Yossi Klein Halevi was born in 1953 in New York City and moved to Israel in 1982. He has attained prominence as an Israeli thinker and author who has written extensively both on modern Israel and his own identity growing up in Brooklyn. He is also a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
During our Write On For Israel mission trip we sat down with Halevi after a lecture he gave in Jerusalem in February for a discussion on both Hartman’s Muslim Leadership Initiative and his upcoming book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” (Harper Collins) which is set to be released this month.
Isaac Hart: Can you talk a little bit about your partnership with Imam Abdullah [of Duke University] on the Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Hartman Institute?
Yossi Klein Halevi: The idea of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) is to teach Judaism, Jewish identity, Israel, and Zionism, to young emerging Muslim-American leaders. The project was Abdullah’s initiative. He came to me and he said that his community doesn’t understand what Israel means to Jews. He said, “We need a program that teaches Muslims how Jews understand their own identity and how Jews understand the place of Israel in their identity. We’re not interested in Hasbara. We’re not interested in being convinced. We want to study. We want to understand you.” The Hartman Institute is a place of study, research, and education and as a result of Abdullah’s request, we put a program together. We’ve now had over 100 people come through the program, including Muslim university chaplains, journalists, writers, high-tech people, community leaders, and they really go through a major transformation. They come out of the program understanding how Jews understand themselves. It’s not that they come out necessarily agreeing more with Israel, but they understand what Israel means to Jews. That’s our goal.
IH: When MLI participants return home, has there been much resistance to Jewish-Muslim partnership?
YKH: A lot of resistance in the Muslim community, a lot. A lot of pushback. Abdullah got death threats. From the Jewish community, it’s mostly been either positive or skeptical. Not really oppositional, but some skepticism, which is fair enough. But there is certainly more interest in both sides.
IH: What do you see actually being accomplished if there is so much skepticism on both sides?
YKH: Well, there’s a lot of openness on the Jewish side, and some openness on the Muslim side. What we’re seeing being accomplished is that relationships are starting to develop. The American Jewish Committee and the largest Muslim-American organization, called ISNA, the Islamic Society of North America, have developed a partnership. They’ve created a Muslim-Jewish council. ISNA would have never in the past joined together with a pro-Israel Jewish organization. That’s an indicator of the transformation that MLI has created in the Muslim community.
Sara Serfaty: When did you start writing “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor?”
YKH: I started it about six or seven years ago, while I was trying to finish “Like Dreamers.” “Like Dreamers” was a very long project; it took me eleven years to do and it wasn’t going well for most of those years. Whenever I got frustrated with it, I would start writing “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” which seemed to be a much easier project. I started it then and I dropped it, and I really picked it up over the last year in a much more intense way and it kind of wrote itself.
SS: Can you elaborate on the writing process?
YKH: “Like Dreamers” was this torturous process because I had to interview people and I had to write about them. With Letters, I’m writing for myself – this is what I think, this is what I believe, this is what I’ve experienced, this is what I experienced as a soldier, as somebody working for peace, as somebody who stopped believing in peace, somebody who’s now trying to believe in peace again. So it’s a very personal book, and that made it a lot easier.
What was hard about the writing process for Letters is that I had to get the tone right. The way that Jews tend to speak to or about Palestinians is in one or two ways. If you’re a left-winger, you apologize to the Palestinians: “I’m so sorry for everything we’ve done to you, I’m sorry for the massacre of Lydda in 1948; I just really feel so terrible that I could have been there and done that.” And if you’re right-wing, you say, “you guys have tried to destroy us, even before we were a state – as soon as the Holocaust was over you tried to destroy us, screw you. You tried to destroy us, you lost, and you’ve been crying about it for seventy years. So don’t expect any sympathy from me, and you don’t even exist as a people, so what are you talking about?” You’re either falling over yourself in apology or you’re really angry, and I found myself going back and forth between both voices when I was writing. Sometimes I would apologize to my neighbor for the occupation, and then I would get upset at myself for apologizing and start getting really angry at this poor, invisible neighbor who doesn’t even exist. And finally, I realized that the book is not about them, it’s about us. I have to tell my story: I’m explaining to a Palestinian who I am, why we’re here, why I moved here, why this place matters to me. My story. Our story. And that’s a totally different kind of tone – I’m not being angry or apologetic and I don’t apologize in this book. I try to empathize; I try to really understand why my neighbor is angry at me, but I also want my neighbor to understand a lot of Jews are angry at them. I didn’t allow myself to get angry at them – I’m an angry Jew, too. Sometimes I’m apologetic, sometimes I’m angry. In this book, I was not apologetic. I just told it: this is who we are.
