French Hill is the center of the universe of author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi. It’s a neighborhood in East Jerusalem where his “apartment is in the last row of houses, which you see as steplike structures built into the hillside.”
I grew up not far from those “steplike structures.” When Klein Halevi immigrated to Israel as a young adult in the early 1980s, I was a teenager on the hill next to his, roaming the area with my friends, climbing the rocky terrain, walking for many miles, looking for mild trouble.
From his residence, Klein Halevi sees the “concrete wall that cuts through the landscape we share” — that is, cutting Jerusalem from the West Bank, separating neighborhoods, serving as a barrier, a deterrent and a reminder that not all is well on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
When I was growing up, it was not yet there. There was no need for it because Palestinian violence and resistance to the Israeli 1967 occupation was still mute. If, at that time, I had written “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” the title of Klein Halevi’s new book, they could have been hand delivered. Of course, because there was not much trouble, and because I was still young and more careless, the necessity of any such letters eluded me. Admittedly, I do not know if such letters can be helpful today.
Klein Halevi is a man who has very few, if any, enemies. He’s a man loved by everybody — a quality that can be annoying. While reading his book, you will fall in love with him, too, because the book very much reflects his admirable features: gentleness, soulfulness, cautious optimism. He loves people, friends and enemies alike, and they love him back. He loves his country, Israel; he loves his people, the Jewish people; he loves his culture and religion, Judaism. But then, he also loves Islam, its sacred sites and adherents, and he loves the Palestinian people. And he seems to think that we can all get along lovingly if we only …
His book makes the case that what Israelis and Palestinians need is to better understand one another and have more respect for their competing narratives. “I don’t believe that peace without at least some attempt at mutual understanding can endure,” he writes. “Whatever official document may be signed by our leaders in the future will be undermined on the ground, on your hill and mine.” And by understanding, he doesn’t just mean understanding what happened yesterday or 50 years ago. By understanding, he means understanding everything: What we believe in, what our values are, what our story is dating back thousands of years, what we dream at night, what we ask for in our prayers, and of whom.
In many ways, he turns the Western diplomatic formulation on its head. As he tells it, religion is not the problem, it is the solution; tradition is not the problem, it is the solution.
So his letters tell his side of the story — our side of the story — in the hope that Palestinians would read it. A translation into Arabic is available to download for free. Without asking him, I have no doubt that Klein Halevi is no less interested in the number of copies downloaded for free by Palestinians, than by the number of copies sold in English for a solid price. Yes, I suspect his motivations for writing the book are not material. Some might say that this is also annoying.
The book begins with the destruction of the Temple and ends with the holiday of Sukkot. On French Hill, Klein Halevi builds his sukkah, from which he can “clearly see three distinct political entities. The sovereign territory of the state of Israel ends at the wall. In the distance is the Palestinian Authority. And in the farthest distance, the hills of Jordan.” Yet, the book is hardly one about “political entities” in the naked, secular, businesslike sense. It is about the history of the Jewish people, about their beliefs and customs, about their traumas and fears, about their redemption and joy. It is a story from which a Palestinian could benefit, and also a book from which many Jews could benefit — a comprehensive, yet easy to digest, introduction to our story. The story of the Jews and their land.
Klein Halevi is a spiritual man, and his story of the conflict is a spiritual story, and his proposed remedy for the conflict is a spiritual remedy. In many ways, he turns the Western diplomatic formulation on its head. As he tells it, religion is not the problem, it is the solution; tradition is not the problem, it is the solution.
In fact, Klein Halevi might convince you that ignoring religion, ignoring tradition, ignoring myths, ignoring theological conundrums is the problem. The “peace process” tended to treat religious Israelis and Palestinians as obstacles to peace — they are the radicals, the conservatives, the belligerent, the ignorant, the non-forward-looking — without realizing that untying the knot of tradition is the only way to achieve real peace. Not a peace of signed papers — a peace of minds and souls.
In fact, this book is an attempt to fix this fatal flaw that mired all peace processes and all attempts at resolving the conflict. An attempt to fill in the gaps that negotiators and observers — most of whom are secular, modern, unburdened by traditions and theologies — tended to neglect. Klein Halevi doesn’t talk much about security arrangements, geopolitical considerations, economic agreements or legal complexities. He talks about myths and religion, about ancient texts and their contemporary meaning. He talks about a sacred land that cannot be traded offhandedly. He talks about traumas and empathy.
In the chapter about the Holocaust, Klein Halevi argues that its psychological aftermath is “devastating” not just for Jews but also for Palestinians. “The war against Israel’s existence has reawakened old demons in new form. When the worst Jewish fears are incited, your suffering becomes, for us, not a tragedy to redress but a threat to rebuff.” In other words, if the Palestinians or their supporters speak or act in ways that echo the tragic past, Israel’s instinctive response is to be aggressive.
