Conversations with the Peacemaker, Father Peter Dougherty

By Sherri Muzher

He gently set down several bottles of olive oil from Palestine on the dining room table after having unloaded them from his vehicle.  The bottles, still cool from the November chill, were being sold by the Michigan Peace Team.  The proceeds were going to poor Palestinian farmers and their families in the Occupied Territories.

We then sat down for a cup of hot tea with anise, and we talked about his trips to Palestine.   Always gracious, he also entertained questions about God and His Heaven.  After all, how often does one have a priest in one’s home and the opportunity to ask those questions? 

It was a refreshing talk as he didn’t pretend to know all the answers, but this soft-spoken man with a long-white beard was absolutely certain of one thing – “we’re here on earth to serve God . . .” 

That conversation took place in 2005, and when a Michigan priest and nun recently made international headlines for standing at a Palestinian home to help prevent its destruction by Israeli air strikes, it was not hard to conclude that the priest was the man I had sat down with only a year ago.

Meet Father Peter Dougherty, a 72-year-old Catholic priest whose favorite quotation comes from Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, “Love one another the way I have loved you.”  (John 15:12) 

Born in Chicago, his family moved to Adrian, Michigan when he was six years old.  A former altar boy who was further influenced by his mother, Father Dougherty knew his calling to the priesthood as far back as the 8th grade.

Years later, he went on to attend and graduate from both the Sacred Heart Seminary (Detroit, Michigan), as well as the St. John’s Provincial Seminary (Plymouth, Michigan) with bachelor’s degrees.  Afterwards, he earned two master’s degrees from the University of Detroit in education and guidance counseling.

Not surprisingly, when asked what drives him?

“My faith motivates me very much,” Father Dougherty said.  “That is certainly the person of Jesus, for me, as a heroic person who is an embodiment of the love and compassion of God, and wants justice for all people.”

Inspired also by the Jewish prophets who demanded justice for the weak, he then pointed to “all of the male and female saints of different faiths and persuasions who lived heroic lives for justice, healing, and love.”

Humble and with an unforgettably kind human spirit, Father Dougherty is one of those rare people who comes along in our lives and leaves deep impressions on our hearts and souls.

At this time, I’d like to introduce you to Father Dougherty through a recent conversation we had only days after his arrival from Palestine (November 30, 2006)

The Conversation

Sherri Muzher:  You’ve been described as a prophet of our times; fearless; a lawbreaker; saintly; a priest that doesn’t like structure; a peacemaker.  Who is the real Father Peter Dougherty?

Father Dougherty:  A guy struggling along to try to live out my humanness as a child of God.

SM:  One week before you and Sister Mary Ellen Gundeck made international headlines while protecting a Palestinian home from Israeli air strikes, you had an asthma attack where the Israeli Rabbis for Human Rights proved very helpful.  Can you talk about that?

FD:  Oh, sure.  The head cold I had that morning hit my chest and kicked up my asthma, terrible.  I had such an attack about 15 years ago.  Ordinarily, my asthma is low-level.  

We (the Michigan Peace Team) were protecting a farmer near Nablus that day from a settler attack, along with members of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR).  All I could do was lay there and gasp for air.  A connection was made to get an ambulance from a suburb of Tel Aviv, and when it came, it could not come to the farmer’s road (or field).  So, some folks carried me 100 yards or so.  The head of RHR (Arik) drove me to the ambulance some distance and then a female rabbi from RHR (Ruth) escorted me to the hospital in the Tel Aviv suburb.  She stayed with me the three hours I was there and invited me to stay at her home in Jerusalem — which I did.  I was in no shape to return to the Team that night.  I stayed at her house two nights and got better the next day, and then returned to the Team the following morning.  So, I stayed with the family, (which included two lovely young children) while recuperating.  They were wonderful, very hospitable.

SM:  When a Michigan reporter recently wondered if it was unusual for a Roman Catholic priest and nun to stand in front of a Palestinian home amidst so much danger, you reportedly asked, “where else should we be?”  How has this attitude guided you in your decades of peacemaking?

FD:  We should be where people are suffering; we should be where violence is being perpetrated.  That’s what came from the Jewish prophets, which has been of deep inspiration to me.  And I’m inspired by the Palestinians and their suffering.  I’ve been there about eight times with peace teams and lived in Palestinian homes.  I’ve seen their courage in choosing to be alive in the midst of terrible violence against them.

 The fundamental violence is the Occupation.  Yes, I grieve for Israelis killed.  I am opposed to all violence.  I’m opposed to Palestinian violence against Israelis, and vice versa.   I agree with Gila Svirsky of Israel’s Women in Black that the best security for Israeli Jews is ending the Occupation, and justice for Palestinians. 

SM:  Tell us about the Michigan Peace Team.

FD:  In 1993, I became the first coordinator.  We evolved to placing teams in conflict areas to reduce violence, giving people in that space the ability to develop their lives, and not just be victims.  And we began to do that domestically at group events and so on.   We also began to do non-violence trainings for all kinds of groups – such as beginning groups, and preparing other teams to do this kind of intervention work and conflict resolution. 

SM:  Is there a particular place where you feel the Michigan Peace Team has made the greatest impact?

FD:  Certainly, here in Michigan where we have our office in Lansing, and we’ve had reach particularly in the Detroit area.  We are national because we do go all over – we’ve done trainings in Washington DC, Kentucky, California, and so on.  We place teams internationally — regularly now in Palestine.  We’ve got an exploratory team in Baghdad; teams in Bosnia, Haiti.  We placed teams during the greater 90s in Chiapas, Mexico, hoping to protect Mayans brutalized by death squads and the military.  We’ve sent teams to the US-Mexico border

SM:  How do people react when they’ve learned that you’ve served a cumulative total of two years in jail for civil disobedience?  

