A new year has begun. Will it be any different than the old one? Is there anything we can do to make it different, so that it is, truly, a new year? Let me tell you a story:

A man is walking along the seashore as the tide ebbs, revealing a multitude of stranded starfish. Soon he comes upon a young girl, who is picking up the starfish one by one and returning them to the sea. So he asks the girl, “What are you doing?” And she replies, “They will die if I don’t get them back into the water.” “But there are so many of them,” the man says. “How can anything you do make a difference?” The girl picks up another starfish and carries it to the sea. “It makes a difference to this one.”

The man who tells the story is a living example of an individual, who impelled by his own personal experience, is determined to do what he can to make a difference, and create a new future. His name is Izzeldin Abuelaish. Born in 1955 and brought up in poverty in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, Izzeldin Abuelaish trained as a doctor in Cairo, and went on to work in Israel as a gynaecologist, helping infertile Israeli and Palestinian couples to conceive. In 2009 he left Gaza for an associate professorship in Public Health at the University of Toronto: Yet another Palestinian professional, joining the ranks of the expanding Palestinian diaspora? Yes and no: when Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish left for Toronto, only half his family went with him: two of his older daughters, Dalal and Shatha, and his youngest children, daughter Raffah, and sons Mohammed and Abdullah. This was because his wife, Nadia, died of cancer in December 2008, and then, thirty-five days later, on January 16th 2009 at 4:45 PM, an Israeli tank shell killed his other three daughters, Bessan, Aya, and Mayar, and his niece, Noor. Meanwhile, his daughter, Shatha, his niece, Ghaida, and his brother, Nasser were all gravely wounded. Perhaps you heard about this incident?

Wherever destructive events are being played out across the world, we are usually told that ‘400’ people died here, ‘2000’ people died there. So, in normal circumstances there wouldn’t be any reason why anyone living outside Gaza would have learnt about the experience of a particular family during the three-week incursion at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 that the Israeli government called, ‘Operation Cast Lead’. But this particular incident drew the attention of the world. In his book, I shall Not Hate, Izzeldin Abuelaish explains how this happened: ‘Because the Israeli military had forbidden access to journalists and everyone wanted to know what was happening in Gaza, I had been doing daily interviews with Shlomi Eldar, the anchorman on Israel’s Channel 10. I had been scheduled to do one that afternoon. Minutes after the attack occurred, I called him at the TV station; he was doing the live newscast, and he took the call on air’ (p18). And so, the story of this man and his family was broadcast across the world.

As it happens, I was in Israel at the time. Needless to say, like everyone else, when I watched the television news that day I was shocked and stunned – not least, by the tragic irony, that a man who spent his life bridging the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians through his humanitarian work as a doctor, should have suffered this terrible personal tragedy. My imagination was also caught by the bizarre series of conjunctions: a man born and brought up in Gaza, who was also a specialist in gynaecology working in Israel, and had briefly become an ad hoc news reporter, providing a unique window on events in Gaza for the outside world. When I heard that he had written a book entitled, I Shall Not Hate, and was going to speak about his experiences at an event during the Brighton Festival, I knew I had to go along and hear him.

I don’t know what I was expecting. I still had the image in my mind of that broadcast; his anguished voice; his desperate plea to his Israeli friend for help. Now here he was: a big man, with a loud resonant voice, speaking passionately about his vision of peaceful coexistence, about how important it is for Israelis and Palestinians to see each other as human beings, and about how ‘medicine can bridge the divide between people and… doctors can be messengers of peace.’ Sharing his reflections about his beloved daughters, Izzeldin Abuelaish also spoke of his conviction that the education and empowerment of women in the Middle East is an essential component in the task of breaking the cycle of violence, and told us about ‘Daughters for Life’, the educational foundation he has set up in memory of Bessan, Mayar and Aya.

A few people asked Dr Abuelaish questions, but his responses demonstrated that he wasn’t prepared to indulge in political rhetoric. Leaving no one in any doubt that he thought that the only solution to the perpetual conflict was the establishment of an independent, sovereign State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel, he also made it clear that, although he was angry about the perpetuation of the Israeli occupation, he didn’t just refuse to hate, he considered Jewish Israelis to be his brothers and sisters. Yes, this is how he felt, despite the terrible events of January 16th 2009 – and despite having shared with his fellow Gazans, for years, the daily indignities of long waits at Israeli checkpoints. Yes, however much he was loved by his medical colleagues, as well as by his appreciative patients, both Israeli and Palestinian, nevertheless, when travelling between home and hospital, and back home again, Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish was always just another Palestinian to the soldiers on patrol.

There is no doubt that Izzeldin Abuelaish is a very special, even exceptional individual. And he was fortunate that a teacher noticed him, and he managed to get out of Gaza to go to Cairo and study medicine. But before that move changed his life, Izzeldin Abuelaish was just another young Palestinian in Gaza. Gaza is full of them – how many more might become doctors, might develop their skills and abilities, and make a positive contribution to their people and to the wider society; to the efforts towards peace, if given half the chance?

Of course, we don’t know the answer to that question. The point I’m making by talking about Izzeldin Abuelaish is that, yes, he has an exceptional story to tell, which should shock us, and a vision of peaceful coexistence, which should inspire us. Even more important: his personal testimony also reminds us, when we are talking in global terms, about ‘Israelis’, or ‘Palestinians’, or ‘Jews’, or ‘Muslims’, or ‘Arabs’, that each member of any ethnic group or nation or people or religious community is an individual human being, with their own experience, their own story to tell, their own attitudes and aptitudes. And so, while listening to Izzeldin Abuelaish was inspiring, reading his book was a revelation. In its pages the reader learns his life story, meets his parents, his wife and his children, and discovers their personalities and their dispositions, their interests and their talents, their hopes and their dreams. Just imagine what a picture of ‘Israelis’ and ‘Palestinians’ we might have if every Israeli and Palestinian child got a chance to tell their own personal story, and those stories were collected into a book – a book of several volumes – together with photographs of themselves and their families, or broadcast on the Internet.

