Yossi Klein Halevi, the American-born Israeli writer, is hoping his new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” (Harper), will reach and engage the two distinct audiences he found himself addressing at the recent annual J Street conference in Washington, D.C.
One was represented by a Palestinian peace activist, Huda Abuarquob, the Hebron-based regional director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, who shared the stage with him in dialogue, responding to excerpts he read from his book. The other was made up of hundreds of conference attendees, mostly young progressive American Jews, whose politics differ sharply from Halevi’s.
“I explained at the outset that I was out of my comfort zone” at the J Street Conference, Halevi told me in his first interview discussing his new book. “But I figured that if I’m reaching out to my Palestinian neighbor, I can reach out to my brothers and sisters with whom I deeply disagree over certain issues.” And he believes his new book offers a unique perspective for both communities who, he said, make up his “ideal audience” for what he calls a long overdue “21st-century Israeli narrative” framed in spiritual rather than political terms.
One of the key challenges he faced was recognizing that his two key audiences relate to the Mideast conflict in very different ways. Most Palestinians are believers, and, even if not personally observant, they respond to narratives of faith; most young American progressive see their Judaism through the lens and values of social justice, tikkun olam — not a natural language for Halevi.
“I’m not coddling my readers,” either Palestinian or American, he told me. “This book tells my story and comes from the deepest part of me.”
‘Not Just A Book But A Project’
Due out next month, Halevi’s slender volume consists of a series of letters to an imaginary neighbor in the Arab village of Anata (the Shuafat refugee camp), which he has never visited, that is only about 500 meters from his French Hill home in east Jerusalem. Halevi’s apartment is in the last row of houses between the two neighborhoods, separated by the security wall that splits the landscape they share.
The letters are distinctive in their attempt to explain Israel’s narrative — and Halevi’s own — to Palestinians. The writing is personal, and the tone is heartfelt, surprisingly gentle, even lyrical, for a book about the violent conflict pitting Jews and Arabs in an endless struggle over the same land. Through the letters, Halevi explains how he, a child of survivors who grew up in Brooklyn and joined the militant Jewish Defense League as a teenager, made aliyah and became a journalist and author seeking deeper spiritual and political connections with Arab Muslims.
At the J Street program, Abuarquob, responding to the readings, acknowledged that she was moved by them and found them hopeful.
Halevi was pleased by her reaction because he thinks of “Letters” as more “a project” than “just a book,” with the goal of “initiating a conversation about the legitimacy of Israel, our indigenousness and our narrative, explaining who we are and why we came home.”
In “Letter 1,” Halevi explains how he came to write a book in the 1990s, “At The Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search For Hope With Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land” (Harper Perennial). It’s about his journey into Palestinian society in an effort “to see whether Jews and Muslims could share something of God’s presence, could be religious people together in this of all places [Jerusalem], where God’s name is so often invoked to justify abomination.”
(The book was published the week of 9/11 and went virtually unnoticed at the time, the victim of the horrific assault that made Halevi’s hopeful spiritual quest instantly obsolete.)
“This book is a kind of sequel,” he writes in the “Letters” introduction, “an attempt to explain to my neighbors something of my faith and my experiences as an Israeli.”
He is, in effect, asking the reader to hear in his personal story an underlying quest for honest dialogue and debate on the path to reconciliation. (See excerpt on page 10.)
Any thoughts of reconciliation Halevi had, beginning with the Oslo Accord in 1993, were shattered for him and many other Israelis by the brutal second intifada that began in 2000. The wave of deadly suicide bombings after Israel had made two serious offers to end the occupation convinced him that the Palestinians were not revolting against occupation but against Israel’s existence.
“I felt I’d exhausted my capacity for outreach for many years,” Halevi said. What changed for him was his meeting Abdullah Antepli, a Muslim imam and founding director of Duke University’s Center for Muslim Life, who calls himself “a recovering anti-Semite.” Antepli grew up reading anti-Jewish literature in Turkey but, on learning more about Judaism and coming to America, he came to believe that Muslims here could benefit from understanding and improving relations with American Jews.
He met and convinced Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish think-tank based in Jerusalem and New York, to create with him a program for thoughtful young American Muslims to learn about Zionism, Judaism and American Jews’ connection to both.
The educational program that Halevi and Antepli co-direct, the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), is sponsored by Hartman and now has more than 100 alumni who have spent significant time in the U.S. and Israel studying with Hartman scholars.
The key to its success over the last five years is that while the participants and faculty disagree strongly about Mideast politics, they treat each other with respect and listen to each other’s narratives. It was that kind of deference and commitment — and a renewed optimism for authentic dialogue and debate — that led Halevi to write “Letters,” based in part on what he has learned from the Muslim viewpoint.
