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From terror ordeal, husband and wife commit to peace


Jerry Levin is reluctant to talk about his adventure with terrorism. He’s hesitant to describe his abduction on Ash Wednesday, March 7, 1984 -- the tap on his shoulder, the walk at gunpoint to a waiting car, the way his captors bound his body with tape until he “looked like a mummy” and then threw him in the back of a truck. He doesn’t start his conversations by telling you that he spent more than 11 months in solitary confinement in cold rooms with taped-over windows shackled to a wall with a chain so short that he could never stand fully upright. You have to probe to get those details, and even when he does admit to that hard part of his past, his voice gets low as if he were giving you an aside.

Because for Levin, a former CNN correspondent, context is everything. As he sees it, his kidnapping by members of Hezbollah was a small detail in a larger saga about Lebanese suffering and a disastrous, unbalanced U.S. policy for the Middle East.

Levin and his wife, Lucille, called “Sis,” who fought heroically for her husband’s release, were among the first Americans in Lebanon to be ensnared in the hostage-takings of the mid- to late 1980s -- a phenomenon that would plague relations between the United States and many Mideast countries right up until the Gulf War. They were victims of Iranian-backed Lebanese militants known as Hezbollah (party of God), whose members held Jerry as a bargaining chip for the release of Muslim militants, incarcerated after the bombing of the French and American embassies in Kuwait in December of 1983.

Yet neither Jerry nor Sis Levin became a proponent of retaliation or strident Americanism. In fact, they emerged from their Lebanon ordeal deeply committed to peace building in the Middle East. Since 1985, Sis and Jerry, members of Pax Christi, have written articles, delivered nearly a thousand lectures, organized fact-finding tours, and launched religious and journalistic organizations promoting peace in the Middle East with a particular emphasis on justice and parity for the Palestinians. Theirs is a journey of understanding that has particular relevance today with the invasion of the Palestinian territories by Israel and the apparent determination of the Bush administration to prosecute a wider war against terrorism in the Middle East.

This summer the Levins will leave their home in Birmingham, Ala., for Israel and the occupied territories where Jerry will work on violence-reduction projects in the strife-ridden region of the West Bank and Sis will develop a peace curriculum for the Mar Elias Institute in Galilee. Meanwhile, between his lectures, Jerry works on a manuscript titled The Futility of Violence: Essays and Reflections on Love Your Enemies.

“My captors were really doing more of God’s work than they were their own,” said Jerry, a self-described “Jewish-American atheist” who converted to Christianity during his captivity. “They kidnapped me and they had their reasons for it, but somehow I felt that here I was in this situation with an opportunity given to me by God to make the most of. I don’t believe good can come out of evil. I believe because of the actions we take, good can result despite evil.”

When Jerry Levin arrived in Beirut, Lebanon, in December of 1983 as CNN’s bureau chief for the Middle East, he stepped into a land layered in violence. Embroiled in a civil war since 1975, Lebanon was also the scene of cross-border fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants. Lebanon had become a new base of operation for the PLO after its ouster from Jordan in 1970. On April 6, 1982, tensions between Israelis and Palestinians reached new heights when Israel invaded southern Lebanon.

Chaotic, anarchic Beirut

Among the militant factions within the Lebanese civil war was Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad. Their supporters included many disenfranchised, impoverished Shiite Muslims who had fled southern Lebanon during the Israeli invasion and were now dwelling in the slums of Beirut. Neighboring Syria, Lebanon’s former occupier, tacitly sanctioned Hezbollah’s growing influence.

Beirut was “probably more chaotic and anarchic than any other place on earth,” said Levin. Kidnappings and assassinations were the principal methods of political coercion and settling scores. The city had become a “de facto cantonized land. Most vital national institutions were paralyzed. Law and order was rudimentary. A tenuous kind was being maintained by the various militias each controlling a section of the nation or in partnership with Israel or Syria.”

In the middle of what former Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson called Lebanon’s “rat’s nest of a war,” were the Americans. In August 1982, the United States joined a multinational peacekeeping force ostensibly to supervise the evacuation of the PLO. On April 18, 1983, a car bomb destroyed the American Embassy in West Beirut. That autumn, under orders from Washington and against the counsel of U.S. military officials, Marine and naval units, stationed in Beirut, abandoned their position of neutrality and began firing on the opponents of Lebanon’s Christian-dominated, minority government.

What followed was a now predictable pattern of response: Islamic militants attacked U.S. military installations, then embassies, then civilians. On Oct. 23, 1983, two car bombs killed 241 U.S. marines and 58 French paratroopers stationed in Beirut. In December, a group of Iranian-inspired Shiite militants blew up the French and U.S. embassies as well as some other installations in Kuwait. Seventeen militants were convicted and given sentences ranging from several years to death. Among the incarcerated, said Levin, was the brother of a Lebanese leader of Islamic Jihad. In 1984, the abductions and, in some cases, assassinations of Americans intensified. The ransom requirement for many, including Levin, was the release of the Shiite prisoners in Kuwait.