Holocaust denial is a root cause of the ongoing conflict, Klein Halevi argues, including Holocaust denial in hard or soft forms (accusing Israel of committing crimes much like the Nazis is also a form of Holocaust denial). His book doesn’t mention it, but recent comments made by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas prove this point.
Yet, denying the Jewish narrative doesn’t begin nor end with the Holocaust. It begins with the allegation that Jews have nothing to do with the land of Israel. “When Palestinian Authority president Abbas would speak of Jerusalem, he’d invoke the Muslim and Christian historical presence and pointedly omit the Jewish presence,” Klein Halevi writes. His retelling of the story of Jewish connection to the land is aimed at convincing his Palestinian neighbor to reconsider, to accept that the Jews are an indigenous people.
“If you were in my place, neighbor, what would you do? Would you take the chance and withdraw to narrow borders and trust a rival national movement that denied your right to exist?” — Yossi Klein Halevi
Klein Halevi also retells the story of early Zionism, to rebuke the common myth that Israel is a compensation that the Europeans agreed to pay the Jews to remedy the damage of the Holocaust. He tells the tale of non-European Jews who fled their countries and are not living in Israel. He tells the stories of 1947 and of 1967 — the latter being the main actor in Klein Halevi’s previous book, “Like Dreamers.”
He explains how the Jewish settler movement began, the motivation behind it, and the moment when he no longer accepted its motivations and actions. It was “in Hebron that my romance with the settlement movement ended. On an autumn night in 1984, I went to report on a Jewish celebration that was happening in the streets of Hebron. It was the night after Simchat Torah, the festival when Jews dance with Torah scrolls to mark the completion of the annual cycle of biblical readings in the synagogue. … To accommodate the celebration, the army had shut the streets. … I saw Jews raising Torah scrolls, which contain the injunction to remember that we were strangers in Egypt and so we must treat the stranger fairly, dancing in the streets emptied of their Palestinian neighbors.”
It is easy to believe the author. He is a wonderful writer with an uncanny ability to be not just a good storyteller but also a good listener. “For me the compelling Palestinian argument against partition is the more straightforward one,” he writes. “As I’ve often heard Palestinians put it: If a stranger squatted in your home, would you accept dividing the house with him? Even if he gave you three rooms and kept ‘only’ two, would you regard that compromise as fair?”
Of course, it doesn’t end here. We’re not supposed to be convinced that the Palestinian narrative is more tragic than ours, but rather to be convinced that it is profound enough for us to take into account. Or, to put it more accurately: Palestinian readers are supposed to be persuaded that the author cares about their narrative, and they are also supposed to care about the author’s.
I suspect this message is tailored not just to catch the eye and gain the confidence of Palestinian readers, but also to gain the confidence of young liberal Jews in the United States (possibly the primary target audience of this book).
So it is easy to believe him, but in all honesty, it is also easy to question his message’s prospects for success. Klein Halevi prays a lot. While sitting at home or visiting the Cave of the Patriarchs, he prays the kind of prayer that has a disarming quality. Wrapped in his tallit, head bowed, lips whispering, eyes shut — there is nothing intimidating about his presence, nothing threatening. In the cynical world of politics, such a posture can be a surprise maneuver that catches everyone off guard — or it can be a naïve posture that catches no one.
To believe that this book can have an impact on Palestinians and Jews, one has to accept two premises: First, that people are ready to be convinced by the stories of others; and second, that what prevents Palestinians and Israelis from achieving peace is a lack of sufficient knowledge. “If you were in my place, neighbor, what would you do? Would you take the chance and withdraw to narrow borders and trust a rival national movement that denied your right to exist?” Klein Halevi asks. His supposition is that a negative answer — “No, I would not withdraw” — must prompt understanding and, hence, acceptance of Israel’s refusal to withdraw. Then again, I’m not sure this is how it works. Maybe a Palestinian answer would be: No, I would not withdraw, and I still want you to withdraw.
And there’s another problem — well, it’s not a problem, but it could seem like a problem to some readers. Klein Halevi wants something that many Israelis and Palestinians don’t currently want. He wants division of the land and separation of the people. He wants the “two-state solution.” Klein Halevi believes in an arrangement that many of Israel’s Jews have ceased to believe in (at least for now). In other words, by telling the story of the Jews the author attempts to convince the Palestinians to accept a deal in which many of his fellow Jews have lost faith.
The bottom line is obvious: No book can ever resolve an intractable conflict. We have yet to see if the Palestinian neighbors of Klein Halevi will read his letters. Let’s hope they do.
In the meantime, what’s left is you and me, the people who grapple with this issue, the people who have doubts and questions, the people who feel uncomfortable but aren’t sure why, the people with conflicting impulses about an unbearable conflict. By providing an honest, soulful and balanced recap of two emotional narratives, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” has given us a spiritual roadmap, if not to peace, then at least to hope.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.
Rosner’s Torah Talk: Bamidbar with Rabbi Yehuda Ferris