FD:   Three general reactions.

One is that people are struck by it, impressed, and hopefully more willing to listen.  The whole idea of non-violence . . . when people pay a price, that helps impress so hopefully they might hear what truth I have to say.

The second kind of reaction is negative.   That I’m doing bad things, I’m breaking the law, that’s wrong and evil. 

A third reaction might be that they’re kind of stand-offish; they’re not too interested in getting close to hear more.  Not a strong reaction but they want to keep their distance. 

SM:  Former US President Jimmy Carter’s book, “Palestine; Peace, not Apartheid” was just released amid controversy over the word choice, “apartheid.”  When you go to Palestine, what words come to your mind? 

FD:  What comes to mind is the creation of Indian reservations, Bantustans, apartheid.  I use the image of the US, 150 years ago, driving Native Americans off their land and killing them.  When they might retaliate with violence, they were labeled “savages.”  And then came the national model that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” as if they were less than human. 

They created a myth that justified violence against a people who have lived here, and now the nation of Israel has created its myth of dehumanizing Palestinians and justified driving them off their land by brandishing them as “terrorists.” 

Another analogy is South Africa and the creation of Bantustans for people considered to be less than human (the black Africans), and it was justified by the Afrikaner ruling elites of government. 

SM:  Back in 2004, you wrote that Gaza “hangs over you like a heavy fog that doesn’t break.”  You specifically mentioned Beit Hanoun and said, “When I saw the complete destruction of everything for several blocks in Beit Hanoun, it shook me deeply.”  In 2006, a tragedy happened in Beit Hanoun when nineteen Palestinian civilians were killed while sleeping.  What was running through your mind?

FD:  That I was there two years ago.  I was taken around to see the destruction and to talk to people.  One man in Beit Hanoun said that one time he counted 65 tanks and 12 bulldozers.  And he is not a terrorist; he’s with his elderly father.  I saw him clearly outside his house having suffered that two years ago.  And now, Beit Hanoun is even more destroyed.   Unbelievable.  And knowing that it is the richest aquifer in Gaza — the most fertile place – that’s what was targeted to be destroyed.

SM:  The Israelis have issued an apology for killing those civilians.  Do you think that the apology is acceptable or what do you think Israel should do to show true remorse?

FD:  I think it’s a lie.  They deliberately target places knowing they’re going to kill civilians.  

When I was in the house in Gaza that had just done a marvelous non-violent act of calling people in and around the house to deter Israelis from carrying out its phone call message of ‘We’re going to destroy the house,’ an elderly man — who hugged and kissed me and called me ‘his brother’ –’ took me to the edge of the roof to look down.   He showed me that the next door houses are within a couple feet of that building.  Any missile that would destroy the house we were standing in would destroy the surrounding houses.  So the Israeli military knows what it’s doing.  It is deliberately targeting places, knowingly killing innocent men, women, children, and babies.    It’s deliberate.

SM:  Is there a particular story during your time in Palestine that stands out and best captures the human spirit?

FD:  Yes, Umm Nasha of Tulkarem.  We visited her and her sister-in-law.  Now, this was her third home.  The first two homes had been destroyed by Israelis.  Two of her sons had been killed by the Israeli military and two others are currently in Israeli jails.  She had vibrancy about her.  I asked her, “How can you appear so joyful, and even hopeful, with all this suffering you experience?”  She said, “We must be like the mountain.  Strong winds blow and blow and blow.  Yet, the mountain stands strong.” 

I carry that in my heart.  That’s the spirit I see among so many Palestinians.  To get up every day and choose to live is a resistance to occupation.  It is the most beautiful expression of the human spirit. 

SM:  Given all of your years of peacemaking, what do you think the missing ingredient has been in the quest for Middle East peace? 

FD:  Making leaders do what is right.  That means the Israeli government and the US government needs to stop deceiving their own peoples and keeping from them the horrors that their tax monies are doing in Palestine.  This is the tragedy

One Israeli Jewish peace leader – a marvelous leader in Israel – said that she believes that what is going to have to transpire is that a war-maker general will have to run for president of Israel and then begin to implement the original Oslo and peace plans to create a true and viable Palestinian state.  It would take a war-maker to be able to strongly tell his people that “we’ve got to do this,” and they would trust him.  The current Israeli leaders are too afraid to appear weak by being peacemakers, and so they carry out their strong stance of continuing to take over Palestinian lands and the daily assault on Palestinians with the Occupation. 

SM:  And are you optimistic or pessimistic? 

FD:  I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic.  The word truly is ‘hopeful.’  All brutal dictators fall, the brutality of the Israeli government will crumble, and the American support of the Israeli brutality will cease.   

How, when, and where?  I don’t know.  The important thing is to be hopeful to carry on the struggle, whether or not I see the results here and now or not.  I don’t want to operate like a drug addict who has to have his daily fix.   Rather, be faithful to the struggle knowing that we are planting seeds and that we’re part of the transformation.   We join with the Palestinians, the Israeli Jews, and the American Jews that are against the Occupation and see the truth.  And we continue the struggle, doing humbly what we can.  

-Sherri Muzher, JD with emphasis in International Law is the Director of Michigan Media Watch in Mason, Michigan

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