“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” by Yossi Klein Halevi. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2018. 200 pages. $31.
Yossi Klein Halevi certainly is on what he considers to be a holy mission — increasing understanding and goodwill between Israelis and Arabs, Jews and Muslims as an important milestone on the road to the final destination of this journey — Mideast peace.
Nonetheless, this American-born scholar at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem eschews rose-colored glasses. He looks unblinkingly at the truth, even though that truth tends to undermine his own arguments — and push far into the distant future, if ever, the realization of his vision of two peoples living in peace in two states.
Thus, he begins this book, dedicated to explaining Jews, Israelis and Zionism to the Arabs, by making clear why peace with the Palestinians is not in the diplomatic cards in 2018 or in the foreseeable future.
Palestinian leaders have refused to accept Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel or Palestine as legitimate, the author writes. It’s not “a conflict, ultimately, about borders and settlements and Jerusalem and holy places. It is about our right to be here, in any borders. Our right to be considered a people. An indigenous people.”
The official voices of the Palestinian people — in the media, schools and mosques — assert that “[t]here was no ancient Jewish presence here — that is a Zionist lie. No Temple stood on the Mount. The Holocaust, too, is a Zionist hoax, invented to ensure Western support for Israel.” Palestinians consider Israelis to be “a thief without rights to any part of this land, an alien who doesn’t belong here.”
It’s no wonder, then, Klein Halevi notes, that ordinary Israelis who are tired of war and long for peace with their neighbors “regard those leftists who still insist that Palestinian leaders want peace as delusional.”
So peace, certainly in the short term, is impossible. The author, therefore, settles for increasing understanding. This book is a series of letters to his unknown Palestinian neighbor living in the village on the next hilltop over from his home in French Hill in northern Jerusalem. Klein Halevi hopes that by explaining the rationale for Israel and the connection between the Jewish people and state to the Palestinians, he may help change Palestinians’ perception.
He is a powerful advocate for the Jewish state. “Israel exists because it never stopped existing, even if only in prayer,” he writes.
The Zionist movement began at the end of the 19th century. The resurrected Jewish state came into being, he notes, not primarily because there was a growing hatred of Jews in Russia at that time, which spurred pogroms and caused a need for a refuge. He notes that “however desperate the situation, anti-Semitism and the need for refuge didn’t define the essence of Zionism. Need gave Zionism its urgency, but longing gave Zionism its spiritual substance.”
He points to the 1903 Zionist Congress as the best example of how longing trumped need. Despite the desperation of Russian Jews and the failure to convince the Ottoman Turks to permit mass Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel, the Congress rejected the plan to settle Jews in Uganda.
By sticking to Zion as their home, the author writes, “against all odds, no matter the consequences — Zionism affirmed its legitimacy as a movement of repatriation, restoring a native people home.”
One of the Palestinian — and Arab — talking points against the Jewish state is that Jews are not a people, but members of a religious community and are thus undeserving of a state.
But, the author writes, according to Jewish tradition, after mankind failed to live up to God’s plan, God commissioned Abraham to found a people, the Jewish people, to show the way by becoming a “holy nation.” Jews believe that “God’s redemptive plan for humanity required a people to carry that vision through history. For Judaism, then, peoplehood and faith are inseparable. There is no Judaism without a Jewish people.” Israelis have come to recognize the Palestinians as a nation; the Arabs must reciprocate.
Israel’s enemies love to liken the Zionist state to the Turks and the British — and before them the Crusaders — who came and left. But, the author notes, Jews are different from them because while those rulers were outsiders, Jews “didn’t merely come here. We returned.”
The basic problem is that the two peoples have contradictory narratives about the founding of Israel.
This can be seen every year when Israelis joyously celebrate their state’s founding on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day), and the Palestinians mark that same anniversary — on the Gregorian calendar — as Nakba (Catastrophe) Day with angry demonstrations.
That seemingly unbridgeable chasm, Klein Halevi writes, must not be allowed to become a permanent barrier to peace. “Accommodating both our narratives, learning to live with two contradictory stories, is the only way to deny the past a veto over the future.”
While he favors a two-state solution, the author notes that dividing the land will be painful not only to the Palestinians but to Israelis as well. He sees the uprooting of Jewish communities and the partition of the land as “self-mutilation.”
He envisions a future peace accord in which both sides claim all of Israel/Palestine but decide to make “heartbreaking concessions” for peace. “The enemy of justice for both sides is absolute justice for either side,” Klein Halevi writes.
Israelis will make the territorial concessions needed once they become convinced that peace is viable, he writes. But for that to happen, they need to hear from their neighbors that “Israel is here to stay.”
For this well-written book, full of beautifully constructed arguments, to realize its potential, it needs to be read by Palestinians and others in the region. Unfortunately, it’s not very likely that “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” is destined for the best-seller list in Ramallah or Amman.
Nonetheless, it is a plea by a good man — I believe a very good man — for increased understanding between Israel and its neighbors. And, as he ends his book, so we all should say to his hopes for eventual peace, “B’ezrat Hashem. With God’s help. Inshallah.”
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.