‘Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor’ offers Palestinians and Israelis a new path to reconciliation

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In celebration of Israel@70, JUF News is running a yearlong series of stories to provide a unique window into Israel. 

The books of Yossi Klein Halevi are prescient. He tantalizes with a path to peace, then all hell breaks loose.  

At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden , Halevi's second book and his first excursion into Jewish-Muslim relations, launched on 9/11. His award-winning Like Dreamers, about Israeli paratroopers who "reunited Jerusalem and divided a nation," was sandwiched between the Gaza wars of 2012 and 2014. Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, his first book, appeared two days after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor (Harper) will appear just as the U.S. embassy moves to Jerusalem. 

As Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary, Halevi's words are a watershed in Israeli-Palestinian discourse. He invites Palestinians into a relationship based on mutual acceptance, but with a twist: Unlike peace formulas that have failed, Halevi requests each side to acknowledge as a starting point the other's existential rights and claims of ownership to the entire land, from the river to the sea.   

"You don't make peace with your friends," Simcha Flapan, a pioneer of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation in the 1970s, used to say. Israelis like Flapan, who belonged to the Socialist MAPAM party, were disinterested in religion and tradition; if they thought about it all, they assumed Israelis and Palestinians never would find common ground about such things.  They promoted reconciliation based on each side agreeing about the future.  

Halevi and other faith-oriented peace activists see mutual recognition coming when each side accepts the other's past, their relationship to the land and its spiritual space, to village, to town, to tribe, to religion.  

"As a religious person, I am forbidden to accept this abyss between us as permanent, forbidden to make peace with despair," Halevi writes in "The Wall Between Us," the first of 10 letters the book comprises. "Can we, instead, see each other as two traumatized peoples, each clinging to the same sliver of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, neither of who will find peace or justice until we make our peace with the other's claim to justice?" 

Halevi's question isn't rhetorical; one of Israel's most lucid and compassionate thinkers and writers, he is an activist in Muslim-Jewish relations. A senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Halevi co-directs the Muslim Leadership Initiative with Imam Abdullah Antepli. MLI participants are emerging Muslim American leaders, who go to Jerusalem to learn about Judaism and Israel and come away understanding Zionism on its own terms.  

Halevi's first encounter with Palestinians and Islam was as a foot soldier in Gaza during the first intifada. He returned a decade later as a spiritual pilgrim, a religious Zionist who earned the trust and goodwill of Palestinians who invited him into their most sacred spaces.  

At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden  describes an intimate journey into Palestinian homes and mosques.  

"That journey was an attempt to understand something of the faith and experiences of my neighbors. This book is a kind of sequel: an attempt to explain to my neighbors something of my faith and experiences as an Israeli," Halevi writes. "In my most intimate conversation with God, I am hoping to speak to you," he writes to his Palestinian neighbor.  

I spoke to Halevi, who will speak at a JUF event in May, about that aspiration.  

JUF News:  What is the Zionist approach to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation? 

Yossi Klein Halevi : I talk about Zionism as the meeting point between need and longing. The Zionism of need is a story we all told very well…of pogroms, Dreyfus, the Holocaust, and resurrection. But the narrative leaves out more than half of the Israeli population, the Mizrachim (Jews from North Africa and the Middle East).  

By continuing to tell a Eurocentric Zionist story, we play into the hands of the anti-Zionists, who outrageously portray Israel as a European colonialist project. We need to learn to re-tell the story of our indigenousness, including our eastern-ness.  

What about the 2,000-year story of longing, how we maintained our indigenousness vicariously? The story I tell includes that missing piece.  

What's the story of the  Mizrachim ?  

It's the story of the expulsion and flight of the ancient Jewish diasporas in the Muslim world. There were one million Jews in that Arab Diaspora. Now there are 40,000.  

European political Zionism set out to save the Jews of Europe, and largely failed. Herzl intuited that something worse than pogroms was coming, and he saw Zionism as a rescue mission. But the movement he set in motion was successful in rescuing the Jews of the Muslim world.  

