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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Arthur G. Gish: A peacemaker in the Holy Land

Ary Hermawan, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Fri, 08/01/2008 11:54 AM | Life
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ARTHUR G. GISH: (JP/Ary Hermawan) 
ARTHUR G. GISH: (JP/Ary Hermawan)

One night, American peace activist Arthur G. Gish was sleeping in a wrecked Palestinian home -- the Israeli settlers had just brutally attacked the house. In the middle of the night, he was woken by yelling, screaming and pounding at the door.

He jumped out of his bed, put on his clothes and went into the living room to find out what was happening.

"There stood four Israeli soldiers with their M16s, yelling and screaming at the family, treating them like animals," he told The Jakarta Post at Paramadina University last week.

"In about ten seconds the Israeli soldiers realized I was an American and they began to quiet down and treat that poor family with respect.

"They still did the house search. They said they were looking for weapons, though there was no weapon there. They did the search but they didn't destroy anything. They didn't urinate and defecate on the bed and clothes like they used to do. And in an hour they were gone," he said.

"I didn't do anything. That's the grandmother effect," Art, as he is affectionately called, said.
The grandmother effect is one of the crucial beliefs held by the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), an American non-violent peacemaking organization with which Art has been working in Palestine since 1995.

The CPT acts as an international observer, reporting the rights abuses against both Israeli or Palestinian citizens. Every winter, Art goes to Hebron and stays there for three months.
"There are things that nobody would do if his grandmother was watching. In a situation of violence, just to have an outside observer there, and the people that do the violence know their being watched, and they know that whatever they do will be reported to the rest of the world, just that will reduce the violence," he said.

The privilege of being "a white, educated U.S. citizen", Art said, is a burden. He is aware of the fact that he is only able to get away with his courageous acts in Hebron, like getting in the way of an Israeli tank that tried to demolish a Palestinian market, because he has an American passport in his pocket.

"I struggle with that (privilege). The Palestinians do not have as much freedom as we do, and therefore will be judged differently than I am in the afterlife," he said, adding he believed the U.S. was part of the problem in the Middle East.

Art was born in 1939 when World War II had just started. Raised in an Amish community, he was taught that "war is not what God wants us to do".

As a child he learned about Jesus Christ from peace churches of the Quakers, the Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren, all of which support the CPT.

"Those churches always taught that war is a sin ... no Christian should be a soldier, and kill (others)," he said.

Art sees the cross as God's example of non-violence. As a conscientious objector, he was not drafted into military service during the Vietnam War. He did, however, complete alternative services in Germany and Austria helping crippled teenagers.

He later joined the anti-war movement when he was in college. He worked together with the iconic Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

"I have been doing this for over 50 years now," he said.

Art works as an organic farmer in Ohio with his wife, Peggy, who, as a member of the CPT, also works several months of the year in Iraq.

Although well traveled, Art lives a humble life. Local book publisher Mizan, which published the Indonesian translation of Art's book, The Hebron Journal: Stories of Non-violent Peacemaking, offered him a hotel room during his stay in Jakarta, but Art preferred to stay in Mizan's office.
In the introduction of Art's book, Ohio University graduate Putut Widjanarko said that Indonesian Muslim students in Ohio often visited the couple's home.

"Their house is very modest, even for the poor in the U.S.," he said, adding that when students arrived at Art's house on a university bus, the American driver commented that the house was "embarrassing".
The CPT, Art said, is not a missionary organization. Despite his Christian upbringing, Art is very sympathetic toward other religions, including Judaism and Islam. He believes the best way to convey the idea of non-violence is by looking for the roots of non-violence in every culture and faith.

"If I am talking to a Muslim, I will talk about the roots of non-violence in Islam. The first 13 years of Islam, Islam was totally non-violent. No self-defense was permitted. Muhammad suffered horribly from the Meccan people ... never retaliated. Violence was very minimum," he said.

In his peacemaking activities in Hebron, Art first listens to all factions.

"I can hold a debate with you and take the position of any Israeli and Palestinian faction because I have spent much time listening to them. I have slept in Hama homes, in Fatah homes. I have an intense relationship with all the Israeli factions."

Although he insists that the Palestine-Israel conflict is essentially political in nature and not a religious conflict, he does not deny that it has its roots and is even justified by the Bible in which God, as the Jews claim, had promised the holy land exclusively to them.
"Yes the conflict goes back to Abraham. The way I read the Bible, God gave that land to the children of Abraham. The children of Ishmael are also the children of Abraham. It was not given, according to the bible, only to the Jews.

"There is a very important verse in Genesis 23; it says when Abraham died Isaac and Ishmael buried him. There must be some kind of relationship or reconciliation between Isaac and Ishmael. It is very important for us to remember that verse," he said.

Art believes the solution for the conflict in the region is the creation of a single state in which Jews, Arab Muslims and Christians are treated equally. He says he does not see the creation of a Palestinian state viable with the existence of the Israeli settlers.

He stresses to the two parties in Palestine that evil can only be fought against and prevented by doing good. Domination, as the Israeli soldiers attempt to achieve, and violence, as the suicide bombers often resort to, will only perpetuate evil, he said.

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