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Is the way the CMHR tells the story of one tragic incident during Israel’s war with Hamas in 2008-09 lacking in context?

Dr.AbuelaishBy BERNIE BELLAN (posted March 21)
It began with a casual conversation with a friend, University of Manitoba Professor Irwin Lipnowski, at the Asper Campus a couple of weeks ago.

He asked me whether I had seen the exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights that referred to Israel and Hamas. I said that I had been to the museum several times but hadn’t seen anything about that.
I was told that one of the exhibits was lacking in context in that it tells the story of a Palestinian physician (Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, who lost three daughters and a niece during an Israeli operation in Gaza  known as Operation Cast Lead in 2009).  Irwin said he had been alerted to this particular exhibit by Haskel Greenfield, also a U of M professor (also acting head of the Judaic Studies deaprtment), who was angry over how the CMHR was presenting this particular story.

Here is what Haskel wrote to me, when I asked him what it was about the exhibit that he found so upsetting: “It was a disgusting one sided portrayal of a complex situation. It completely ignored the fact that Hamas used yards and roofs of residences and schools and hospitals to launch their missiles. The Palestinian family portrayed was a tragic example of collateral damage in a war started by their Hamas government. I spoke to the man who was explaining the exhibit to visitors and was appalled by his total lack of knowledge of the incident and the larger context.”

I decided to take a look at the exhibit myself and contacted the media relations department of  the CMHR. I asked where I could find the exhibit in question. Louise Waldman (who, as a matter of fact, used to write for The Jewish Post & News), a media spokesperson for the CMHR, responded:

“In terms of Museum content, we have an exhibit in the Rights Today gallery that features the story of Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish, who became a human rights defender and peace advocate after losing three daughters and a niece during an Israeli bombing.  The exhibit tells Dr. Abuelaish’s personal story to examine broader issues faced by Palestinians in the region.  (Also a heads up that Dr. Abuelaish is scheduled to speak at the Museum on the topic of reconciliation on April 20).
“Issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict more generally are also examined in three additional exhibits throughout the Museum, including a reference to the Arab-Israeli War in the human rights timeline exhibit, a short film that uses the theme of media literacy to examine this conflict, as well as a youth-oriented exhibit that explores the initiatives of children and youth in Canada to bring together Palestinian, Israeli and Canadian youth to build understanding and foster reconciliation.”

I went down to the museum to take a look at this exhibit myself. I must say I had quite a bit of difficulty finding Dr. Abuelaish’s story. It turns out that it’s one of 17 different stories that can be viewed on the fifth floor Rights Today gallery, but it sure wasn’t easy figuring out how to find one particular story among 17. Even when I found it, I had to ask for help in viewing it, as there were no instructions given how to navigate the interactive display.

That being said, I did watch the story and, after watching it a number of times, decided to video it myself. I’ve posted the video I took of how the CMHR presents Dr. Abuelaish’s story on our website. I should have lingered over one crucial part of the story though, when a sign appears telling that three of Dr. Abuelaish’s daughters and a niece were killed by an Israeli projectile in the Abuelaish home on January 16, 2009.  If you watch the video it may seem disjointed when it flashes from a sign saying “January 16, 2009” to a video of an Israeli newscaster, who was himself a friend of Dr. Abuelaish and who, on live television, received a phone call from Dr. Abuelaish screaming wildly over what he had just seen (the deaths of three of his daughters and a niece).
I won’t offer an opinion myself as to whether this exhibit is lacking in context. But, I thought I’d put it out there for viewers of our website and readers of our paper to consider. By the way, Haskel Greenfield  had much more to say about other aspects of the museum that he found badly lacking. Perhaps we’ll get into those at another time.

In the meantime if you want to watch the video I took of the Dr. Abuelaish exhibit, you can see it on our website in the video section at the bottom of the home page or by going to: http://jewishpostandnews.ca/categories-media/72-israel-specific/197-izzeldin-abuelaish

 Post script (March 22): I sent this story both to Haskel Greenfield and Irwin Lipnowski, asking them if either had any comments about what I had written.

Haskel responded:

“It is very clear to me that the exhibit is not about human rights at all. It is an opportunity for Israel bashing and subtle anti-Semitism. It ignores the human rights of Israelis of all ages, genders, religions, and races to live in peace in their own country. The exhibit only focuses on what Israelis have done to Palestinians (and in particular to one Palestinian family) without any context of why it happened.

“I am disappointed in you, as editor and journalist, by your standoffish view about how the museum has used Dr. Abuelaish’s tragic story as a means to bash Israel and to convey a message that the Jews are responsible for what happened to him and his family. To me, this is a clear violation of the mandate of the museum since it creates an environment of hostility toward Jews in Canada and elsewhere in the world. The recent targeting of Jewish Israeli tourists in Istanbul (and the almost total silence by Canadian media that it was a purposeful and targeted terrorism toward Jews) is a good example of what happens when only one side of a conflict is portrayed. Unfortunately, the on-the-ground situation is complex. I believe that most people in the region are caught up in a cycle of violence from which there is no escape in the short term. But it is unfair to Israel and Israelis to bash them in such one sided exhibits.