Imagine if there were still major Jewish communities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Arab world. Look at the fate of minorities in the Middle East today. Imagine what the fate of the Jews would have been. It makes the old anti-Israel argument, that the creation of Israel complicated the position of the Jews in the Middle East, seem foolish and irrelevant. Zionism saved them.   

So, Israel isn't to blame for its own predicament? 

The essence of Israel is the rejection of victimhood. The Jews in 1945 decided that victimhood had become untenable.

The current American discourse over power and a hierarchy of victimhood, known as intersectionality, is a profound cheapening of what it means to be a human being. To reduce a life to your place on the hierarchy of victimhood cheapens the complexity of the human experience.  

Jews have always gone against the prevailing conventional wisdom. That's part of who we are. For liberal American Jews to take on the guilt of white America and see themselves as people of privilege misses our historic calling, which is to challenge prevailing orthodoxies, including liberal orthodoxies.  

Part of our calling today is to reject the thinness of the conversation over identity.  

Can Palestinians and Israelis accept each other's identity?  

I've tried to stretch my capacity for empathy toward my Palestinian neighbors without sacrificing the integrity of my Israeli narrative. I've tried to give mainstream Israelis and American Jews a language for dealing with the Palestinian tragedy of shattering, and the Israeli tragedy of ruling another people. And I've tried to give leftwing Jews a language for appreciating the extraordinary success of Israel And Zionism.  

Jews tend to speak about and to Palestinians in one of two ways: We're either angry or apologetic. I've tried to avoid both of those dead-end discourses, and instead speak about my story and what Israel means to me without trying to undermine my neighbor's story. 

How do you reconcile claims that seem to cancel each other out? 

I take seriously the Jewish people's claim to all the land between the river and the sea, and I also take seriously that there's a parallel claim to that. My starting point in addressing my Palestinian neighbor is that all the land is mine by right. Exactly as the settlers say. And I tell my neighbor that I respect the fact that your starting point is the same.  

My question to everyone is, 'is this our starting point or our endpoint?' If it's our endpoint, there's nothing further to discuss. If it's our starting point, it's our opening to compromise, where each side will surrender a part of the land that belongs to them by right.  

What are your aspirations for this book? 

My goal is to turn this conversation into a project about the future and legitimacy of Israel in the region. The book is being translated into Arabic. I've tried to create a spiritual language for peace and reconciliation.  

The book is coming out at a complicated time. On the one hand, we seem to be heading toward the next war-with Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran. On the other hand, thanks to a dread of Iran, the Saudis and other Sunnis are forming a strategic relationship with Israel. The recent statement by the Saudi crown prince affirming Israel's right to exist is potentially an historic moment.  

So, we could be heading toward war and peace simultaneously. That requires from us a combination of resolve and flexibility. The problem in Jewish life seems to be that the right has resolve and the left flexibility. We need to combine both approaches.  

What's your outlook? 

I am a religious Jew and remember Sadat getting off the plane in Tel Aviv. And who's standing there to greet him, but Menachem Begin. We tend to take miracles for granted. I am still astonished by the Begin-Sadat peace agreement.  

Circumstances are different today and I'm not delusional. But I believe it is a sin to say that peace is never going to happen. It is limiting God's capacity for the miraculous, especially in this land.  

My job in the interim is to keep alive the hope for some reconciliation. The most authentically Jewish response to Israel's current situation is to stand in that place of realism and hope without being overtaken by the naivete of the left and the despair of the right.    

JUF's King David Society Evening is hosting an evening with Yossi Klein Halevi, titled "Israel Today: At the Crossroads of War and Peace" on Thursday, May 17th at 6:30 p.m. at Bryn Mawr Country Club in Lincolnwood. The evening is open to all King David Society level givers and requires a minimum gift of $25,000 or more to the 2018 JUF Annual Campaign. 

For more information, call Patti Frazin at (312) 357-4878 or email  kds@juf.org .  

Aaron B. Cohen is JUF Senior Communications Advisor. 


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