No Apologies For Surviving
While most books about Israel and the Mideast conflict are political, making a case for one approach or another in the quest for peace, Halevi’s letters to his imaginary neighbor engage in religious terms, not polemics. “I learned from my Muslim friends in MLI that in addressing the Muslim world, we need to speak a language of religious Judaism,” he said. “They pay attention to and respect matters of faith.”
One example: Halevi’s initial draft, which he shared with all of the MLI alums, offered a description of how the Palestinian national identity emerged. “Their strong advice to me was: don’t tell your readers our story; tell them your story,” Halevi recalled. “So that’s what I did,” adding: “I tried to stretch my capacity for empathy without forfeiting the integrity of our narrative.”
His letters focus on major dates in the Jewish calendar, including Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, celebrating the fulfillment of the Zionist dream while recognizing the humiliation Palestinians experience over their defeat. “But I cannot apologize for surviving,” he writes.
Halevi observed that the Jewish community tends to speak about Palestinians either with anger over their actions or guilt over how they are treated. “The hardest part for me in writing this book was to find the right tone, so I focused on describing my own experience” as someone who was emotionally on the right in political terms but became a committed centrist for both moral and pragmatic reasons.
He said he came to understand while serving in the IDF in Gaza in the late 1980s that “the left is correct in insisting it is immoral to occupy another people indefinitely, and the right is correct that we have no partner for peace.”
His approach is to recognize the legitimacy of both Israeli and Palestinian claims on all the land – but also to reconcile and end the bloodshed for the sake of both Israel and the Palestinians.
Halevi suggests a religious way of approaching the concept of sharing the land, even for Jews who believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people. He points out that the Torah speaks of relinquishing the land — every seventh year, in part, and every 50th year completely — as a reminder that the Jews merely are the keepers of the land, which belongs to God.
The message Halevi takes from this is that perhaps God intends Jews to share the land with another people. “For me, the very conditionality of ownership, the fact that no one and no people can really own holy land offers a religious basis for sharing the land between us. As custodians, not owners.”
‘A New Narrative’
Of his work at Hartman and his lectures in the U.S. following the publication of his monumental, award-winning last book, “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided A Nation” (Harper, 2013), Halevi said, “we desperately need a new narrative” to reach a new generation of American Jews who are distancing themselves from Israel.
He said that his generation — he was born in 1953 — heard a primarily Ashkenazic tale that begins with Russian pogroms and ends with the Holocaust. “But that’s outdated and hurts Israel, opening us up to the accusation that we’re European colonialists who forced the Palestinians to pay for our suffering” as a result of the Holocaust.
“We’ve forgotten that ours is a 2,000-year-old story of a people, who after being exiled from their land, maintained a relationship to it through memory and anticipation. And why aren’t we telling our stories,” like that of the Soviet Jewry movement, a proud example of how a small group of passionate students and housewives launched an international effort that freed more than a million Jews from oppression? (Halevi was deeply involved in the movement from his early teenage years.)
“I tell my story as a son of a survivor and child of Jewish rebirth rather than Jewish destruction. And I tell of the miracle of the post-Holocaust story in our [Israel’s] rejection of victimhood.” It’s a lesson he feels the Palestinians need to learn, still clinging to their identity as victims.
Halevi says his book arrives at a particularly “dangerous moment” in the Mideast, with Israel facing the prospect of war from the terrorist groups Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard operating in Syria — each an arm of an Iranian theocracy pledged to destroy the Jewish state.
In addition, the Palestinian Authority is refusing to come back to the peace table, convinced that the U.S. is biased against its cause. So there are no prospects for a two-state solution now. And that bleak stalemate has motivated hardliners in both the Palestinian and Israeli camps to call for abandoning the two-solution altogether. They want a one-state solution; for the Palestinian that means no Jewish state, and for the Israelis that means no Palestinian state.
Halevi’s new slogan is “Peace Not Now,” recognizing that while he believes Israel has no partner for peace at the moment, it must keep alive the prospect of a two-state solution down the road by “minimizing the damage, doing everything possible to avoid foreclosing the future.”
That means “speaking to the Palestinians in a language of possible reconciliation” and, in practice, helping the Palestinian economy, putting the brakes on new West Bank settlements and “showing the Palestinians we are serious about strengthening those who want a decent life.”
Halevi is eager to receive responses from Israel’s critics, especially Palestinians, and is already engaged in email conversations with some who have read the advanced copy of his book. As he concludes his introductory note to readers in “Letters”: “This book is an invitation to a conversation in which both sides disagree on the most basic premises. And so I am writing to you, a Palestinian neighbor whom I don’t yet know, with the hope that we may undertake a journey of listening to each other.”
Read excerpts from “Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor” here.
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.