Among the defenders of Israel found in the English language press of North America, none is calmer, more reasoned and more effective than Yossi Klein Halevi. His essays have appeared in major newspapers on the continent and he has spoken at universities, community halls and synagogues on behalf of the Jewish state and the justice of its cause.
Halevi combines the sharp eye of a journalist and refined mastery of disciplined, precise writing with the knowledge and temperament of a wizened scholar of Jewish history. Since 1982 the U.S.-born writer has lived in Jerusalem. He is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and the author of two major works, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land, and Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation.
As the titles of his previous works suggest, Halevi does not simply write books. Rather, he plunges into the deep end of vast subjects, explores their mysterious centres and then puts into words the crystal expressions of his thoughts and conclusions.
His third work however, breaks with this pattern.
Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor is a personal cri de coeur addressed to the unidentified Palestinian neighbour who lives just beyond the balcony of his home, on the adjacent hillside, slightly past the border that separates them. As he explains at the outset of the book, this work is “an attempt to explain the Jewish story and the significance of Israel in Jewish identity to Palestinians.” The book is partially the outcome of his work as co-director, together with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, of the Muslim Leadership Initiative, an educational program teaching young emerging Muslim American leaders about Judaism and Israel.
One suspects, however, that it mostly springs from Halevi’s deeply held belief that Israelis and Palestinians must speak honestly and meaningfully to each other if they are ever to step toward a true embrace of co-existence and trust. “We must learn to accommodate each other’s narratives,” Halevi writes. “That is why I persist in writing to you [the unidentified neighbour], why I am trying to reach out across the small space and vast abyss that separates your hill from mine.”
The book is a compilation of 10 “letters” to his anonymous neighbour, each a succinct explanation of a different aspect of Jews, Judaism and Israel.
Halevi’s decision to write this book and to thereby start “a public conversation” with Palestinians exemplifies his determination to help build a bridge between the two societies. “There is a basis,” he writes, “for which to work toward a shared society and identity, however fraught. As a citizen of Israel, I am committed to this effort.”
But his commitment to the effort requires considerable resolve, as well as courage. His views are dismissed on the right wing of Israeli politics as being too gullible, and on the left wing as being too tolerant towards the settlers. Sadly, but not surprisingly, in the mainstream of Palestinian society they are perceived as being yet another effort by the “occupiers” to have Palestinians reconcile with the occupation.
But, thankfully, Halevi perseveres.
No one can accuse Halevi of being naïve in his assessments of the hostility of Israel’s enemies in general or of the duplicity of Palestinian leadership in particular. “I cannot apologize for surviving,” Halevi boldly states. “What almost any Israeli Jew will tell you is that if the Palestinian and Arab leadership had accepted compromise instead of declaring a war to the death, the Palestinian tragedy would not have happened.”
Halevi’s writing is both lyrical and taut. Every page, it seems, features a nugget of compacted history or condensed theology. Like a sparkling gem that attracts the eye, his clean, concise, elegant prose pulls the reader in. It invites re-reading. One marvels at the many aphoristic statements. In a certain sense, Halevi’s writing can be like an archeological hill that compels further digging and exploration below the surface.
For example, in his second letter Halevi discusses the unique effect on Jewish identity of the experience of history as chronological and linear alongside the experience of history as overarching and quasi-metaphysical. He brilliantly titles this letter “Need and Longing.”
“Before I’d even known the land of Israel as actual place, I knew it as inherited memory,” he writes. He then adds, “Israel exists because it never stopped existing, even if only in prayer. Israel was restored by the cumulative power of Jewish longing. But attachment to the land was not confined to longing.” To drive home the point, he writes: “Need gave Zionism its urgency, but longing gave Zionism its spiritual substance. Zionism was the meeting point between need and longing.”
Such statements, whose meanings reach far beyond the mere veneer of their words, abound in each of the 10 letters. Any Jew who has ever lingered over the actual words and meaning of our prayers, or who has ever reflected upon the intentions behind the recitation of the haggadah at the Passover seder, will recognize and ride the wavelength of peoplehood that Halevi assumes in his readers.
And this is the bonus treasure of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. Though addressed to the unidentified Palestinian, the letters form a core instruction to Halevi’s unidentified co-religionists as well, who know so little about their own history, traditions, literature and faith. Sorely and sorrowfully, we suffer these days from a disastrous lack of Jewish knowledge on the part of many young Jews. Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor is an excellent resource text.
Halevi is astute and incisive. It is precisely because of his reputation as a principled, thoughtful, unapologetic advocate for Israel that the sincere, respectful, hopeful tone of his plea is so poignant. That is why Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor is so important and so compelling.
One waits in the hope that it will be reciprocated in equal measure and in equal spirit.