“Peace will come only when the leaders of Hamas in Gaza are ready to build a just society and use the resources at their disposal to better the lot of the people they govern. It will never come if they continue try to fire missiles into Israel and try to invade it through tunnels. Israel has no troops in Gaza and no Israelis have lived in Gaza since 2005. There is no occupation of Gaza or Israeli troops in Gaza. Israel invaded Gaza in 2014 only after being subjected to over 4000 missiles over three weeks being shot from Gaza. After the short war, it withdrew all of its troops. It continues to allow in food and goods and supplies Gaza with electricity for free in spite of the continued hostility of the Hamas government toward Israel. Egypt continues to keep its border with Gaza closed and allows almost nothing in. Hence, the museum’s use of such tragic circumstances to talk about human rights violation is a misrepresentation of a complex situation.

“My rights and that of my children were violated in the summer of 2014 when we were subjected to numerous missile bombings by the Hamas government while we were in Israel. My youngest has still not fully recovered from the awful experience of missiles exploding and sirens going off around him as he searched for bomb shelters. Where are such stories depicted in the museum – Not At All!”

Irwin Lipnowski added:

“I  agree completely with Haskel’s outrage at the de-contextualization of the account of IDF harm to civilians, although I have not visited the CMHR to see it personally.  lt is my understanding that under international law, using human shields is absolutely prohibited and this standard, outrageous and unconscionable  practice of Hamas is not mentioned as part of any display, even though it is clearly an egregious violation of the human rights of civilian adults and children, as is Hamas’s unrelenting missile launches against Israeli civilians over the years preceding the Gaza war.  I also believe that the ignorance, undertraining or misinformed level of awareness of the guides is absolutely inexcusable.

“Thank you again, Bernie, for your  investigative reporting! Personally I would be very interested in hearing Gail Asper’s assessment of the CMHR.  She was, after all, instrumental (pouring her body and soul and many dollars) into realizing her father’s dream, which was (originally, I believe) to build  Washington’s Museum of the Holocaust of the North in Winnipeg. This is not the politically correct monument that we got.   Of course, the need to seek government funding meant relinquishing control and unavoidably entailed a very significant erosion of Izzy’s vision.”


Post script (March 27)

Now, to be fair to the CMHR, if one were to watch Dr. Abuelaish’s presentation, which concludes with a slide showing the title of a book written by Dr. Abuelaish: “I Shall Not Hate”, one might conclude that Dr. Abuelaish is the very model of someone who is willing to forgive and move on.
But, after reading Haskel Greenfield’s withering criticism of the CMHR – and how the exhibit featuring Dr. Abuelaish is totally devoid of any context, I decided to do a little more research on Dr. Abuelaish – to see whether he is quite the noble and forgiving chap that he makes himself out to be.
I discovered two interesting things about Dr. Abuelaish: 1. He himself has come in for severe criticism from his own fellow Palestinians for being a traitor to the cause for even willing to consider “ending the hate”; and 2. Dr. Abuelaish’s characterization of Israel in a 2014  article written for the Globe & Mail is not quite as benign as one might expect from someone who wants only to work for peace and “end the hate”.  The article was written in the midst of “Operation Protective Edge” in the summer of 2014, after Israel had borne the brunt of thousands of missiles raining down upon her from Gaza.
Here is what Dr. Abuelaish wrote back then: “How much more killing, suffering and pain can Israelis do and Palestinians endure. There have been hundreds of strikes recently by Israel, with more than 50 innocent people killed and 500 severely wounded. Gaza Strip is being bombarded. It is war against women and children, who constitute 70 per cent of the Gaza Strip population; it’s human genocide.” (emphasis mine)
“I feel anger and pain as history repeats itself. The blood of my three daughters killed in 2009 did not dry, and the wound did not heal.
“For that we need the courage to admit we suffer from a disease that is antithetical to respect, justice, and peace. Battles should be directed against the occupation, which is the threat and enemy to all of us as – Palestinians and Israelis.
“Israel’s leadership must be courageous and admit its failure to end the conflict by military means. The way is to end occupation.”
(You can read the entire article at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/i-feel-anger-and-pain-as-history-repeats-itself-in-gaza/article19532295/)
So, there we have it: Once more Israel is accused of the gross distortion of committing “genocide” and the way to the end the conflict is to end the “occupation”.
Now, I don’t have to be a Myron Love to see through the hypocrisy of Dr. Abuelaish. Even a weak-kneed liberal like me can seen how difficult it now is to accept Dr. Abuelaish as the noble crusader for peace that he would purport to be. Perhaps he was cowed into writing something as exaggerated as he did by accusations that he had betrayed his own people; we might want to ask him that when he appears here April 20 at an event organized by the CMHR. In the meantime, let’s not shy away from criticizing the CMHR simply because so many Jews played such key roles in having it built. If it’s going to serve as a paean to political correctness, let’s be brave enough to expose its failings for not having the courage to address the contradictions between two opposing narratives, such as exist when the Palestine – Israel conflict is discussed.

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