A Palestinian born in the Jabalia refugee camp of the Gaza Strip, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish overcame tremendous odds to earn his MD. As an OBGYN he practiced in both Palestine and Israel, frequently commuting between the two countries. In January 2009, during a three-week long war, an Israeli tank fired two shells into the doctor’s home, killing three of his daughters and his niece. Dr. Abuelaish was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of his commitment to Israeli/Palestinian reconciliation. He is the founder of Daughters for Peace an organization that provides university scholarships as well as leadership programs on health and education to young women in the Middle East. On January 12 we sat down with Dr. Abuelaish after his public lecture about his new bestselling book, I Shall Not Hate, at the Los Angeles Public Library – a part of their ALOUD series. For further coverage of this conversation and Abuelaish’s bestselling book, you can access Ryan Bell’s piece in the Huffington Post.
Your book came out in Canada in the Spring. Has it been selling well? How has the reception been so far?
I didn’t expect the positive response of the book. It was released April 27th. It’s a best seller and was among the influential books in 2010 in Canada. The people who read the book—it made a difference in their life, in their attitude, in a positive way. And the people, as you see in today’s event, they said it’s full of hope. It inspired them. And when they read the book it finds a receptive ground. The people are thirsty. And I think there is hope in that. And also, it has been translated into about 15 languages: English (worldwide, by Bloomsbury United States and UK), French (worldwide), German, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Turkish, Portuguese, Finnish, Arabic, Hebrew, and Indonesian.
I am satisfied that the message can reach the hands and the minds and hearts of people and that through that we can make a difference and create a momentum we can build on.
You tell this amazing story in the book about a Jewish lawyer named Stephen Flatow and how he tried to have you removed from a panel. Since then you’ve eaten in his home. Are you still in touch with him?
Yes. And this is the message: he judged me without knowing me, just on perception and stereotype. This strengthens my belief that our enemy is our ignorance. We don’t know each other. So we need to communicate in order to know each other. And not to know just the name or the faces, we need to know the deep elements of what we call the other—to engage.
It’s the personal stories, it seems, that break through.
Yes, to engage with your heart. In our lives when I say to you, I know this person, be careful. This means I know him deeply. Don’t tell me about him, I know him well. I know the way he thinks, the way he eats, the way he behaves. So that’s what we need to know each other.
You must have many experiences like the one you had with Stephen Flatow. Does that happen fairly often?
I can say to you, in Palestinian-Israeli relationships, there are many good stories. You can see Israelis who met with Palestinians and Palestinians who met with Israelis. I know a friend of mine who never met a Palestinian. He had stereotypes about Palestinians, but once he met a Palestinian he realized that this guy is similar to him.
What is it about you or about what you believe that makes you the kind of person that leaves the safety of what you know to go out and know someone else who is different from you? Because I know a lot of people who don’t want to leave their area, they don’t want to leave the people they know already?
I’m not preoccupied with this feeling. This morning when someone said to me, Izzeldin, you must be careful of Ryan. Why? I meet with you with open heart. I am confident in what I believe. I am honest with myself. I am coming to meet with you from goodwill, for the good cause. And it’s important for both of us to do that.
So there was a trust that was somehow planted in your heart early on—to trust someone who is different from you?
Always. Because if I want to be trusted I must trust others.
Your father was this way? Your mother?
This is the human feeling. If I started to meet with you and I was suspicious of you, how can you trust me? I want to meet with others and place my trust in them because if you want to be trusted you must trust others.
In your book you talk about your skepticism about political involvement, but then later you ran for political office and found it to be an ugly experience. Where do you stand now about the importance of politics or what role politics plays?
I ran for the office from the belief in the human being. And my mandate as a medical doctor is to save lives, to fight against poverty, unemployment, sickness, to give the human feeling and the human being what they deserve. And that’s what I fought for. But in politics there is individual interest and party interest and always they can’t sacrifice. It’s time, as I said, to humanize not politicize. Put everything on the table with politics because you know in politics there are games, lack of honestly, the art of lying, how to deceive, how to play. Please! Be honest.
So politicians will eventually need to do the right thing?
They can do it, but also they must be honest and be risk takers and challenge the current situation. I admire any politician or leader who can sacrifice his position for the main cause. Because his position is not going to stay forever, but what can stay forever? What did he do for good. Others will remember that in a good way.
You talked a lot this evening about medicine and how it doesn’t play favorites. Your belief in medicine is intertwined with your belief in humanity. Can you expound on that a little bit?
Medicine deals with the most precious thing in the universe, which is the human being. Saving one life, you save the world. Killing one, you kill the world. It’s important to understand that connection and to practice it. That’s what medicine is.