Levin, who had reported on U.S. military action in Beirut, said he understood early on in his captivity “why they hate us.” In the conclusion of an unpublished account of his ordeal, he wrote, “Our countrymen did not become targets until Washington created the danger, in effect pulling the rug out from under them by intervening militarily in the civil war. The grievances of the victims of our violent involvement were predictably taken up not only by Arab guerrillas, but by Arab terrorists as well.”

For Sis Levin, however, a Southern conservative Christian from Birmingham, Ala., the political context of her husband’s kidnapping was not so self-evident. She arrived in Beirut in January 1984 and was just mastering the various factions in Lebanon’s civil war when Jerry was picked up. It took her months to fully comprehend his abduction and to chart her own course for his release.

Although she launched a team of friends and family members to inquire into Jerry’s whereabouts, she initially adhered to the U.S. government’s request to refrain from discussing her husband’s situation publicly. In Beirut Diary, Sis’ own account of Jerry’s kidnapping and her fight for his release, she writes candidly of her bouts with rage, an incapacitating depression and her gradual realization that dialogue was an essential antidote to the vicious cycle of retaliation.

Seeking the causes of hostility

She wrote, “The hostages were only the tip of the iceberg. Maybe we, the general public, were completely missing the point. There seemed to be a desperate cry for help coming from Lebanon. And we, the superpower, were deaf to it. There was a context to the hostages that was full of history and insensitivity, bad choices and pain. The kind that comes when a nation abandons dialogue and embraces military force.”

In 1984, six months into her husband’s captivity, Sis Levin decided to go public, with one provision. She would talk about the issues rather than the particulars of her painful circumstance. When the press asked the ubiquitous question, “How does it feel?” Sis’ frequent reply, according to Beirut Diary, was, “We need to look at the causes of Arab hostility toward us.”

In November, she traveled to Damascus, Syria, not exactly a U.S. ally, but the one official doorway to Hezbollah.

With the aid of Quaker negotiator Landrum Bolling, she met with Syria’s Foreign Minister Farouk Al Sharaa. She made friends with several Muslim women, one of whom had successfully negotiated her Palestinian husband’s release from an Israeli prison. During her two months in Damascus, she talked openly about the need for dialogue and initiated a music therapy program for children traumatized by the Lebanese war. “Her approach,” said Jerry, “proved to be irresistible and compelling to Syria’s President Hafez Assad, who responded through the foreign minister that Syria would work for my release.”

Two months later using a rope of knotted sheets, Jerry successfully escaped by lowering himself out of his room in a building near the city of Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. Syrian soldiers found him the next morning, sock-footed and without his glasses, zigzagging down the mountain toward Baalbek. The following day, The Washington Post reported that a man speaking Arabic called the Associated Press in Beirut and said, “We released … Levin after many approaches by some brotherly and effective sides.”

The Levins and many others believe Jerry was allowed to escape because of Syrian influence on his captors. Most accounts categorize his return as “an escape or release.”

Sis’ reconciliatory gestures in Syria were admittedly ad hoc, offered with uncertainty amid depression. Yet the Levins are quick to contrast the success of their efforts with the U.S. government’s negotiated release of American hostages through the sale of arms to Iran. Money from those purchases was then used to fund the Contra army in the Nicaraguan civil war.

“Ours is the only private-joint-husband-and-wife-do-it-yourself-rescue-effort to have succeeded,” Jerry wrote in one of his lecture texts. “We reflect with relief and gratitude that we do not bear the burden of the disgraceful Iran-Contra arms deal that only served to perpetuate violence in the Middle East that already was and still often is at such a frantic level.”

More important, the Levin’s ordeal with terrorism prompted profound personal changes in each of them. Jerry’s conversion to Christianity came within a month of his abduction, born out of a desperate desire to talk to someone. In the isolation of solitary confinement, he had begun talking to himself, and that frightened him.

“Then it occurred to me that people for thousands of years had been talking to this thing called ‘God,’ and they had not gone crazy. Religious people called it praying. I thought maybe I could do that, too,” Jerry said. In his first prayer, he asked God’s forgiveness for himself and his captors. He sees nothing extraordinary in his willingness to forgive his abductors, saying he “did it very naturally. ... Even with my imperfect knowledge of what Jesus taught, I knew that in this decision to become a man of faith, forgiveness was what I needed to do.”

But his attitude of forgiveness did not translate into amicable conversations with his captors, nor did it bring about an improvement in his harsh conditions. “My stance with them was that I didn’t have too much to say to them,” Jerry said. “Partly because I wanted them to realize that I didn’t like what they were doing.”

