In 2011, I read “I Shall Not Hate” by Palestinian obstetrician, Izzeldin Abuelaish, who lost three daughters killed by IDF shells on January 16, 2009 during Israel’s incursion into the Gaza Strip. Dr Abuelaish was born and raised in the Jabalia refugee camp, receiving a scholarship to study medicine in Cairo and then obtaining a diploma from the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of London. He completed a residency in that discipline at Soroka Hospital in Israel, later studying a master’s in public health at Harvard University. Tragically ironic, he was working as a senior researcher at the Gertner Institute at the Sheba hospital in Tel Aviv at the time his three daughters were killed. Turning over the pages of his story, I burst into tears on several occasions lamenting “I’m ashamed to be Jewish”.
Israeli author, David Grossman, who wrote a brief preface to Abuelaish’s book met him just a few days after the death of his daughters, writing: “It is so rare, I thought, in this debilitating and devastating area we inhabit, to meet a person like him…a man who despite his own losses…continues his belief in humanity and its potential for good….Through his eyes I could see another way, a way the two nations could treat each other. A way that could extract what is good, special, and humane in both of them. I could see an alternative that could light up the great similarity of both peoples, one that gets denied and put down time and time again…”
Calming down and drying my eyes as I finished the book, I picked myself up on why I extrapolated from what that particular Israeli government had perpetrated to a personal generalisation about being Jewish, understanding it was the action of a government in a country that had absolutely nothing to do with me. Moreover, the fact it was a Jewish state was also irrelevant to my being Jewish. How Israel’s government acts does not intrinsically encompass all Jews, despite many ministers and its people affirming security concerns as Jews in a hostile environment justify their actions. Sadly, equating Israel as a Jewish state with Jews worldwide is a tragic judgement many others make too; Jews and non-Jews similarly.
Over the past couple of weeks, the mainstream media in Melbourne has reported on yet another controversial issue pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that involves a Jewish Federal MP, Michael Danby, and his accusation of bias against ABC-TV reporter, Sophie McNeill. McNeill featured a story about one Palestinian family and their eviction last month “after a court returned their home to Jewish ownership…” In The Weekend Australian, commentator Greg Sheridan quoted this from the ABC-TV program, Media Watch, which also said that another McNeill story about “the stabbing to death of three members of a Jewish family in July did not receive such personal treatment and was reported only in the context of a surge of violence in which four Palestinians were also killed. They did not get feature treatment either. So, is that bias? Or part of a pattern?”
According to Sheridan, McNeill’s reports are indeed “a pattern, and yes, it is bias.” Consequent to McNeill’s report about the eviction of the Palestinian family, Danby promoted his perspective by placing two ads in the Australian Jewish News. Powerful voices in the Australian Jewish community expressed their support for Danby and his accusation against the ABC. The ABC defended McNeill’s report as factual and unbiased. Sheridan honestly acknowledged he had been a friend of Danby for more than 40 years, but did not acknowledge, even contemplate, that Danby was, or could be, as biased as McNeill supposedly was, albeit with opposing perspectives.
Growing up in Melbourne in the 1950s as the youngest of three girls in a quasi-Orthodox Jewish family, I knew from a young age about the Nazi Holocaust and the slaughter of six million Jews. Fortunately, my parents both came to Australia in the late 1920s as children well before the rise of Hitler due to the foresight of my grandparents; my father’s family from the Ukraine and my mother’s from Poland. Anti-Jewish persecution pervaded both those countries.
However, many of my mother’s extended family remained in Poland later perishing in a concentration camp, for my mother to then eschew anything German when I was a child. I was not allowed to buy German colour pencils, no German appliances were purchased for our home, I was not permitted to befriend a male school friend whose parents were post-war German refugees and when my older sisters wanted to buy a Volkswagon car, my mother told them she would never sit in it. They bought a mini instead.
My mother, now passed, was a very compassionate, kind and loving parent, yet her early life experience tragically tainted her emotional response to all things German. My own perspective is that all too sadly many Jews in this country are still affected by historical events that impact on their beliefs about the current Israeli-Palestinian tragedy. Jewish Australian historian, Mark Baker, commented on an ABC-TV Compass program in 2013 that the Jews walk “in the shadow of the Holocaust” and a few weeks later, on another Compass program, a Liberal Rabbi’s wife said that by getting to know her, an 18-year-old Muslim girl may not “want to kill” her.
The latest controversy about Michael Danby and the ABC reflect the continuing currents of hate and fear innate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sheridan argued that “The ABC is consistently biased against Israel in a similar way to the BBC and for similar reasons. The overwhelming majority of ABC reporters and general broadcast commentators share a fairly narrow spectrum of world view, ranging from the middle Left of Labor to the green left. This is why the ABC finds it so difficult to come to grips with, or even understand, the complaints this kind of bias generates.”
Pertinently for me, what Sheridan claims as ‘narrow’ is actually ignorance and blind stupidity, even naivety, to the complex historical reality of the conflict. I did not see either McNeill’s reports nor Danby’s ads but it seems both Danby and McNeill have both ignored this complexity, with a simplistic stance without reasoned context that obfuscates the conflict. Sheridan also fails to appreciate just how convoluted the conflict is by portraying Danby and the ABC as antagonistic foes, the arguments tragically exacerbated, and informed, by the horrifying memories of the Holocaust and the very concept of a Jewish state.
