A Palm Sunday Chat with Sis Levin

In Birmingham, Alabama at 10:30 a.m., news of the protest in Bethlehem has barely begun to appear. But Sis Levin has read one email account, and she is feeling good about what happened. Early that morning the children of Bethlehem had attempted to do what Jesus did 2,000 years ago and ride a donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Of course, the children this year never made it much farther than a towering concrete wall erected to keep them forever out of Jerusalem. But they launched a nonviolent protest against their occupation. And their parents took the protest right up into the all-to-human faces of the occupying troops themselves. So it is with the pride of a teacher that Levin declares, “It was my children’s idea!”

Levin indeed is the “volunteer” that organizers talk about when they recount the history of the idea for the Palm Sunday action. But not many “volunteers” that you hear about have already had their life story put to film with Marlo Thomas in the leading role. Today Levin is at home recovering from a scheduled surgery. Until she can get back to Bethlehem, her Palestinian students are very much on her mind.

“We had a message forwarded by John Stoner. It was a great success,” says Levin. Stoner is the Pennsylvania peacemaker who under the umbrella of his fledgling org Every Church a Peace Church (ECAPC) helped to mobilize American participation in the Palm Sunday action. He has forwarded an eyewitness email from Kent R. Beduhn:

“We walked with the children, behind the donkeys, in solidarity with the Palestinians, to pray in Jerusalem,” reads the email from Beduhn. “We walked through the Wall opening on the one road to Jerusalem that still exists. We numbered as many as 324, total. There were 92 kids and six hardy donkeys we all followed. We were holding palm branches and olive branches as we walked. In Bethlehem Square, we sang several songs, such as ‘We shall not be Moved,’ and kids especially liked ‘Peace, Salaam, Shalom.’ ” As expected, the march was halted at a checkpoint by six Israeli soldiers. One photo of the action shows a front line of Palestinian woman looking for eye contact from a row of armed soldiers only inches away. In another photo, a bright yellow sign announces that ECAPC is there. The sign is held up by Pastor Dick Davis of the Peace Mennonite Church of Dallas.

“It sounded great,” says Levin, “just what the world needed to see, a wonderful statement.” Then I ask Levin to tell the story one more time. How did the idea come up? “It was about two years ago at Shepherd’s Field in Beit Sahour, and I was just beginning to work on peacebuilding education from Kindergarten through University,” explains Levin. Shepherd’s Field is one location where Christian tradition says that angels brought news to shepherds about the birth of Jesus. Today a chapel stands at the site.

“We were working with four-year-olds on an old Quaker exercise about two donkeys tied together and two piles of hay. At first the donkeys pull toward different piles and of course neither one gets anything to eat. Then they figure out if they go together they get one pile and then another. It’s a classic exercise, and while teachers and students were talking about it I said, well you know Jesus rode a donkey to Jerusalem. And there was a great sadness in the room as the children said, We can’t go to Jerusalem.” From the statement of sadness came a question of hope, “Why can’t we go to Jerusalem?” and the idea for the Palm Sunday action was born.

When Levin returned to the USA from Bethlehem, she had a speaking tour lined up in California where she told the story everywhere she went. Sis and her husband Jerry have been activists and lecturers in Middle Eastern affairs since Jerry, a former CNN bureau chief, was held hostage by Hezbollah in the mid-1980s. Sis became an activist in order to get Jerry out of captivity, and Jerry came out converted to nonviolence. It was a big story at the time.

At first, Levin treated the Palm Sunday protest as a “what if” idea. What if the children rode donkeys to Jerusalem, confronting Israeli checkpoints along the way? She talked about it in imaginary terms, because it seemed too dangerous. But at some point she was told that even if the action had danger in it, if the children wanted to make a nonviolent statement, she should let them. Which was a profound suggestion to make to an activist from Birmingham. After all, without the children of Birmingham going to jail in 1963, the great campaign for downtown de-segregation might not have been won. So Levin broached the idea with Stoner, and international support for the children of Bethlehem was mobilized.

Levin is anxious to resume her work on peace education at her other home in Bethlehem. She describes the project as covering, “a great chunk of Bethlehem. There is no other Kindergarten through University peace education program anywhere else in the entire Middle East. We’re doing it in all the classes.” Although Levin’s surgery is still very fresh and painful, the topic sparks her up.

