November 14, 2018

Bluntness, Forgiveness, Better Conversations

Yossi Klein Halevi

A day before Yom Kippur, I asked Yossi Klein Halevi for forgiveness. He graciously granted it, and then we had a conversation about why I made him upset. It was a conversation worth repeating at the end of a holiday season and the beginning of the long slog of a new year.

Halevi is one of my favorite people and writers. I consider his book “Like Dreamers” to be a work of rare quality. But he was not quite happy with my review of his most recent book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.” He felt it was somewhat testy. And I must admit that he is right. “In the cynical world of politics,” I wrote about Halevi’s spiritual self-portrayal in the book, “such a posture can be a surprise maneuver that catches everyone off guard — or it can be a naïve posture that catches no one.”

He thought that I made him look naïve, and he is not naïve. In fact, there are very few things on which he and I do not agree. So what was the point of the testiness? I gave Halevi an answer that I will now share with you, not because I know it is a good answer but rather because I am still undecided. My answer is basically: Halevi’s tone in the book annoyed me. He says many right things, but his tone is considerate and understanding. Too soft for my taste.

It is worth having a conversation about the tone of articles and the level of understanding needed as one writes about Israelis and Palestinians. Halevi told me, by way of example, that he thought my tone in a story I wrote about Gaza for The New York Times was much too harsh. Indeed, it was. Purposefully so. I wrote that “I feel no need to engage in ingénue mourning” over the death of Gazans who attempt to infiltrate Israel. “Guarding the border was more important than avoiding killing, and guarding the border is what Israel did successfully.”

Do I lose control of my message when I write in a fashion that seems blunt? Does Halevi lose something when he wraps his own message in compassion?

Halevi said such tone might work with Israelis but will not get me to where I want with other important groups of readers, such as liberal American Jews or Palestinians. He believes that it is crucial to reach out to the Palestinians, despite all we know about their national movement. As he told me when I was writing this column, we need “to stretch our capacity for empathy without, crucially, giving up our narrative.”

So, this conversation is not just about tone. It is about sensibility. It is also about differences of culture, about the impact of writings on the readers, about the advantages and disadvantages of detached bluntness versus embracing empathy. It is worth asking: Do I lose control of my message when I write in a fashion that seems blunt? Does Halevi lose something when he wraps his own message in compassion? The answer to both questions is probably yes. The answer to both questions is probably that we need both the softer language and the harsher one in our conversation — certainly in the conversation about the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I have no choice but to admit that Halevi has a much better way of communicating with crowds that I cannot reach. Crowds that will not even listen to me. When my story on Gaza was published, I received more than a few threats, was called a Nazi by dozens of readers, was caricatured as blood-thirsty, and my attitude was described as “barbaric.” Did I convince anybody? It is hard for me to tell. But maybe convincing people that Israel must do what it does in Gaza was not my intention. Maybe my intention was to convince the readers that Israel will keep doing what it does no matter what they think. 

As I already hinted, a lot of it is about temper and about having patience. Halevi seems to still believe that with a message crafted in the right way, he can win over Israel skeptics and possibly even Palestinians (even though some Palestinians responded dismissively). I did not lose hope as much as I lost patience. Do I really need to be more understanding of Palestinians’ sentiments as I argue that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is the right move? Do I really want to be more understanding as I speak about the charade of Palestinian “right of return”? Yes, Halevi said. You must do this to be effective. You must do this to re-engage with both Palestinians and most readers of his book — that is, American Jews. 

What’s the bottom line? I admitted that I am not sure. For now, I will make it easy for myself and argue that both gentleness and bluntness are needed. Gentleness — for Halevi for to get the message through. Bluntness — for me to make sure that Halevi’s gentle message isn’t misunderstood.  


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.

New York Times Publishes a Rejection of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Plea for Reconciliation

Yossi Klein Halevi

If you want to better understand why peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a hopeless illusion, read Raja Shehadeh’s response in The New York Times this week to Yossi Klein Halevi’s soulful and conciliatory “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.”

Instead of responding in kind, Shehadeh falls back on the tired trope of chronic victimhood that has served only to perpetuate Palestinian misery. In this narrow view, every Palestinian woe is Israel’s fault; and Palestinians are a weak people with no agency just waiting for big, bad Israel to “withdraw from the territories it has occupied and leave us to go on with our lives.”

Shehadeh, who’s an author and an intellectual, knows better than to simplify such a bedeviling conflict whose complexity Halevi tried to honor. He knows, for example, that on the very day the IDF would abandon the territories, terror groups like Hamas and ISIS would jump to try to fill the vacuum and massacre Palestinians, just like Hamas did in Gaza.

But such complexity plays no role in Shehadeh’s takedown of Halevi’s offer to embark “on a journey of listening to each other.”

Shehadeh acknowledges that Halevi recognizes the importance of a Palestinian “counterstory,” one of “invasion, occupation and expulsion,” a history of “dislocation” and “humiliating defeats.” But how does he respond to such humility and contrition? By blasting Halevi for being “condescending” and for focusing so much of his book on trying to help Palestinians understand the Zionist story that is ingrained in Halevi’s soul.

