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Jerry and Sis Levin at UK’s Cambridge University

Internationally renowned advocates of non-violence Jerry and Sis Levin, spoke at Cambridge University’s Churchill College March 11 on “Peacemaking in Palestine and Iraq.” Their talk, organized by the college’s Phoenix Society, drew a large audience of students and fellows, and was the first of a string of engagements across the UK.

The Levins have a unique perspective on the conflict in Israel and Palestine. The couple moved to Beirut in 1983, when Jerry was appointed CNN Middle East bureau chief. A mere three months later, however—on Ash Wednesday 1984—Jerry was kidnapped by Hezbollah while driving to work. This ended Jerry’s career climbing the ladder of media success, and launched Sis’s peacemaking work, as she negotiated her husband’s release and battled against the hypocritical rhetoric of her own government.

Since his release from 11 months of captivity, during which time he converted to Christianity, Jerry and Sis have dedicated themselves to the cause of peace and nonviolent conflict resolution, as well as speaking their minds about the misplaced priorities of Western foreign policy. Jerry currently works full-time with the Christian Peacemaking Team in Hebron, while Sis works in Bethlehem schools putting peace education into the curriculum.

At their Cambridge talk, Jerry spoke first on his experiences in Palestine and wartime Iraq. Drawing extensively from the e-mail reports he regularly files from Hebron, he painted an unflinching picture of the injustices endured by the hemmed in Palestinian population there.

Levin related a number of poignant vignettes describing the deserted commercial district of Hebron and the impunity enjoyed by Israeli soldiers and settlers alike to violently oppress the Palestinians. Condemning the Israeli Separation Wall, he compared it to affluent “gated communities” in the West:

“The significant difference, however,” he said, “is that in the free West, as opposed to unfree Palestine, gated communities are designed by their well-off residents to keep rascals and riffraff out—whereas these gated communities built by (dare I say it?) rascals and riffraff have been built to lock the not-so-well-off Palestinians in. At one time,” he observed, “such fenced-in, walled-in enclaves were universally known as ghettos.”

The final e-mail selection Jerry shared with the audience was from Iraq, where the Levins had been last year. Here he described walking around an area hit by cluster bombs and seeing the effects of thousands of flying metal shards on Iraqi bodies.

Sis Levin shifted the focus, reaching back in time to their formative experiences in Lebanon in the 1980s. She reviewed the choices made by the Reagan administration in response to events in the Middle East, particularly the decision to sell arms to Iran and fund the Contras with the proceeds.

This kind of realpolitik, she noted, stood in stark contrast to the approach she took to Jerry’s kidnapping—one of dialogue, addressing motives and grievances, and refusing to fall back on a mentality of labeling terrorists as “evil and irrational.”

Sis strongly communicated to the audience her passion for education—an angle on the conflict that was greatly welcomed, according to feedback after the event. She stressed the formative effect of teachers on children and the enormous untapped potential for peace education in schools around the world, including those in Israel/Palestine. The enduring image she took from Beirut, she said, was that of a four-year-old boy in the street with a pacifier in its mouth, cradling an AK-47.

In discussions with audience members after the event, what came across most strongly was their pleasure at receiving such a refreshing and “alternative” presentation on a much-discussed issue. The Levins’ combination of personal humility, strident opposition to injustice, and unwavering commitment to nonviolence and reconciliation made it a talk to remember.

Published in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

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