New York Times bestseller
"A profound and original book, the work of a gifted thinker."--Daphne Merkin, The Wall Street Journal
Attempting to break the agonizing impasse between Israelis and Palestinians, the Israeli commentator and award-winning author of Like Dreamers directly addresses his Palestinian neighbors in this taut and provocative book, empathizing with Palestinian suffering and longing for reconciliation as he explores how the conflict looks through Israeli eyes.
Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor is one Israeli’s powerful attempt to reach beyond the wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians and into the hearts of "the enemy." In a series of letters, Yossi Klein Halevi explains what motivated him to leave his native New York in his twenties and move to Israel to participate in the drama of the renewal of a Jewish homeland, which he is committed to see succeed as a morally responsible, democratic state in the Middle East.
This is the first attempt by an Israeli author to directly address his Palestinian neighbors and describe how the conflict appears through Israeli eyes. Halevi untangles the ideological and emotional knot that has defined the conflict for nearly a century. In lyrical, evocative language, he unravels the complex strands of faith, pride, anger and anguish he feels as a Jew living in Israel, using history and personal experience as his guide.
Halevi’s letters speak not only to his Palestinian neighbor, but to all concerned global citizens, helping us understand the painful choices confronting Israelis and Palestinians that will ultimately help determine the fate of the region.
Halevi's 'Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor' Looks For Common Ground
Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi is determined to reach across the divide to Palestinians who share his homeland. He writes letters about faith and longing to an anonymous Palestinian neighbor.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Yossi Klein Halevi left his home in New York when he was in his 20s and moved to Israel. Over the decades since then, he has tried to sort out for himself how these two peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians, have been locked in their intractable conflict for generations. In his new book, titled "Letters To My Palestinian Neighbors" (ph), Halevi tries to reach beyond the failed politics and toxic narratives to connect with the neighbors that he does not know. Here he is reading from the opening chapter.
YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI: (Reading) We are living incarnations of each other's worst historical nightmares, neighbors. But I don't know how else to address you. I once believed that we would actually meet, and I am writing to you with the hope that we still might. I imagine you in your house somewhere on the next hill, just beyond my porch. We don't know each other, but our lives are entwined. And so - neighbor.
MARTIN: Halevi says this book is a sequel of sorts to a previous work that chronicled his journeys through the Palestinian territories. In that book, it was he who was trying to understand the Palestinian story. Now he wants to share his own.
HALEVI: This is an attempt to explain to my neighbors who I am as an Israeli Jew, who my people are, what our story is, and it's an invitation to a deep conversation between Israelis and Palestinians about our stories, about our peoples' narratives, our conflicting narratives and about our own, personal stories.
MARTIN: You write in this book that it is actually your Judaism, your Jewish identity and the theology behind it that allows you to see the beauty in Islam. Can you explain how so?
HALEVI: So I know I'm a bit of a strange religious Jew in that I have come to love Islam. But I have a complicated relationship with the Muslim world because at the same time that I love Islam and deeply respect its spiritual power, my people is at war with much of the Muslim world, and much of the Muslim world has not yet recognized the legitimacy of my country. My country is occupying another people. And so we are - we're locked in a - in this vicious cycle of lack of recognition, of denial of legitimacy. And I believe that a religious language applied to our conflict is essential for opening hearts.
MARTIN: You write the following in the book. Quoting here - "I understand the Palestinian visceral rejections of the very word Israel because I feel the same way about Palestine." Explain what that means. What is it you feel about the word Palestine?
HALEVI: The word Palestine evokes for Israelis the same emotions that the word Israel evokes for Palestinians, which is this visceral sense of threat to my claim of legitimacy. And the tragedy of this conflict is that this little land is really conceptually two lands. It's the land of Israel and the land of Palestine. The same land is really two lands. And so the question that I pose again both to my Palestinian neighbors and my fellow Israelis is, what is our starting point, and what is our end point?
And I believe the next round of negotiations, if and when they happen, need to incorporate the premise that this land is claimed by right - or at least from the subjective perspectives of each people; all of this land belongs to two peoples. And so how do we solve this? And my end point is, each side is going to need to impose on itself the injustice of partition. And I regard dividing this land as an act of injustice against both peoples because each peoples' total claim can be justified from its own self-understanding.
MARTIN: I want to follow up on something that you mentioned at the top of our conversation, which is a provocative idea, this idea that religion is actually at the core of the solution to the crisis, whereas a lot of people would say - perhaps you don't understand it as well - that the religion is the cause.
HALEVI: (Laughter) Right.
MARTIN: ...That religion is the primary agitant in this war between Israel and the Palestinians. You say it's not. You say religion is the solution. How can that be?
HALEVI: So let me just change one little word - from the to a.
HALEVI: I mean, I'd say that religion is a principal cause of the conflict. It's certainly not the only one. And it is potentially a principal part of the solution. And it depends how religion is used. One of the mistakes that I feel the peacemakers have made over the years is to approach this conflict with a Western mentality, which is to say that - to secular elites on either side - Palestinian secular elite and Israeli secular elite - will somehow be able to circumvent the vast religious populations and sensibilities and loyalties of their own peoples.