IH: Is it directed to any specific person?
YKH: No, it’s directed to an anonymous neighbor on the next hill.
IH: You spoke tonight about your attraction to an idea or embrace of contradiction and paradox in your own belief. Has this influenced either your work with Muslim leaders or “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor?”
YKH: Absolutely. I couldn’t be in those kinds of conversations if I wasn’t able to hear opposing points of view, including points of view that I find appalling. You know, I’ve heard things over the years from MLI participants that were really hard. But what I say to them is, “I’m committed to staying in this conversation and hearing just about anything that you have to say if you’re committed to staying in the conversation and hearing what I have to say. And if you are, then I’ll listen and then you’ll listen.” That’s what I’m trying to do with my new book. I’m trying to start a conversation with the Muslim world with this book. I’ve started it on Facebook, if you go onto my Facebook page you’ll see (go down a couple of posts to where I post my book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor) and just start reading some of the comments. I have comments from Palestinians, from Muslims, from right-wing Jews who are angry at me because I use the word Palestinian, from left-wing Jews who are angry at me because I’m not left wing enough. It’s all there, the whole mix is there. In the religions of the East, in India, they call it Mother’s Play, the Divine Mother just kind of likes all the play. And so I look at the posts on my Facebook page as the play.
IH: Is your goal with this Israeli-Palestinian and Jewish-Muslim dialogue merely an exposure to the other side that reduces fanaticism?
YKH: I’d say I have a few goals. One is to present a counter-narrative to the narrative that is widespread in the Muslim world that Israel – and increasingly the Jews – are evil and I want to explain how we see ourselves for two reasons. One is because I think we have to defend ourselves and also because there’s not going to be peace as long as the Muslim world sees us as illegitimate. Israelis are not going to trust the other side. We’re not going to make ourselves more vulnerable if we know the other side thinks we don’t have the right to exist. In that sense, I see this as a prerequisite to peace. Not that I’m looking for Muslims to endorse Zionism. But I need them to understand what it is. Then we can have a different kind of relationship. “Okay, I don’t agree with this, I don’t agree with that, but I understand why the Jews did this and this and how we got to this point. And now, what kind of a future are we going to have?”
SS: Do you have or know any of your Palestinian neighbors and have you had any of these conversations with them?
YKH: I had extensive connections with Palestinians just before the Second Intifada. I wrote a book called At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, which was about my journeys into Palestinian society just before the Second Intifada. So this book, in a way, is a continuation. The Second Intifada and that whole long period interrupted that journey but now I’ve continued it. What I write in the introduction to this book is that in the Garden of Eden book, I was trying to listen to and understand the Palestinians, and in this book I’m trying to explain to them who we are, so it’s the sequel to that journey. I have started showing the book to Palestinians that I know and I am starting to get written responses, and I plan to publish those and start a conversation online. We’re going to have a website and translate these letters into Arabic and send it out.
SS: Did any of those letters give you second thoughts about publishing the book?
YKH: It didn’t give me second thoughts; it deepened my understanding. I wrote the book in the only way that I could from where I was at that moment. These letters are already starting to give me some nuances, and I would have written the book more or less in the same way, but maybe with some more nuance.
Editor’s Note: Our conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
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.