Sheridan does point out that “a more sophisticated broadcaster would have interviewed Danby at length about his criticisms” to which I wholeheartedly concur, but maybe, as a friend, he should have done likewise to validate his own commentary.
Having lived in Israel for four months as a 19-year-old, albeit in 1969, I was only too well aware, even then, of just how complex and confusing the conflict was for both Israelis and Palestinians. Certainly it is a long time ago, and I have been unable to return, but the reality of my time there revealed the painful existence for both Israeli Jews and Arabs, as well as Palestinians I encountered when I touristed in the West Bank. It was relatively easy to travel into those areas then, where I conversed with the inhabitants who evinced no hatred towards me but accepted me as a human being who was simply of a different faith, simultaneously acknowledging we were both Semites with much in common.
In Israel, I worked and studied Hebrew for three months on a kibbutz and later spent a month travelling around the country while staying in my Australian cousin’s home in suburban Haifa during which time the enormity of the hatred exploded before my eyes. Returning from a city excursion on a bus on a glorious summer afternoon, I alighted near my cousin’s home to see the apartment block nearby a smoky, smothering ruin. Rushing into my cousin’s home, my cousin’s wife, also born in Australia, told me nobody had been killed and a bomb had been left outside by person’s unknown. It had detonated just a couple of hours before. Consequently, I contemplated: What if it had exploded as I alighted from the bus? Would I still be alive?
For a few hours, I considered the truth, however intangible and inaccessible, about the hostility and hatred against the Israeli Jews, juxtaposed by another reality I witnessed a few days previously when I visited the old Arab city of Akko, a few kms bus trip from Haifa. Walking around the city by myself, an Israeli Arab boy my age spoke to me, offering to show me around the city for no cost. Speaking good English, he imparted his life story involving no educational opportunities and little hope for a better life than his parents who could barely make a living. His mother couldn’t obtain employment and his father worked as a cleaner. He then invited me to his home for some watermelon and coffee which I accepted, without even thinking about any risk to my safety.
His home was a hovel as were his neighbours, made out of adobe bricks with a dusty, hard floor, fruit boxes as chairs, an ice box as a fridge and a cold water tap in the kitchen. The bathroom, dare I even call it that, included some kind of shower tap with cold water only too. The toilet was outside in the back- a hole in the grass. His mother was home and unable to speak English, just slicing me some watermelon and preparing some Turkish-style coffee on one, solitary gas ring which was their stove. She smiled at me and I smiled back, devouring the sweet fruit, enjoying the strong coffee and then departing back to Haifa. The Arab boy asked me to visit again the next day to show me more of the city and I agreed.
Returning to my cousin’s home, which comparably was a modern, well-equipped even luxurious abode, I excitedly told my cousin’s wife about my good fortune in meeting this young Arab boy and that I was going back to meet him tomorrow. To say she was aghast is an understatement, telling me I was lucky he hadn’t killed me and on no account should I return to meet him. Her words and tone of voice engendered a fear, intensified by my own ignorance and perhaps too, negative assumptions about Arabs in the country. I did not return to Akko to see the Arab boy. This was another truth I needed to confront, that as much as I had trusted and liked him, I was well cognisant that Jewish residents were stabbed and murdered by Arabs on several occasions. The Jerusalem Post which I read daily reported these stories sadly, too often. At the same time, the eviction of Arabs from their homes where they had lived for generations for new Jewish settlements was also featured in the newspaper, happening on many occasions in the territories seized by Israel two years before during the Six-Day War in June, 1967. It seemed like madness for both Israelis and Arabs.
When I decided to live in Israel at that time, I was not a religious, practising Jew but nonetheless felt very Jewish, inexplicable to some perhaps but not to me. However, my experience in four months manifested as complex confusion, a sadness about the hate and fear by both peoples, not just about Israel as a homeland for the Jews, but more problematically for me, about the very nexus between being Jewish and a homeland itself. The only way I understood it, and still do, is that reality transcends idealistic aspirations about imagining the world as “one” as John Lennon sang years ago.
Since then, I have learned about the inimical antipathy towards the Jews worldwide, attitudes rarely experienced by me in Australia, but simultaneously is also extant a contempt and fear of Muslims, be they Palestinians, Lebanese and Iranians, among others.
Of course, the situation in Israel is different nearly fifty years on, perhaps even more profoundly disturbing and frightening than what I experienced in 1969, but many in this country, journalists, MPs and others, seem reluctant or incapable of coming to grips with the sheer complexity of the conflict, too many years of hatred, fear and persecution of both Jews and Arabs. I have no answers to solve the conflict but believe the sad truth is that culpability for the violence perpetrated by both peoples must be accepted within a framework of sincere hope for peace, based on mutual respect for “a way…that is good, special, and humane” for both peoples as David Grossman wrote.
Izzeldin Abuelaish, who now lives in Canada, wrote saliently “Hatred is an illness. It prevents healing and peace.” Surely what is critical are more people like Grossman and Abuelaish, not just in Israel and its territories, but around the world to resolve the conflict for an ever-lasting peace, now.