“If you teach teachers to teach in a progressive way, then it spreads through the classroom, the school, and the community,” explains Levin. “But it has to be systemic, otherwise it doesn’t hold up. Too many people in education today still don’t realize that it’s not sustaining if it’s not systemic. It also has to be gradual, because in child development they pick up different pieces at different times. Anger management is a part of it, for example. Someone teaches anger management and the students pick up that piece, but there are so many other pieces to it.”

“At first, I thought it would be difficult for me to sell the idea of peace education, partly because I’m a Westerner coming in,” says Levin. “But also the Palestinians of Bethlehem are already way up there when it comes to education. Their scores are very high, quite commonly English is a child’s third language, and even during ‘the closing’ at the time of the Intifada children were diligently home-schooled. Today they are outscoring Israeli children in many areas.”

“My goal in the long run is to help revise the teaching for children on both sides,” she says. “I have many Israeli friends and they tell me, what would it matter if we gain the whole thing but lose our children? They are concerned about what happens to their children in the heavily militarized culture of Israel. And you have no idea how many there are in Israel who feel this way. When I hear my Israeli friends talk about their society, it makes me feel like in America we are losing our souls, too. And they make me sound like a girl scout when they talk. Brutal is the word they use for the system they are in. But you don’t read about their stories.”

By late afternoon, a report from Jerusalem by AP writer Kristen Stevens begins to appear on the web. Stevens devotes nine paragraphs to the Bethlehem action at the end of a 22 paragraph story. Newsday’s version of the AP story also includes a second paragraph reference to the Bethlehem action. This will be the highpoint of press coverage. On the other hand News 24 “South Africa’s leading news portal” snips the AP story at paragraph thirteen, leaving no room for the Bethlehem action at their massive website. Searches at major broadcast websites such as CNN, BBC, or Al Jazeera, reveal no video coverage.

“I’m married to an old news hound, and I know the bait was on the hook,” says Levin. The press had been well informed about the planned action, but formula stories seemed to drive the Palm Sunday agenda: the Pope in Rome, Christians already in Jerusalem. Also, there was lingering news of a transfer of authority in Jericho and a cease fire called by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other groups in the Palestinian resistance. Editors seemed to flow with an impression that things were getting better in Palestine right now. In addition, some activists argued at Michigan IndyMedia that the left in the USA might have done a better job pushing the issue of Palestine’s occupation Saturday during nationwide protests against the occupation of Iraq.

Organizers of the Palm Sunday action in Bethlehem had argued that everyday life in Palestine continues to be dominated by checkpoints, settlements, and walls going up. As photojournalists in Bethlehem documented the Palm Sunday protest, they also snapped pictures of the Bethlehem wall under relentless construction, but editors seemed not to place much priority on the significance of these same-day images. Perhaps the best single picture of the day therefore was Brennan Linsley’s shot of two Palestinian youth writing graffiti on the wall, framed by a pair of soldiers.

A second email from Beduhn describes the graffiti action. “When we reached the Wall, many children began writing in Green markers slogans in Arabic, like: ‘The Wall is no good. The Wall must fall.’ Two of the young boys, approximately age 8 or 9, had crowns of thorns on their heads. The soldiers told them to stop, but Sami Awad gently but firmly asked the soldiers if they wanted to join us to work for peace. He reminded them that the children were not hurting anything but were only expressing their views. Eventually, after a period of another 5 minutes of slogan-writing, the leadership and the children’s mothers were able to clear away the 10 children doing the writing.” Any other day of the year, who knows what might have happened to those kids.

“Life in Palestine is very different from what the public knows,” continues Levin. When she lectures in the USA, she finds that 85 percent of the average audience don’t have a clue about the situation, don’t know about the walls, and donít know that Palestine has been reduced to nine percent of its former size. “There’s only nine percent left,” she repeats.

