March 8, I heard the most pro-woman speech I’ve heard in years. It was delivered by a man.
Upon receiving the 2012 Calgary Peace Prize, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish of Gaza told his story to a sold-out audience at the Calgary Golf and Country Club. That’s just about as far from Gaza as one could imagine. There was no other sound than his voice in that room, not a whisper, no teaspoon clinking a cup, as Abuelaish spoke of the day in January 2009 when an Israeli shell struck his family home, killing three of his daughters and a niece. Rather than responding with anger, however, he dedicated himself to being a voice of peace and reconciliation. “If I could know that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then I would accept their loss,” he said. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel has described the doctor’s story as “a necessary lesson against hatred and revenge.”
Abuelaish’s life is all about children, even though he didn’t have much of a childhood himself. Raised in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, he studied medicine in Cairo and then obstetrics and gynecology in London, England. He completed a residency in Be’er Sheva, Israel, and later trained in fetal medicine in Italy and Belgium. Currently, he is an associate professor of medicine at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
At the time of the 2009 Israeli incursion into Gaza, Abuelaish, a recent widower, was conducting research at a Tel Aviv hospital. The attack lasted 23 days. Utilities and food were scarce; army tanks were not. “Women, girls, boys, innocent civilians are being sacrificed for this leadership,” he writes in his book, I Shall Not Hate. “People are not important to the leaders from either side. You have to wonder if they have sons and daughters themselves.”
Before the attack that took his daughters’ lives, Abuelaish believed that peace between Palestinians and Israelis was possible. After his unbelievable losses, he believes it still. He also believes that health and education for women and girls is necessary worldwide. “The strongest members of any society are women. Men have fallen, lost hope, but women have retained hope for a better future and they will help men. It is time to invest in women and girls’ education,” he said.
On that night in Calgary, when Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman and Very Rev. Bill Phipps stood with Abuelaish at this remarkable peace prize dinner, no one remained in their seats. We know that there are not many places on the face of Earth where representatives of three faiths stand together. Unless more do it, we are lost.
Abuelaish said, “I know that what I have lost, what was taken from me, will never come back. But as a physician and a Muslim of deep faith, I need to move forward to the light, motivated by the spirits of those I lost. I need to bring them justice. . . . I will keep moving but I need you to join me in this long journey.”
And it is a long journey. Three days after Abuelaish received his honour, the news from Gaza was gruesome. And so it is more urgent than ever that people listen to the wise and passionate words of one who knows that hatred solves nothing. They are the words of a healer.
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