Israeli Journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi’s professional credentials suggest that he should be a cynic, always looking at the glass as half-empty.
Yet, he has a written a book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, which reveals a man still filled with hope — perhaps not much, but some hope — that the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be resolved by a better understanding of each other’s “dreams and fears.”
The book was written from Halevi’s home on French Hill in east Jerusalem from which he can see his neighbor in a Palestinian village just the other side of the wall erected by Israel to stem terrorism, a wall which he describes as an “insult” and a “negation of my deepest hope for Israel, which is to find its place among our neighbors.”
His basic premise is that neither side knows the history of the other, and to develop a constructive reconciliation process, the Palestinians and Israelis need to learn the other’s past and how each defines itself and the other. Thus, he has written this book containing 10 letters, and he invites a response from his neighbor.
He writes that “in the hope that an honest telling of my story may touch you — and help create some understanding, if not agreement, between us — two traumatized people each clinging to the same sliver of land.”
Let’s give Halevi the benefit of the doubt that, indeed, peacemaking has failed because of ignorance of the other side’s history. It seems unlikely that Israelis don’t know the Palestinian story or that Palestinians don’t know their “neighbor’s.”
Also, let us ignore that “a better dialogue” has been proposed endlessly between historic adversaries as, for instance, between blacks and whites since the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Most often such proposals are judged to ignore reality and considered “naïve.”
Regardless, Haveli, Brooklyn-born and educated who made aliyah in 1982, loves Israel and makes his case with passion. In writing the letters, he doesn’t mince words.
He chastises his “neighbor” for rejecting many offers from Israel that would have given Palestinians a state long ago, beginning in 1948 when the Arab nations rejected partition.
He tries to put to bed the political argument that Israel is a product of the Holocaust. (His father, born in Hungary, was a Holocaust survivor). He states emphatically that Israel has a right to the land historically as did Joan Peters, in 1984, in her powerful book, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab–Jewish Conflict over Palestine.
He criticizes Palestinians for fomenting hate, terrorism and an unwillingness to come to the table to talk, and even to acknowledge any legitimacy in Israel’s claim to the land, and their objective to be “free of Israel’s existence entirely.”
But … and it is a big but … while that line of argument is the traditional right-wing view, Halevi also admits that Israel is at fault as well. Specifically, he writes, “Israelis are guilty of failing to treat Palestinians with dignity. Israelis often don’t know how to treat each other with respect, let alone those we are occupying.” He even uses the word “occupying.” He abashedly states that he understands the Palestinians perspective and claims to territory.
“The challenge facing my generation of Israel is to turn outward to you, neighbor, because my future is inseparable from yours,” Halevi observes. Thus, a two-state solution is the only fair outcome for both sides.
He writes: “The ongoing disparity between your hill (on the other side of the wall) and mine challenges my deepest self-understanding and moral commitments as a Jew and an Israeli. Ending that disparity is one reason why I support a two-state solution.”
While defending Israel’s right to all land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, he is “… ready to partition the land, if convinced the trade-off will be peace and not greater terror.”
How far does he go? Answer: “I want my government to stop expanding settlements, not only for your sake, but also for mine.”
To make the book attractive for his “neighbor,” Halevi has made it available in Arabic and it can be downloaded for free.
Halevi, co-director of Jerusalem’s Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute, should receive credit for his effort. He also deserves praise for his passion, writing skills, insights and thought-provoking analysis. It is very moving to read his critique.
While he is probably right in supporting a two-state solution, it won’t come from learning each other’s histories. He is perhaps a little idealistic. A good case can be made that the two sides know the others’ histories but reject that record.
Given Halevi’s ardor, affection for Israel and sympathetic understanding of the Palestinians’ plight, one hopes he will not be disappointed when he does not receive a response, or his letters are considered “undeliverable.”
Berl Falbaum of West Bloomfield is a veteran journalist and author.