Tribute: Remembering Jamil Abu Toameh, a true teacher

Tribute Remembering Jam

October 30, 2009 00:30
4 minute read.
jamil abu toameh 248 88

jamil abu toameh 248 88. (photo credit: )

When Jamil Abu Toameh died suddenly last week, Israel and the Middle East lost a man of a type all too rare in today's world. And I lost what, as I was growing up in Chicago years ago, it would not have occurred to me to be likely to have as a future friend. I first got to know Jamil after I came to Israel in 1968 to join the English Department faculty at Tel Aviv University. Most of the students who entered my classrooms then were different from counterparts of theirs whom I had previously been teaching in the States, but none more so than Jamil. Older than me by a few years, he was an Israeli Arab who, I learned, had been doing translation work in the Gulf States before he returned to Israel and undertook studies leading to a degree at the university. He was a standout, serious student with flawless English and engaging graciousness, and in over time the relationship of teacher and student evolved into one of friends. I suppose it is a cliché to talk about teachers learning from their students, but once we got out of the classroom it was in many ways Jamil who became the teacher and I the student. The subject matter involved a segment of the Israeli population about which I otherwise knew very little. Jamil came from a leading family of the Arab village of Baka al-Gharbiyeh, in the Triangle area in the north. It was, by then, the early '70s. I had two small children who were born in Israel, and thanks to invitations from Jamil, my family and I visited him and his family in Baka. The first visit, as I recall, was the day of a festive local wedding. With pride in his heritage and warm hospitality, Jamil wanted us to know about and experience the culture from which he came and which was maintained in this Israeli village. It was interreligious relations in its purest form, the epitome of which involves understanding of and respect for the other accompanied by a deepening sense of one's own identity. My family and I returned to the States in 1979, with a hand-painted nargilah as a farewell gift from Jamil in hand. I next "saw" him in a most unexpected way. In Chicago in the early '80s, my wife and I attended the screening of a film based on interviews with Israeli Muslims and Jews, in situ, talking about the ways their faith traditions present the story of Abraham. There, to my surprise, was Jamil, eloquently illuminating the Muslim approach to the patriarch of the world's three major monotheistic religions. I later was to learn that he had become active in a Muslim-Jewish dialogue group, and his participation in the film was in part an extension of that involvement. That was one of the things that Jamil and I talked about when we reconnected during a subsequent visit of mine to Israel. Though his brother Jalal, now deceased himself not so long ago, had remained in Baka al-Gharbiyeh and would become its mayor, Jamil and his family were by then living in Jerusalem, where he was practicing the professional role which, in many ways, defined him: that of educator. For him, I believe, education was not just a profession but a calling. A shared love of literature and interest in ideas had first brought us together, and that was something he wished to convey to others as well. He was also driven by a sense that through education individuals can enrich, advance, and fulfill themselves - and his people could fulfill themselves as a group - and he became principal of a girls' high school in east Jerusalem to advance that cause. One of my most illuminating yet painful memories of talking with Jamil relates to his experiences as a principal. It comes from a conversation we had at a time when I visited Israel during the first intifada. There he sat, this large man of great dignity, by then his hair turned white, talking about what he described as young thugs, still children, and the way they had threatened him with the consequences that would follow were he not to dismiss his pupils from school so that they could go out into the streets and riot. His answer to them was that it was through education, not anarchic violence, that a better future for their people lay. Visibly shaken, he told me of how he resisted those threats. In the '90s Jamil was able to further advance his pedagogical vision when he was named director of education for the Jerusalem Municipality. Now we could sit in his fine office in the new municipality building complex and talk about life, books, and the Israeli national spectator sport, politics. He told me how he was working on an Arabic translation of George Orwell's Animal Farm, a book which, he believed, offered a parable of current Palestinian political life. He rued the absence of a Palestinian leadership ready to sincerely and effectively work toward resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was embittered by the corruption and mendacity he saw in Yasser Arafat and many around him. Neither an Uncle Tom nor naive, he recognized the challenges faced by Israeli Arabs and the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. And yet he sustained a vision of Jews and Arabs living together in friendship in the State of Israel and of Israel and its Palestinian neighbors living together in peace, and he taught by example how that could come about. He was a person of wisdom, tolerance, and courage, who softened life's blows with a gentle sense of humor. He loved his family and was proud of his children. A true teacher, he brought powerful lessons to all who were near him and ready to learn. If only there could be more people like my friend Jamil Abu Toameh, especially at a time like this. He will surely be missed. The writer is executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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