Izzeldin Abuelaish is a dedicated doctor and humanitarian. He is also a faithful Muslim, whose religion has been a source of comfort and strength to him, enabling him to make sense of his loss, and remain hopeful about the future. He writes:

I want this book to inspire people who have lost sight of hope to take positive action to regain that hope and have the courage to endure that sometimes long and painful journey to peace and a peaceful life. I learned from the Quran that the whole world is one human family. We were created from a man and woman and made into nations and tribes so we may know one another and appreciate the diversity that enriches our lives…. I hope my story will help open your mind, your heart and your eyes to the human condition in Gaza and help you avoid making sweeping generalisations and forced judgements. I hope to inspire people in this world, afflicted with violence, to work hard at saving human lives from destructive hostilities. It’s time for politicians to take positive actions to build, not destroy. Leaders cannot be leaders if they are not risk-takers; the risk they must take is not sending in the soldiers, but finding the moral courage to do the right thing to improve the world’s human face in spite of criticism from the haters… If we want to spread peace throughout this planet, we should start in the holy lands of Palestine and Israel. Instead of building walls, let us build bridges of peace. I believe the disease affecting our relationships – our enemy – is ignorance of one another. Judging others without knowing anything about them is what causes tension, apprehension, distrust, and prejudice… By knowing one another on a personal level, we can begin to respect each other’s differences, but more important we can begin to see how truly similar we are.

Izzeldin Abuelaish wrote those words after the terrible events of January 2009. I wonder what he has to say about the prospects for a peaceful and just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – as the blockade of Gaza and settlement expansion continues, and just after the leadership in Israel has pointedly failed to seize the opportunity to support the Palestinian Authority’s bid for United Nations’ recognition as a sovereign state. Probably, he is very angry. I doubt he is surprised. But I have a feeling that if he were speaking to us now, he would reiterate his message – and counsel us not to give in to cynicism or despair.

In a few moments, we will turn to the Torah portion that the rabbis set aside for reading on the first day of the New Year. Selected by the rabbis because it tells the story of the birth of Isaac, to Sarah and Abraham, Genesis chapter 21, also relates the expulsion of Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, and his mother, Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maid-servant. Sarah says to Abraham: ‘Cast out this servant-woman and her son; for the son of this servant-woman shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac’ (:10). At first glance, it looks as if the Torah is only concerned with ensuring the succession of Isaac: ‘And God said to Abraham: “Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad, and because of your servant-woman; in all that Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac shall descendants be called to you”’ (:12). But then the text continues: “And also of the son of your servant-woman will I make a nation, because he is your offspring.” Further, this promise is reiterated to Hagar, when she and Ishmael are abandoned to the wilderness. In fact, the Torah makes the point of underlining the meaning of Ishmael’s name: ‘Then God heard the voice of the lad; and the Messenger of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said to her: “What ails you, Hagar? Fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. / Get up, lift up the lad and hold him fast by your hand; for I will make him a great nation’ (:17-18). As we learn in Genesis 16, when, pregnant, Hagar flees from her mistress’s cruel treatment, Yishma’el means, ‘God will hear’: ‘The Messenger of the Eternal said to her: “Behold, you are with child, and shall bear a son; and you shall call his name Ishmael, because the Eternal One has heard your affliction”’ (16:11).

Why does the Torah make it clear that both Isaac and Ishmael were heirs to a Divine promise, and that each son of Abraham would be the father of a nation? In the Mishnah, the first code of rabbinic law, edited around here 200, we read: ‘It was for the sake of peace among us that creation began with a single human being: so that none might say to another: my ancestor was greater than your ancestor.’ One God means: One humanity. This is what Judaism teaches. This, as we have seen from the words of Izzeldin Abuelaish, is what Islam teaches. But there is more that we should learn from the story of Isaac and Ishmael, as recounted in the Torah: When we find ourselves making generalised statements about ‘Palestinians’ or ‘Muslims’, we need to remember the individuals behind the labels – individuals like, Izzeldin Abuelaish. As the Torah introduces humanity by talking about a single human being, so the Torah introduces us to the nations, by telling the stories of individuals and families: Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac. And so, as we read about the brothers, Ishmael and Isaac, Abraham’s two sons, we are prompted to remember that Jews and Muslims are sibling peoples. And so, too, Israelis and Palestinians – some of whom are Christians: Even when disagreeing, even when hurting one another, even when taking separate paths and going in different directions; the past of these two sibling peoples is shared, and their destinies are linked.

I began by asking whether there is anything we can do to make the New Year different, and by relating that story about the young girl, and her painstaking efforts to rescue the stranded starfish, one by one. As we begin another New Year, dragging in its wake the freight of old unresolved problems, we can give in to cynicism or despair, or, even at a distance, we can continue to hope, and support and promote the efforts of all those individuals and groups, among the Israelis and Palestinians, who are working for a just and secure resolution of the conflict between them. The national anthem of the State of Israel is Ha-Tikvah – ‘The Hope’. To the hope of the restoration of the Jewish people to Zion, let us add the hope that maybe this year, certainly one year, we will yet see the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, living side by side in peace. Bimheirah b’yameinu. Speedily in our own day. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

Rosh Ha-Shanah Shacharit 5772 – 28th September 2011