Left: Ada and Ida Stoltzfus serving children in Palestine. Right: Sadi Othman. Photos provided.

Mennonite-trained pacifist helped U.S. Army defuse conflict in the Middle East

By David Lapp Jost
Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Conservative Mennonite women influence Palestinian student in Hebron to become an agent for peace as one of the top advisors to former US General David Petraeus when he was supreme commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq.

One day in the bathroom on his base, Sadi Othman met a middle-aged man in jogging shorts. The man asked Othman, a translator for the U.S. Forces in Iraq, how he thought the U.S. Army was doing.

"Terribly," Othman said. "We have bad communication with everyday people. The soldiers have very little cultural understanding. It´s a mess."

The man in jogging shorts identified himself as General David Petraeus and asked Othman to assist him. Othman went on to become one of the top advisors to Petraeus, then the supreme commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq. This was a long way from where Othman started his life in Hebron, Palestine, and a long way from where I started my life. However, Othman's story is intertwined with mine. We were both influenced in the ways of peace by my twin great-aunts, Ada and Ida Stoltzfus.

In the 1950s, after serving with Mennonite Central Committee in India, the Stoltzfus sisters went to Palestine. For the next 38 years, they managed a Christian school and orphanage in Hebron where they touched the lives of about 1,200 children. My great-aunts developed warm rapport with their neighbors in this majority Muslim city, which endured both the usual Israeli occupation and the creation of a settler colony in the middle of the city. Their letters often told about the resilience and suffering of the community around them.

Othman was one of Ada and Ida Stoltzfus's students. After his father died in an electrical accident, Othman's mother sent him to the Christian school in Hebron. From there, he attended a Mennonite high school in Palestine and Hesston [Kansas] College.

Following his studies, he became a taxi driver in New York. On Sept. 11, 2001, Othman was shocked and ashamed to learn that the attackers were Muslim Arabs. Though he was a pacifist, he decided to go with the U.S. military to Iraq as a translator to help U.S. soldiers and the Iraqi people understand each other. As he said later, he went "for peace, not for war."

It was in this context that Othman met Petraeus. Othman played a vital role in a movement in western Iraq to persuade militia groups to disarm and stop harboring Al Qaeda agents. In this way, violence in western Iraq diminished.

Othman was also the main translator for many negotiations, interpreting for American politicians and leading delicate talks with Turkey. He helped defuse conflicts between militia groups and between nations. He loved visiting late into the night with people from many different backgrounds and building positive relationships.

I learned about Othman's story in a news magazine. The interviewer noting that Othman had lived in the United States, Brazil, and Palestine, and that he spoke many languages, asked him what he considered himself.

"Well, I had these two Mennonite teachers who made such an impression on me when I grew up at their school, and I sort of consider myself a Mennonite," Othman said.

Since then, I have very much enjoyed speaking with Othman while researching and learning more about his work. Many elements of this story defy my expectations about peace work.

First, my great-aunts came from a conservative Christian community. They wore head coverings when they were in the United States and their views were markedly different from today's more progressive Mennonite Church USA programs. Yet, they had so much love to offer and succeeded so well in connecting across cultures. They remind me that it´s important to know that everyone can contribute to building peace.

And Othman, a pacifist, joined the Army! Normally, I find it unwise to imagine that one can use an institution designed for destruction as a power for good. Too often the institution corrupts the individual. But Othman experienced God's calling, and it led to healing and peace. 






David Lapp Jost and his wife, Sophie, serve with Mennonite Mission Network in Germany. David works with DMFK, the German Peace Committee, a partner of Christian Peacemaker Teams, in fundraising and environmental advocacy. Sophie serves as pastor with the Mennonite Church in Bammental.







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