In the crime in Arizona, in one minute—it doesn’t take more than a minute—he killed how many? Six? And look at the Congresswoman, God bless her to recover and heal, how many people are working to save one life? All of the hospital is standing up to help the congresswoman. Everyone is doing their best to save her life because they believe saving her life is saving humanity. That’s medicine. Others should learn to think thousands of times before inducing any harm to the other.
So, that oath—that medical oath—is over all politics?
Medical oath? It’s a human oath! A human oath! What is the difference? It’s a human oath. It’s human. These are the human values we are born with. And we need to practice them and to spread them among us.
You were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year. What was that like for you? Did it have an effect on the way you were heard by other people? Personally, how did you experience that? Did it open doors for you? Did it create an opportunity to talk about these issues more?
I can say to you, if I want to look at myself, I am a medical doctor. I am helping. Don’t underestimate yourself, be confident. Believe me, I wanted it. You know for what? To align people—to bring people to stand up.
To draw attention to the right things?
Yes, and as Izzeldin has succeeded each of us can succeed. As Izzeldin went to Harvard with his MD, he got his Nobel Peace Prize, everyone of us can do good. It’s a motive to do good things.
It will give me more responsibility—more responsibility for a good cause.
One of things I really appreciate about your book is that you are honest. There are times you say you were furious, you were angry. Like the part where you wrote that you would come home and be short with your wife. You were holding it in all day not to offend the border guard and then unloading on your wife and feeling terrible about it. To read that was very meaningful to me. You’ve seen the worst things that human beings can do to each other. You’ve witnessed it first hand, yet you always seem to bounce back. Is that your faith?
It’s my faith. It’s my faith. As you said, we need to be honest. With honesty, with openness, it makes life easier. Let’s say I’m honest with you and say to you that I am wrong, I made a mistake. It makes your life easier as a friend. But if I am not honest it makes my life, even when I go to sleep, difficult and your life difficult just to think of it—Is he right? Is he wrong? Is he lying? How can you handle me?
Do you ever lie down in bed and think, “Human beings are never going to change?”
Ayy, never. Never! If I believe in that—that this patient will never be cured…. I don’t believe in that because today he is not going to be cured, but God knows what will happen tomorrow.
You’re a person of great faith. We’re also people of faith, from the Christian tradition, and you from the Muslim tradition. Religion is something that often separates us.
It’s not religion that separates, people separate themselves under the name of religion. But the religion is not the one who separates. It’s misunderstanding and we repeat it. For me as a Muslim, I believe in Christianity. I believe in Judaism. I can’t mention Jesus without saying peace be upon him. As I believe in the Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him. I can’t believe in Mohammad if I don’t believe in Jesus. So that is what we need to understand.
How common or rare is that experience for people do you think?
No. It’s not [rare]. So don’t attribute it to the religion. It’s a human behavior, individuals’ behavior. Always the easiest way is to say, “He is Palestinian. He is Muslim. He is a Christian. He is American.” Please! Label things and give them their title—the person himself. Religion and faith is a great value as a great weapon to immunize us and to help us.
How do you think people of different faiths can be united—reconciling and forgiving one another? How do you think that can work?
Because of the same values. Look for the commonalities between religions. The commonalities—that’s what you want to search for and spread. And work for it by example and role modeling. Not to say something and then practice something else and then to say, this is the religion, or to go to the church to pray and outside to do bad things to your neighbors and friends. This is not religion! And then someone may say, Oh, Christianity or Islam. Please, it’s not! It’s our responsibility. Religion is how we deal with each other, with respect, with dignity. And religion is between you and God. It’s reflected in the relation between me and you, but religion is between you and your God. As long as it is a good relation between you and God, and an open relation, I think it will be reflected between people, in human community. I am not here to judge you—if you are a good believer or not. God will judge us. God will judge. I am not coming to judge you—why did you dress this way? why did you eat this? if you pray or not. If I care about you, I should ask you to do good things with wisdom and good words. Wisdom and good words. Not blame—you are bad, you are not doing [one thing or another], you are not a believer. And that’s in the Koran. It’s mentioned that the Prophet Mohammad called people with wisdom and good words. It says there, if you are hard hearted and harsh with the people, no one will follow you. So that’s in our life, we teach. In the day of judgment, we will be judged by three things. Your money: from where did you get it and what did you do with it? Your education: what did you do with it? You kept it in your heart and mind or did you spread it to others? And your time: did you help others with it? Did you invest time or spend it in fun here and there? That’s the religion. That’s the good deed. These are the values we are fighting for. And we need to spread them. And that’s the beauty of religion.
It helps people get in touch with those important values.
Yes. That’s religion. That’s Islam. And I think Christianity recommends the same. Judaism recommends the same. So you ask about faith and religion. It’s a great, vital engine and means to connect people together.