Ten years ago, recalls Levin, a home was imploded by Israeli forces two blocks from her Bethlehem house. And it’s true the home had been inhabited by a suicide bomber. But sometimes there’s more to the story. Levin recalls the woman whose home was raided. During the raid, Israeli troops killed her mother, her father, and her fiancÈ, then locked her in the room with the bodies. “Of course when she got out of that room she was quite out of her mind,” says Levin. “She went straight to Hamas and said strap it on me. When these things happen they don’t tell those stories either.”

Levin sees the same problems with media coverage of violence in the USA. When kids shoot kids at Columbine, Paducah, or Conyers, we don’t look behind those events either. We don’t ask how these things happen. “The media, instead of being a big part of the solution is very much a part of the problem.” Once Levin showed “Bowling for Columbine” to the youth of Bethlehem and they asked her. “Did your country take bulldozers and flatten the houses of the kids who did that?”

As this story is released, news comes from Red Lake Reservation, Minnesota. A young man shoots nine others and himself. The awful story will play well. And who now will have answers to the obvious questions. In the structural economy of global violence is there not a connection between all the media who ignored the well-crafted message of peace on Palm Sunday one day and converged on the desperate outburst at Red Lake the next? When children call for your headlines peacefully, why won’t you listen? If Bethlehem doesn’t keep trying, who will? In Bethlehem, Levin throws open her home every month to teachers who want to share ideas about peace in the classroom.

“Dr. Levin,” she recalls one young child saying to her in English, “we are building peace.” And her first thought was, oh no, now I’m in trouble. Palestinian children aren’t scheduled to learn English until the fourth grade. This child was much too young. So Levin says she “flew” over to the education officials who winked, “yes, we have an eye on you.” But what can it mean? For Levin, the child’s English outburst was proof that making peace in the classroom is an exciting challenge for children, and when they are excited about the challenges in front of them, children learn more quickly. Indeed, they are capable of learning a whole new language.

“Teenagers especially are the key,” argues Levin. “And they know it. On the one hand they serve as models for younger children. On the other hand they hold the dream all the way to university. And when this happens for teenagers, the whole thing becomes a system.” In the process, says Levin, the people of Bethlehem are developing a truly democratic culture. “The fundamentals they are now learning will help them build a truly democratic state, and I must add, a nonviolent one, not one that solves all its problems through war. When Americans say to the Palestinians, you will someday have a country like ours, they say we don’t want a country like yours.”

Shortly after midnight Sunday a story from Israel says 3,500 new homes will be built by Israeli settlers on the West Bank in an effort to solidify control of East Jerusalem. The timing is treacherous. Had the story been released a day earlier, would the Palm Sunday event have meant more to assignment editors? Would Palestinian skepticism have seemed more worthwhile?

Then in the second hour of Monday morning, Israel announces a pullout in the West Bank town of Tulkarim. Time to get out your map. The town of Tulkarim hugs the Northeastern border of the West Bank. It is practically in Israel already. The story of Israel’s pullout tops headlines thereafter: “Israel to pull out of Tulkarim!” Two or three paragraphs later you can read that thousands of new Israeli homes will go up near the heart of East Jerusalem, in blatant violation of the US-backed “Roadmap to Peace.” When it comes to headline management, Israel is on a roll. If Israel keeps up this pattern of ceding border territories under big headlines while bolstering central settlements in small print, Palestine will soon look like a West Bank donut.

So where are the headlines out of Bethlehem? Where are the media factories that will put this nonviolent action on record, celebrate it, and make it into a picture perfect image of a four-year-old’s Palm Sunday dream? In the early morning hours of Monday, a single story appears: “Palestinians ride donkeys in nonviolent Palm Sunday demonstration.” One headline in 700 comes from Palestine News Network, sponsored by the Holy Land Trust, lead organizer of the march. If the demonstration was a glimpse into the possibility of a new kind of state, perhaps this headline also promises a new kind of media. Very little exists in the world today that the children of Palestine won’t have to remake in order to have their peace and freedom. How many of us would say with Sis Levin that we can’t wait to join in?

Note: View AP Photo (thanks to Umkahil for the link)

GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: gmosesx@prodigy.net



Greg Moses writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time. He is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. As editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review he has written about racism faced by Black agriculturalists in Texas. Moses is a member of the Texas Civil Rights Collaborative. He can be reached at gmosesx@gmail.com