Dec 19 2003

Film star helping make the world a better place to live in

Published by at 11:08 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

I first met Richard Gere about six months ago. I was scheduled to take him on a tour of Ramallah, when that same morning, the Israeli army unexpectedly declared curfew on the Palestinian city. To his credit and despite strong objection from his handlers and bodyguards, the American movie star insisted on going ahead with his plans to visit Ramallah.
Although he drove through a deserted city, he was quickly made to feel, when he got to the Grand Park Hotel and Hanan Ashrawi’s home, the love and appreciation Palestinians have for him, especially because he dared to challenge the Israeli-imposed restrictions. His visit, as expressed by the then minister of culture Ziad Abu Amer, gave the depressed Palestinians a sense of hope and the realization that there are many around the world who cared.

For many of the Palestinians who also challenged curfew that day, the mere presence of a Hollywood icon was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. While genuinely appreciating it, most Palestinians thought then that this would be Gere’s first and last visit. After all, many other celebrities had made similar visits (although no one during a curfew) to never be heard of again.

It was in this spirit that Gere’s second visit early this December pleasantly surprised many. But despite the positive media coverage this second visit to Palestine had, at least one journalist mistakenly interpreted Gere’s decision not to speak as a sign of fear of being reprimanded by the powerful pro-Israel lobby in America. Of course this was not the case. Gere had taken the decision, during both his visits, to avoid saying anything to the press simply because he didn’t feel qualified. He had clearly stated to all he met that he was there to listen and that he was committed to being involved in this conflict for a long time.

After his first visit to Ramallah, East Jerusalem and Israel, Gere and his friends from the US-based Peace-maker Circle International (PCI) met in New York to evaluate the trip and plan his promised next trip. During a day-long meeting that included Palestinians, Israelis and Americans, various ideas were discussed, including Gere’s thoughts on a ground-breaking international event in Jerusalem some time in 2005.

One of the first issues that Gere was asked to comment on was whether he planned to take a stand on any specific political plan. He had met in Jerusalem with Palestinian philosopher and peace activist Sari Nusseibeh and in Tel Aviv with former Israeli security chief Ami Ayalon and was impressed with the People’s Voice document that the two had drawn up and which had been signed by tens of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians. Some of those attending cautioned Gere not to get involved in any specific political plan for the time being.

Gere’s real passion, however, is channeled towards how he and fellow celebrities could use their clout to make change. Specifically, he wanted to find a way to involve celebrities both from the West and the east in a major event in the region. He described his vision of seeing the Holy City of Jerusalem converted into a zone of peace where the light of hope and inspiration could be rekindled.

The various impediments to this idea were discussed openly and honestly. It was said, for example, that Arab artists and celebrities would not come to Jerusalem while it is still under Israeli control. Then, Palestinians from Gaza and the rest of the West Bank would not be allowed to come. Gere was not dissuaded, but willing to listen to various alternatives.

One suggestion was that the event be virtual, that is, reserving air time on major television stations and conducting simultaneous programs in different locations. Another was to have an alternative or parallel event in Jordan which, unlike Jerusalem, everyone can visit. All these ideas were put aside until Gere’s next visit to the region. He wanted to include Jordan in this visit, to meet members of the Royal family, connect with Arab artists and visit Jerash and Petra.

On Dec. 8, Gere arrived in Amman from India, where he had worked on a weeklong HIV/AIDS campaign. Gere, “ready to go”, also wanted to know what I and others thought of the Geneva initiative which had been announced a few days earlier.

Two days of intensive meetings followed, he visited the Citadel and the Amphitheatre in Amman and Jerash.

In Palestine his visit included meetings with leading Palestinian NGOs, parliamentarians, artists, nonviolence activists, businesspeople, and a group of young people. He also toured Al Aqsa Mosque and met with the director of the Islamic Waqf Adnan Husseini. Hanan Ashrawi, director of Miftah, and Sami Awad, director of the Holy Land Trust, hosted Gere in Ramallah and Bethlehem respectively.

Throughout his trips, Gere repeatedly said that he was there to listen and learn. His focus on the conflict and his intense desire to understand all the nuances and points of view, including those of the radicals on both sides, were impressive. Gere feels passionately about the role that he and other celebrities can play to change hearts and minds. He is well aware of the fact that celebrities can open doors previously bolted shut and bring people together who would never meet otherwise.

While touring the region with Gere, I was impressed by his intellect, his humility and his passion. The talk he gave to nearly one hundred Palestinian youth in Bethlehem was inspiring and empowering. Of course, Gere understands he can’t do everything himself. He is committed to supporting the people and causes of this region and plans to make many more visits. He is working with his long-time partner and friend Bernie Glassman, president of PCI. Glassman’s PCI, which operates in Europe, Asia and Latin America, has opened a Middle East hub office in Amman. PCI plans to train Palestinians and Jordanians in the techniques of nonviolent cooperation and community work. A workshop to train the trainers in the circle methodology opened in Amman on Dec. 13.

He clearly understands the power that his celebrity status has and uses it to try and make the world a better place to live in.

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