Yossi Klein Halevi has been asked to consider the rather broadly worded topic that he’s coming to Toronto to discuss: “The future of a relationship.”
Does the author and journalist mean the future of Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, its relations with the Diaspora, Israel’s ties to the United States or perhaps its relations with itself?
“I’m actually going to be covering all of our fraught relationships,” Halevi said with a chuckle on the telephone from New York, prior to three Shabbat talks he’s scheduled to deliver at Beth Tzedec Congregation on Nov. 23 and 24.
Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, a heartfelt argument for the need for both sides to stop the war on each other’s narratives – stories and myths that have carved deep scars on both sides’ psyches.
In an interview with The CJN, Halevi called the book “an attempt to tell the story of Israel and the Jewish people to my (Palestinian) neighbours who don’t know our story (and) who are fed a constant diet of lies and half-truths about Jewish history and who the Jews are: that we are not a people, (that) we have no indigenous right to the land.”
Jews must defend their narrative, but also ensure that it is heard, he said. “I don’t believe that real peace will ever be possible if the other side is convinced that we are a nation of thieves, with no story, no legitimacy.”
Among Jews, Halevi sees two Israel-related “commitments”: one defends the Jewish story against growing anti-Zionism, and the other clings to the hope of a two-state solution and peace.
“The implicit argument of my book is that the two commitments are actually complementary, because if we don’t get our story heard, then peace is going to continue to elude us,” he said. “And the Israeli public desperately needs to hear some Palestinian voices engaged in the question of our legitimacy and rootedness in the land that we share with another people.”
Halevi said he has met many Palestinians “who aren’t just fed up with the conflict, but are open to hearing a Jewish narrative, especially one that’s told in religious terms.” Palestinians tend to be religious Muslims, he said, and his book “is written by a religious Jew, to a religious Palestinian Muslim.”
If religion is left out of the search for peace, he believes “it will continue to sabotage peace. Each side needs to dredge up the theological infrastructure that would legitimize painful compromises.”
Halevi has found that the delegitimization of Israel runs deep in Palestinian society and cuts across the political spectrum. Those on the Jewish left, meanwhile, make the “fatal” mistake of continually downplaying Palestinian rejectionism, “and it keeps blowing up in our faces every time we try to negotiate.”
The “hard question,” as he put it, is about Israel’s relations with the Diaspora.
It’s an incomplete list, but thorny issues like conversions, women at the Western Wall and a supposed blacklist of foreign rabbis have contributed to tensions with Diaspora Jews over the years. And in Israel, there’s “deep grievance” towards large parts of the American Jewish community, Halevi claimed.
I don’t believe that real peace will ever be possible if the other side is convinced that we are a nation of thieves.
– Yossi Klein Halevi
“The failure of liberal American Jews to oppose the Iran (nuclear) deal, which we in Israel saw as literally an existential threat, created deep wounds of mistrust within the Israeli government toward American Jews and among Israelis more broadly,” Halevi said.
He called the relationship “a mutual alienation, with shared responsibility.”
But even if Israel had the most accommodating left-wing government, Halevi still doesn’t believe there would be peace because Palestinians “are not yet prepared to come to terms with our legitimacy.”