It's the Middle East. It's not the West. There will be no peace agreement without at least some religious legitimacy to the concessions that each people will need to make. And that means that we need at the table not only diplomats but imams and rabbis. And there are imams and rabbis on both sides who can be at the table, who should be there. And so we need new thinking. And what I've tried to do in this book is give both Palestinians and Israelis a new language for rethinking these issues that have trapped us in this seemingly hopeless conflict.
MARTIN: Yossi Klein Halevi. His new book is called "Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor." Thank you so much for talking with us.
HALEVI: Thanks so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOXHOLE'S "THROUGH BONE AND MARROW")
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It has always been my belief that it’s important to engage and understand the other in our ongoing struggles in Israel and Palestine. That is why I was encouraged when I received your book and read the title: “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.”
From the outset you make it clear that your book, told in a series of 10 letters to a hypothetical Palestinian correspondent, tells your own story: that of a New York Jew who grew up in the right-wing Zionist youth movement Betar, and who then decided in the summer of 1982, during the Lebanon War, to, as you put it, join the Jewish people “in the greatest dare of its history.”
After living for 36 years in your adopted country, you write (still addressing your imagined Palestinian audience), you believe that the greatest challenge facing your generation of Israelis is “to turn outward — to you, neighbor, because my future is inseparable from yours.” Later you add: “What choice do we have but to share this land?” It is in that spirit that you say you undertook writing these missives, to embark “on a journey of listening to each other.”
I find this an admirable goal. But reading your words, I wonder how aware you are of what our feelings are on the other side. Though you do at least acknowledge that there is a Palestinian “counterstory,” one of “invasion, occupation and expulsion,” a history of “dislocation” and “humiliating defeats,” the sentiment you most express, again and again in your letters, is how deeply we, the Palestinians, misunderstand you. It is our ignorance of your history and religion and attachment to the land that you seek to correct here.
Over the years I myself have made serious attempts to come closer to my Israeli neighbors, to form friendships and appreciate their worldviews, and many of my books have been translated and published in Israel. Yet in reading your letters I couldn’t help feeling condescended to — an unfortunate reaction since I am, I believe, your intended interlocutor. In one of your letters you wonder how your people can “empower” mine. But it seems the wrong question when all most of us wish is for Israel to withdraw from the territories it has occupied and leave us to go on with our lives.
It also doesn’t help that while claiming a new understanding of and sensitivity to our plight, you rehearse old and discredited narratives, like the suggestion that the land of Palestine was empty before Zionists arrived or the notion that it was Israel that has constantly offered peace, which the Palestinians have persisted in rejecting. (I was involved in the Oslo negotiations and I can tell you that Israel shares plenty of responsibility for their failure.)
Your letters seem like an intellectual exercise, which is a privilege that you enjoy but we do not. “If you were in my place, neighbor, what would you do?” you ask. But we are not in your place. You present the central problem of the conflict as a “cycle of denial,” in which my side is denying yours “legitimacy,” not sufficiently acknowledging “Jewish peoplehood,” and yours is denying mine “national sovereignty.” But these things are not equivalent. Twenty percent of the population of Israel proper are Palestinians who are often treated as second-class citizens. And the almost five million Palestinians, like me, who live in the territories that Israel occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem, have been living for the past half century under the grueling regime of the occupation. These are actual realities, ones that only one side has the power to change. Editors’ Picks Daniel Craig Hosts ‘S.N.L.,’ but Elizabeth Warren Steals the Show How to Cook With Plant-Based Meats ‘The Plot Against America’ Imagines the Rise of an Intolerant Demagogue
To make peace possible the Palestinians are not required to become Zionists, to embrace the narrative of Jewish suffering and redemption that you recount in your letters. That you insist on this point as a prerequisite for peace makes me wonder how serious you are about sharing the land and reaching out to your neighbors.
Unlike you I will not demand that you see the Nakba, the catastrophe that Israel’s founding caused for my people, in the same way as I see it. You couldn’t. Suffice it for you to recognize your responsibility and to put a recognition of that culpability on the agenda for negotiations when the time comes for arriving at a settlement between us.
Many of your arguments are couched in religious terms about the inextricability of Zionism from Judaism. But ours is not a religious war. It’s a conflict between two nationalities in which one of these, Israel, makes it physically impossible for the other, Palestine, to exercise a right to self-determination. “The purpose of Judaism,” as you see it, “is to sanctify one people with the goal of sanctifying all people.” The Palestinians don’t need to be sanctified by Israel. We simply want the right to control our fate, a desire I know you must understand well from studying Jewish history.
I agree with you that peace can come only if we succeed in sharing this land and living on it with justice and fairness for both nations. And I will forever agree with your sentiment that the “violence, suppression, rage, despair” that characterizes our relationship must end. But perhaps the problem with your letters is that they don’t read as if they are seeking an answer, hoping for that Palestinian neighbor — me — to respond, but instead seem like lectures, half a conversation with a partner who is expected to stay quiet and listen.
Raja Shehadeh is the author, most recently, of “Where the Line Is Drawn: A Tale of Crossings, Friendships, and Fifty Years of Occupation in Israel-Palestine.”
A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 26, 2018, Page 19 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: A Palestinian Neighbor Responds. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe