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Love for the Bible behind South Koreans’ interest in Israel

Members of the Korean community in Israel gathered in Kfar Menachem, May 10. (Dr. Kangkeun Lee)

KFAR MENACHEM, Israel (JTA) – It’s become a mainstay of Saturday nights on the Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall in Jerusalem.

Between the crowds of Israeli revelers and American teens at the frozen-yogurt shops, a group of Koreans singing hymns vies for attention.

It’s one of the most public signs of Israel’s small but growing community of South Koreans, many of whom come to the Holy Land because they are evangelical Christians. Not far from Ben Yehuda, there is a Korean restaurant on nearby Shamai Street and five small Korean churches.

“Israel reflects the truth of the Tanach,” Yung Doo, a Korean man in his late 30s who moved to Israel two years ago with his family to pursue a graduate degree in Bible studies, said, using the Hebrew word for Bible. “This is the land of David and Saul.”

While official estimates are hard to come by, South Korea’s ambassador to Israel, Ilsoo Kim, estimates that there are about 800 Koreans in about 300 families living in Israel. The number, he said, has been growing in recent years. They mainly reside around the French Hill and Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhoods in the Jerusalem area.

“Many have lived here quite a long time,” Kim said. “This reflects their feelings.”

Most Koreans in Israel are visitors to the country on multiyear student visas. Many study Bible at Israeli universities or at Holy Land University, a Christian graduate school that caters to Asians. Roughly 30 percent of Koreans are Christian.

A handful have come to Israel to stay. Kim OK Kyung, 67, is a gregarious Korean-American transplant who arrived from New Jersey three years ago with her husband, a pastor, who had just retired from his church.

“There is no place in the world like Jerusalem,” said Kyung, who calls herself Hannah, after the mother of the biblical Samuel, and peppers her speech with quotations from the Bible.

“He who blesses the children of Abraham will be blessed and he who curses Israel will be cursed,” she said, citing a passage in the Bible often quoted by evangelical Christians. “The president of Iran cursed Israel. I want to see what will happen to him.”

Some Koreans here have had difficulties adjusting to life in the Jewish state.

“It’s not easy to approach Israelis,” said Eunah Hur, who spends her day learning Hebrew in Jerusalem and attends a messianic church near her apartment. But it’s possible “to have good relationships. Israelis are warm and loyal,” she said. “We have a specific word for these relationships – ‘jung.’ It’s different from love and friendship.”

There are a number of similarities between Israeli and Korean cultures: a strong focus on education, a proficient high tech-sector, compulsory military service for males and, perhaps most importantly, an existential threat from neighbors.

“The North invaded once in 1950,” Kim said. “Then the 1967 war took place and people saw what Israelis were doing: overwhelming their enemy’s forces. Our teachers told us to learn from Israel. If [the North] invades, we have to do the same thing. Our memory of Israel started that day.”

Both Israel and South Korea also are in similar straits due to their limited natural resources, he said. “Without natural resources how can you have results? Human capital,” Kim said.

South Korea and Israel established full diplomatic relations in 1962. Today, the trade volume between them is roughly $2.5 billion annually; it is especially heavy in automobiles and cell phones. In 2007, Korea-based Samsung acquired Transchip, an Israeli chip design firm that specialized in image sensors in digital cameras. Israeli streets are filled with Korean-made Hyundais and Kias. Korea also buys Israeli weapons to the tune of almost $50 million a year, according to Kim.

Hyounju Ji, who lives in Kibbutz Kfar Menachem, is one of an estimated 40 Koreans in Israel married to Israelis. As a volunteer at the kibbutz 13 years ago, she met the man who would become her husband.  She married him over her parent’s objections.

“Korea is a really closed society. They don’t like mixed couples,” she said. “Israeli and Korean character is very similar. They’re both so proud of their people and want to keep their uniqueness.”

On May 10, while Israeli Jews marked Lag b’Omer, many Koreans in Israel gathered at Kfar Menachem to host their own celebration. Many were taking a day off from Bible-related graduate programs to observe Family Day in Korea and the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and Israel.

They played games of Jokgu, a competitive mix between soccer and tennis, and ate a meal with homemade kimchi, Tok Pokkum rice soup, and a Korean-style barbecue called bulgogi.

Helen Kim, a sociologist at Whitman College in Washington State and a second-generation Korean-American who studies the relationships between Asians and Jews, said she is not surprised by the Korean identification with Israel.

“There is a massive evangelical presence in Korea,” she said. “There is a general acceptance or understanding and looking to as Jews as really smart, well-educated, financially strong people. For a country that has experienced a lot of economic and political change over such a short time that hasn’t always been on the upswing, it’s not surprising that they would look to Jewish texts and to the Jewish people as examples of a people that have weathered the worst of all storms for close to 6,000 years.”

For visitors such as Yung Doo, the connection is far more personal.

“I feel my prayers have a greater–,” he said, pausing while he searched for the right word, “shoresh here.”

“Shoresh” is the Hebrew word for root.