Two days after Christmas, at his request, his Muslim guards gave him a Bible. On Christmas Eve they unexpectedly had left him “a very intricate and beautiful Lilliputian manger scene.” While observing the creche, Jerry said he had a mystical experience that still energizes him.

On the night he escaped, he left behind four American hostages, brought in after him and confined in separate rooms.

Ironically, even as he climbed to his freedom, he saw himself as a man now bound by experience and faith to his interned countrymen and to the peoples and politics of Christ’s homeland.

Sis Levin, the mother of five adult children by a previous marriage, had by her own description “never made more than a handful of independent decisions in her life.” For her, Lebanon was an awakening, a place where she learned that conflict is an inevitable part of peacemaking. She described Beirut as “an extension of what I had experienced in Birmingham. Birmingham is a troubled place, the name reminds people of violence, chaos, injustice. In many ways, I saw the same things in Beirut.”

Trying to set the record straight

And yet while in Birmingham, she admits that she had little ability to confront the inconsistencies, the disconnect between the Sunday school maxim “God loves all” and the blatant racism all around her. “I was accustomed to making people happy,” she said. During Jerry’s captivity, she found the arguments with friends hard. They wanted to know why she questioned her own government. “The president [Reagan] was saying [Jerry’s kidnapping] was mindless, groundless terrorism. Of course it wasn’t.”

Upon Jerry’s release, the Levins were shocked at how their story was being used to “demonize and stereotype Islamic culture generally and Palestinian aspirations specifically,” Jerry said. They worked to set the record straight. Although “there are no acceptable motives for terrorism ... anywhere, anytime,” he argued, it was inaccurate to categorize the tactic as “mindless, groundless or unprovoked.”

“Terrorism in the Middle East is not a short-term problem,” he said. “It will probably never be entirely eliminated so long as there are groups of people there who harbor longstanding antagonisms -- whether or not we agree with them -- that are fueled by such political, sociological and economic grievances as denial, exclusivity and greed.”

The Levin’s public questioning and critique of U.S. policy in the Middle East, of its unqualified support for Israel, its failure to address legitimate grievances in the region and its refusal to pursue a reconciliatory path, cost them personally. In 1989, CNN fired Jerry, who had been in an administrative position ever since his return from captivity. He continued to cover the news, however, reporting on the Middle East as a freelancer for major publications like the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit News and USA Today. He also became a contributing editor to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, providing analysis and writing exposés on Israeli policy in the occupied territories. From 1990 to 1995, he served as director of News and Information Services for World Vision, the international Christian relief and development agency.

Passion for teaching peace

For Sis Levin, the experiments with reconciliation in Syria prompted a vocational switch. After Jerry’s release, Sis, “a cradle Episcopalian,” abandoned plans to become an Episcopal priest and pursued a degree in education with an emphasis on teaching peace. She earned a master’s at Goddard College in Alabama and then her doctorate in education from Columbia University’s Teachers College, where she wrote a dissertation titled, “The Role of Forgiveness in Conflict Resolution.”

Her passion is for the pedagogy of teaching peace. Any approach to the subject, she insists, “has to be systemic,” offered from kindergarten right up to the 12th grade. In the late 1990s, Sis worked to introduce peace education into a public school system in California and in Alabama. This summer, at the Mar Elias Institute in Israel, she will be educating teachers to present even the traditional subjects with an emphasis on cooperation.

“Math itself is an understanding of how things work together,” she said.

The Mar Elias Institute, established by Palestinian Melkite Fr. Elias Chacour, and located in Ibillin, Galilee, teaches Christian, Jews and Muslim children from kindergarten through the second year of college. Sis is delighted at the prospect of teaching children from “all the families of Abraham. It’s the perfect lab school,” she said. “If the world will look, we can show how it can and will be.”

While Sis works on curriculum development in Ibillin, Jerry will work to keep the peace in the divided West Bank city of Hebron as a member of Christian Peacemakers Team, a Mennonite-based organization that initiates violence-reduction projects in “hot spots” throughout the world. The Levins signed on to Christian Peacemakers after attending a conference on Christian peacemaking last spring. Jerry views their upcoming projects as the logical “next step” in their work of promoting religious, political and cultural reconciliation in the Middle East.

On weekends, the Levins will wend their way separately through a clutter of military checkpoints and meet somewhere near Jericho. No, Sis is not afraid. “We feel called to do this,” she said.

Once, while walking down a street in Lebanon, Sis spotted a 4-year-old child sitting with a pacifier in his mouth and an AK-47 propped across his lap. “That image has remained with us in the very core of our being,” said Jerry. “The child is a visual metaphor for the world.”

The “verbal metaphor,” Jerry Levin adds, can be found in the Holy Land -- humanity’s ground zero -- the place where “a new concept of righteous and just community was born and first began to unravel. ... If humankind does not get its priorities right in the Middle East and especially the Holy Land, where the story of the people of the book began, then it probably cannot and will not get them right anywhere else.”

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worchester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 2002