Yossi Klein Halevi’s ‘Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor’
Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi (Harper, 204 pp. $24.99)
Yossi Klein Halevi’s new book solidifies the author’s place as one of the most influential Jewish voices today. His 10 beautifully crafted letters are primarily directed to an imaginary Palestinian neighbor. Clearly, however, they are also intended for a wider readership that includes the vast Arab and Muslim worlds, fellow Israelis, Jews in the Diaspora and all people interested in a thoughtful, sensitive and politically balanced Jewish-Israeli perspective on the seemingly intractable conflict.
The author’s core message: Jews are a people, not merely a religious category, as most Palestinian leaders assert; they have returned to their ancient homeland (“re-indigenized”) and are entitled to national self-determination; and only when Palestinians recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish people’s profound spiritual and historical attachment to Israel can there be hope for genuine and lasting reconciliation. “More than anything else,” he writes to his Palestinian neighbor, “I need you to understand this: The Jews succeeded where the Crusaders and the Ottomans and the British failed because we didn’t merely come here. We returned.”
Most Jewish Israelis, the author argues, have come further than Palestinians in seeing the conflict as a “tragedy being played out between two legitimate national movements.” At the same time, he does not withhold criticism of the current right-wing Israeli government, which “speaks only a language of security and threat” and continues to expand settlements, thus eroding Palestinian confidence in Israel’s genuine commitment to peace.
Halevi appreciates Palestinians’ yearning for all of Palestine—he does not begrudge them their maps that omit Israel—just as he feels a deep connection to the entire Land of Israel. Yet, he unequivocally rejects the so-called one-state solution that “would condemn us to a nightmare entwinement.” Dividing the land into two states may be an act of injustice to our dreams, he writes, but “however painfully, I accept partition as the practical expression of resolving a conflict between two legitimate claims.”
The book is being translated into Hebrew and Arabic, the latter version available to download for free in the hope that it will be widely read in the Arabic-speaking world. At the same time, I kept thinking how much young American Jews, distanced as they are from the seminal Jewish and Israeli events of the 20th century, will also benefit from this tightly woven and inspiring narrative of our people. The author takes us on a personally guided tour through Jewish history, from ancient times to the emergence of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century, from compelling stories surrounding the ingathering of Jewish immigrants from around the world to the forging of an economically robust, pluralistic and democratic Israel. The complex challenges and dilemmas of modern Israel, such as the relationship between religion and state and the status of Israel’s Arab citizens, are also explored in a succinct and highly accessible manner.
“I hope the time will come,” the author writes, “when we no longer feel the need to argue over our shared traumatic past and will instead be focused on our shared future.” This book, utilizing the powerful vehicle of empathy, has great potential to help heal that trauma. With the hope for two states for two peoples receding, I intend to purchase multiple copies as gifts not only for my Palestinian friends, but with no less urgency, for my Jewish friends as well.
Martin J. Raffel is a former senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.