Yossi Klein Halevi’s latest book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” (Harper) seeks to create fresh dialogue with critics of Israel through faith, not politics. Read Gary Rosenblatt’s full interview with the author here, and some excerpts from his book below.
I call you “neighbor” because I don’t know your name, or anything personal about you. Given our circumstances, “neighbor” might be too casual a word to describe our relationship. We are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home. 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.
We live on opposite sides of a concrete wall that cuts through the landscape we share. I live in a neighborhood called French Hill in East Jerusalem, and my apartment is in the last row of houses, which you see as step-like structures built into the hillside.
From my apartment I can just barely see the checkpoint you must cross — if you have a permit at all — to enter Jerusalem. But I sense the checkpoint’s all-pervading presence. Sometimes my early morning routine of meditation and prayer is disrupted by the prolonged honking of frustrated drivers lining up before the checkpoint. Maybe you have been caught in that desperate line.
I see your presence in this land as an essential part of its being. Palestinians often compare themselves to olive trees. I am inspired by your rootedness, by your love for this landscape.
And how do you see me? Am I, in your eyes, part of a colonialist invasion that was an historic crime and a religious violation? Or can you see the Jewish presence here as authentic, just like your own? Can my life here be seen as an uprooted olive tree restored to its place?
Our conflict is defined by asymmetries. Israel is the most powerful nation in the Middle East, the Palestinians the least powerful. Yet, we are alone in the region, while you are part of a vast Arab and Muslim hinterland. Those are the obvious asymmetries. Less obvious are the political differences on each side. Among Israelis, supporters of a two-state solution regard partition as the end of the conflict; I see Palestinian sovereignty as a necessary act of justice. Can you see my sovereignty as a necessary act of justice? From years of conversation with Palestinians I learned that even supporters of two states often see that as a temporary solution resulting from Palestinian powerlessness, to be replaced with one state — with the Jews as a minority, if existing at all — once Palestinian refugees return and Israel begins to unravel. And where Israeli moderates tend to see Palestinian sovereignty as a necessary act of justice, many Palestinian moderates see Israeli sovereignty as an unavoidable injustice.
I can think of no national movement that has rejected more offers of statehood — going back to the 1930s — than the Palestinian national movement. And given its perception of Zionism and Israel, that’s understandable. If Palestinians believe that Israel is the embodiment of evil and so must be destroyed — and there is no other reasonable conclusion to draw from the messages conveyed by Palestinian media and mosques and educational system — then how is compromise possible?
If you were in my place, neighbor, what would you do? Would you take the chance and withdraw to narrow borders and trust a rival national movement that denied your right to exist? Would you risk your ability to defend yourself, perhaps your existence, to empower him? And would you do so while the region around you was burning?
Having concluded that every concession I offer will be turned against me, I remain in limbo, affirming a two-state solution while clinging to the status quo. And yet I cannot accept our current state of seemingly endless conflict as the definitive verdict on our relationship.
We are trapped, you and I, in a seemingly hopeless cycle. Not a “cycle of violence” — a lazy formulation that tells us nothing about why our conflict exists, let alone how to end it. Instead, we’re trapped in what may be called a “cycle of denial.” Your side denies my people’s legitimacy, my right to self-determination, and my side prevents your people from achieving national sovereignty. The cycle of denial defines our shared existence, an impossible intimacy of violence, suppression, rage, despair.
That is the cycle we can only break together.
Ultimately, peace is about mutual respect. Israelis need to treat Palestinians with dignity. The truth is that, for many Israeli Jews, treating others with respect can be a challenge. Israel is a restless society of uprooted and re-rooted refugees and children of refugees, and the dark side of our vitality is a frankness that can easily become rudeness, the antithesis of Arab decorousness. Israelis often don’t know how to treat each other with respect, let alone those we are occupying. We are a people in a hurry to compensate for our lost centuries of nationhood, and that doesn’t pay attention to niceties. Sometimes I think that, if only we’d known how to show your people simple respect, so much could have been different here.
What I need from you is respect for my people’s story. The campaign against our connection to this land and its holy sites tells Jews that our conflict isn’t about occupation or settlements, but is, instead, a war against Jewish history. The attempt to erase us conceptually, many Jews fear, is a first step toward erasing us physically.
Each side needs to confront the psychological impact of our offenses against the other. We must recognize the ways in which we are, for each other, embodiments of our greatest fears, and learn to respect each other’s difficult histories. My side needs to stop reinforcing the Muslim trauma of colonialism, and your side, the Jewish trauma of destruction. As long as our conflict remains a focus for the wounds of the Muslim and Jewish past, peace will continue to elude us.
It is late at night as I write you. On your hill only a few houses are lit. A forlorn car interrupts the quiet of the road between our hills. Reaching out to you, imagining an interlocutor across the way, makes me feel a little less alone in this silence.
I hear the pre-dawn call of the muezzin, or rather, multiple calls from minarets on surrounding hills, not quite in synch, echoing each other. Allahu Akbar, God is great. I am soothed by the quietly insistent voices, a gentle awakening, preparation for the imminent stirring of the day. “Prayer is preferred to sleep,” they call out. Remember: We are here only temporarily; don’t be a sleepwalker through your own life, don’t waste your time, caught in the illusion of permanence. And then, abruptly, silence.
We live in such intimacy, we can almost hear each other breathing. What choice do we have but to share this land? And by that I mean share conceptually, as well as tangibly. We must learn to accommodate each other’s narratives. That is why I persist in writing to you, why I am trying to reach out across the small space and vast abyss that separates your hill from mine.
Reprinted with permission from Harper.
On May 16 at 7 p.m., Yossi Klein Halevi, in conversation with journalist David Gregory and moderator Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, will discuss his new book at Central Synagogue, 652 Lexington Ave. The program is sponsored by The Jewish Week in collaboration with UJA Federation of New York and Central Synagogue, with the support of the Paul E. Singer Foundation. To purchase seats, click here.
He will also be speaking in New Jersey on May 22nd at the Jewish Federation Of Greater Metrowest NJ in conversation with Imam Abdullah Antepli (info and tickets here), and at the Rutgers Hillel on May 23rd (info and tickets here). Books will be available for purchase and signing at the events. Entry is free for students with valid ID.