Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: Yossi Klein Halevi’s Call Across the Wall

IMG_6997I don’t talk much on this blog about Palestine and Israel, even though you’ll see a link here to my 2014 book, A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel and Palestine.  That’s partly due to the fact that the commitment of this site is to understanding rural life and ministry, particularly in the United States.

“But wait!” you may be saying.  “I saw your review of the Skylight Inn BBQ.  I saw your takedown of online surveys.  Heck, I even saw that ridiculous picture you posted of a screen window captioned with a dad joke.  Your editorial standards are pretty darn lax.  I think you could fit in more about one of the major conflicts in the world today.”

To which I say, “Thanks!  I had no idea you were reading so closely!”  But also.  Yes.

In my defense (and just why am I being defensive, anyway?), I did post a reflection last fall after my last trip to the region.  But there’s more to say.  Much more.  And some of it feels like a strange mirror on our own divides here in the U.S.

Reading Yossi Klein Halevi’s exquisite new book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, I am aware of how much Halevi’s way of talking about the conflict has given me a language for speaking about it.  Halevi is an American-born Israeli who lives in the French Hill neighborhood of East Jerusalem, separated by mere yards (and a security barrier) from his Palestinian neighbors who live…where?  Palestine?  The West Bank?  The Occupied Territories?  Judea?  The conflicting names for the same land form part of the disparity Halevi wants to overcome in this book, which is structured as ten letters intended for his unknown neighbors on the next hill.

Halevi has been attempting this journey for many years, though he started out as an unlikely candidate for the job.  A writer and commentator, Halevi began as a right-wing Jewish idealist.  His vision for the land of Israel included not only the West Bank of the Jordan, but the eastern bank as well.  

Since the 1980s when he moved there permanently, however, Halevi has been evolving along with his country.  “Few societies are as malleable, so prone to fundamental change in so short a time, as Israel,” Halevi says. (172) And he himself has undergone major shifts, thanks to a stint as a soldier patrolling Gaza, a spiritual journey into the Palestinian territories in the late 1990s that resulted in his first book, At the Entrance of the Garden of Eden, and his current role as a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he has been trying to build bridges with American Muslim leaders.

I met Halevi in 2011 on my first trip to Israel.  He is a wise, warm soul who is more than ready to acknowledge that Israel has its flaws.  The 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation?  “It was your side that suffered the most devastating consequences,” he tells his interlocutor.  “Some 700,000 Palestinians became refugees.” (82)  The occupation?  “It penetrates the soul” and Israel must end it “not just for your sake but for ours.” (108) The fatal flaw of the settlement movement? “The sin of not seeing, of becoming so enraptured with one’s own story, the justice and poetry of one’s national epic, that you can’t acknowledge the consequences to another people of fulfilling the whole of your own people’s dreams.” (106)

Yossi Klein Halevi

But don’t let these insights convince you that Halevi is a dove.  He sets out with all his spiritual openness to understand the Palestinian situation, but he is just as insistent that the Israeli narrative be heard as well.  “Can we,” he asks, “see each other as two traumatized peoples, each clinging to the same sliver of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, neither of whom will find peace or justice until we make our peace with the other’s claim to justice?” (21)

For the Palestinian neighbor to see this, s/he must hear about the long longing of the Jewish people, which was always a desire for return to this land.  In the 19th century, “the impetus for creating a political expression of the longing for return—restoring the Jewish relationship to Zion from time back into space—was dire need,” a need for an end to homelessness and persecution that gave birth to Zionism. (35)  

The only home that the Jews had ever had was in this land.  When suggestions were made that perhaps another place might suffice, (Uganda was offered in 1903), the Zionists refused the option of becoming colonialists and pursued the dream of return.   And when the opportunity arose, they came, from Eastern Europe, yes, but from all across the Arab world as well, to join the Jews who had remained in the land.

Halevi effectively shows the inaccuracy of the saying that Holocaust guilt in the West led to the establishment of Israel.  But the Holocaust lingers in the Israeli determination never to be victims again.

“Jewish history…spoke to my generation with two nonnegotiable commandments.  The first was to remember that we’d been strangers in the land of Egypt and the message was: Be compassionate.  The second commandment was to remember that we live in a world in which genocide is possible, and that message was: Be alert.  When your enemy says he intends to destroy you, believe him.” (110)

These commandments haunt the Israeli response to Palestinians today.  They are, at the same time, called to see and respect the Palestinian, but also take seriously the constant denials of Israel’s legitimacy that permeate Palestinian media and culture.

“We are trapped, you and I, in a seemingly hopeless…’cycle of denial.’ Your side denies my people’s legitimacy, my right to self-determination, and my side prevents your people from achieving national sovereignty.  The cycle of denial defines our shared existence, an impossible intimacy of violence, suppression, rage, despair.  That is the cycle we can only break together.” (115-6)

There is so much more here, as there is to any discussion of this seemingly bottomless relationship between the two peoples.  Halevi pushes hard on the religious understandings of both sides, believing that diplomats have been wrong to ignore this dimension.  “For peace to succeed in the Middle East,” he says, “it must speak in some way to our hearts.” (7)  In doing so, Halevi mostly reduces the conflict to Jews and Muslims, despite the fact that Christians still make up a significant minority of the Palestinian population.

The one place where a Christian does make an impact on Halevi’s story is on a joint pilgrimage to Auschwitz.  A Melkite priest from Nazareth, Abuna Emile Shoufani, takes a group of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis to the concentration camp—a group that included Halevi.  Despite his skepticism, Halevi was moved by the experience and appreciated Shoufani’s idealism.  “A Christian with an open heart to both sides had managed to bring Muslims and Jews together in Auschwitz.” (189)

American Christians try to bring so much intensity to Israel and Palestine.  We either accept Israel uncritically as a sign of God’s end-time plans or attack it mercilessly for the suffering of the occupation.  We are generally pragmatists who want to choose sides and fix things.

But what the Christian Shoufani brought was an openness to hear and see the people in front of him, in all of their humanity and with all of their story.  It’s the same openness Halevi is striving for.  He recognizes that the ongoing conflict is devastating to both peoples and it is “a spiritual crisis.” (186).  He wants to be heard, but he is listening, too.  There’s no better introduction to the heart of the Israeli people than this powerful book.

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