The genre of the personal journal often means stream of consciousness thinking, unadorned observations, and raw emotions. This is exactly what you get with Art Gish’s Hebron Journal. He writes almost daily of his month-long experiences between 1995 and 2001 in the West Bank town of Hebron. The demographics hint of the situation there with 130,000 Arab Palestinians surrounding 500 Jewish settlers who are protected by 1,200 Israeli soldiers.
The work of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), Art’s sponsoring organization, began full-time in Hebron in 1995. The CPT office is in the heart of the Israeli-controlled area between three Jewish settlements, the Israeli military camp, and in the midst of the Palestinian food market. CPT was invited there by the Hebron mayor as a nonviolent international force to help de-escalate conflict between Jews and Arabs.
Hebron serves as a microcosm of the larger Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It is the only town where Jews and Arabs live side by side and worship in the same building. This building, called the Cave of the Patriarchs by the Jews (Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca are buried there) and the Ibrahimi Mosque by the Moslems, was divided by the Israeli occupation forces in 1994. This permits Jews to worship in one half while Moslems worship in the other half. Because of their understanding of the Old Testament, many Jewish settlers feel that God has granted them this land and that their job is to take it back from the Palestinian residents. The problem arises as the Palestinians often hold deeds of ownership from the late Ottoman period.
Art’s journal offers a rich, inside view of the day-to-day work, experiences, joys, and sorrows of Christian Peacemaker Team members. The reader quickly realizes that the CPT work is often spontaneous, dangerous, and driven by perceptions of injustice. Until 1997, the team provided primarily a street patrol or as Art describes it the "grandparent effect." With CPT members patrolling the streets, none of the residents were as likely to do violent things to those they disliked. With additional international observers on the streets, CPT now focuses more on halting home demolitions and land confiscations.
Art’s particular approach to the situation is quite assertive. He sincerely wants to listen to and talk with persons on all sides of the conflict. We see him regularly engaging Israeli soldiers as they are arresting and mistreating Palestinians. He often attempts to talk with the very Jewish settlers who have just spat on him and threatened to kill him. Art doesn’t allow his limited Arabic to prevent him from living with Palestinian families whose homes are threatened with demolition from the Israeli military occupation forces. He demonstrates an inspiring courage based in his faith and understanding of the gospel.
We are also given an insider’s view of the role of faith and worship among CPT members. Art speaks of daily worship and even walking a couple of miles from his home-stays in the rural countryside in order to worship in Hebron with the team. It is obvious that the team members draw a great deal of strength from time together in prayer and worship as well as from regular team meetings. We are able to see the sometimes difficult process of dialogue and discernment involved in reaching consensus on major issues such as the direction of the team. "Should we become involved in this demonstration? How shall we respond to the escalation in Palestinian land confiscation and home demolitions?" While I have resisted the term "experiments in truth" as a CPT member myself, it is clear that the work of the Hebron team is experimental. The good news is that the rotating teams take time to discuss and evaluate actions so that there is some learning from each new "experiment in truth."
The reader may be surprised by Art’s radical statements about guns, cars, electricity, and the capitalist mentality. In addition, the reader is left wanting more analysis of why the team is doing what they are doing or how exactly things worked or did not work. Art’s views on the Oslo Accords stray from his usual attempt at balance and objectivity. Near the end he raises but fails to respond to a very important question: has CPT failed to articulate a vision of nonviolent change that could reach both Jews and Palestinians?
One amazing aspect of Art’s writing is his raw honesty. He rarely adorns or softens his feelings of anger, joy, fear, or anguish. Rather, in it all, Art maintains his faith and his center in God. This is a tremendous feat in and of itself when one regularly experiences taunting, hate, and death threats while accompanying Palestinians in the anguish of detentions, beatings, and losing their home or land. Neither anger nor anguish appear to overcome him.
The reader is offered an excellent account of the level of networking that is a part of CPT decision-making and action. They wisely draw on Jewish, Palestinian, and Christian friends from Israel and the West Bank. These include Rabbis for Human Rights; the Christian Palestinian group, Sabeel; Mennonite Central Committee; World Vision; the Palestinian Land Defense Committee; Palestinian families involved in the US and Canadian partnership program; and the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions. It is clear that CPT work is not conducted in a vacuum and seeks to test consequences among diverse groups prior to implementing major actions.
Art also shows an incredible balance in his perspectives and actions. Whomever it is, he is ready to talk, listen, play ball, or look for the bright side of the situation. This includes showing empathy for the often radical and scared Jewish community in Hebron. Art shows respect for both the Israeli soldiers who either hate being stationed there or are anxious to make life miserable for the Palestinians. He appears equally open to Palestinians, some of whom are ready to kill the Jews and others who desire to live in peace. Art doesn’t hesitate to call actions "evil" though (such as the Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes) but continues to look for "that of God in each one."
Perhaps he draws his strength from his experiences during the Civil Rights movement in the US. Or perhaps his perseverance stems from his spiritual disciplines of fasting, Bible study, and prayer. It may have something to do with his observation that "most of our (CPT) actions have been gifts." These include the times the team helped remove the Israeli military-constructed barriers within the Palestinian market, the opening of Hebron University after months of closure, the Tents for Lent Campaign, and sitting on the roof of a home threatened with demolition. Another hint of his strength surfaces in his statement, after "having given up the fear (of being marginalized), I discovered a tremendous freedom to speak the truth and do what needs to be done." Whatever it is, the reader is left in awe that he can maintain hope and energy in such a demanding environment.
For the person who seeks to understand the on-the-ground workings of CPT and the motivations of its workers, this is an excellent resource. For those who wish to investigate the various types of peacemaker work, this is also an excellent resource. And for those who simply wish to be inspired in their faith journey, Art’s Hebron Journal offers a rare insider view of faith at work in difficult and sometimes life-threatening situations.
Associate Professor of Sociology and Peace Studies
On sabbatical with MCC Guatemala