Shehadeh also knows better than to casually dismiss Israeli offers of peace rejected by Palestinians as “old and discredited narratives.” He can’t even bring himself to admit that Palestinians are partly responsible for the absence of peace. The furthest he will go is to say, “I was involved in the Oslo negotiations and I can tell you that Israel shares plenty of responsibility for their failure.”

Everything else in his piece is a hodgepodge of polite aggression disguised as sophisticated lamentations. He claims that, “To make peace possible the Palestinians are not required to become Zionists,” as if Halevi ever asked for that. Betraying his intent to undermine Halevi’s book, he twists a plea to “understand us” into a demand to “become Zionist.”

Perhaps the deepest sign of his bad faith is when he admits to having zero interest in Israelis understanding his narrative: “Unlike you,” he writes triumphantly, “I will not demand that you see the Nakba, the catastrophe that Israel’s founding caused for my people, in the same way as I see it.”

Why? Because “You couldn’t.” Shehadeh is so drenched in smug victimhood that he can’t possibly imagine a Jewish neighbor being able to understand his narrative—not even a neighbor who has already made a genuine effort to do precisely that.

What he wants is that Israel recognizes its responsibility and “put a recognition of that culpability on the agenda for negotiations when the time comes for arriving at a settlement between us.”

But that time will never come if the Shehadehs of the Palestinian world continue to treat Palestinians as hopeless victims who are too weak to ever understand the authentic longings of their Jewish neighbors.

No Rabbi – It’s Not Jewish Love for Our ‘Historical, Religious Narrative’ That Prevents Peace

Photo from Pixabay.

On the 10th of Tammuz (in the Hebrew calendar) the last king of Israel, King Zedekiah, was captured by the Babylonians, who had conquered Jerusalem the day before. Zedekiah was captured after he fled Jerusalem through a subterranean tunnel to Jericho. Exactly 2,606 years later, an article was published in the Forward by American Rabbi Philip Graubart titled “‘Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor’ Is Not The Book We Need Right Now.

I have to admit, when I first saw the title, I thought the article would be about how even though most “moderate” elements of Palestinian leadership: (a) engage in blatant Holocaust denial; (b) promote vicious anti-Semitic canards, such as Jews poison water wells; and (c) deny any Jewish historical connection to the land of Israel — all while promoting and rewarding the murder of Jews (such as through the Palestinian Authority’s “Pay to Slay” program), that this article would argue that we need to wait for a massive sea change in Palestinian Arab culture and leadership before Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” could make a credible difference and help advance the peace process.

Instead, this article took the opposite approach and actually accused Halevi of being too jingoistic, too stuck in the Jewish “narrative.”

Imagining a “Palestinian moderate,” who has never assumed leadership among the various Arab groups representing the Palestinians, Graubart posits that after reading Halevi’s book, this imaginary Palestinian Arab moderate might say to Halevi “why waste time with you? … we already agree on the basics.

Reading such a statement raises the question, what “basics” does Rabbi Graubart think Palestinian Arab “moderates” agree on with Halevi? As should be clear from Halevi’s scholarship, he believes Jews have a deep historical, religious and national connection to the land of Israel. As should be also clear to anyone paying attention, the “moderate leaders” among the Palestinians who run the Palestinian Authority (who are also sadly the least rabidly Jew-hating and extremist among the various Palestinian Arabs factions who have any chance of ruling any Palestinian state in the near future), do not believe the Jewish people are even a people, let alone a people who have a deep 3,300 year old love affair with the land of Israel.

As recently as January 15, 2018 Mahmoud Abbas, the “President for Life” of the Palestinian Authority, gave a speech where he said: Israel is a colonial project that has nothing to do with Jews.” This same “moderate” leader not only wrote a thesis back in 1982 at the Russian Academy of Sciences, which denies and trivializes the Holocaust, and is a featured part of the current curriculum in Palestinian Authority schools; he also, on April 30, 2018, gave a speech where he once again trivialized the Holocaust and said that to the extent the Nazis murdered Jews, their murder was not caused by anti-Semitism, but by … “Jewish financial behavior.”

So again, what “basics” does Graubart think the “moderate Palestinian” and Halevi agree on?

Then apparently ignoring the last 100 years of history (at least), Graubart claims that the main problem with Halevi’s book is that it makes claims – mostly about Halevi’s “loving embrace of religious biblical narrative” – that “no Palestinian could accept” and that the “biblical impulse to build settlements in the West Bank [Judea and  Samaria] is precisely what’s sabotaged an agreement.”

So the “moderate” Palestinian Arab leadership turn down offers in 1937, 1948, 1967, 2000, 2001, and 2008 to have the first-ever independent Arab state west of the Jordan River, and it is the desire of Jews to establish and live in Jewish communities in their biblical homeland that “sabotaged” a peace agreement? It wasn’t Arafat’s rejection in 2000 of an offer to have an independent Palestinian Arab state in all of Gaza and over 90% of Judea & Samaria, and his decision to instead launch the Second Intifada, which led to the murder of more than 1,000 Jews? It wasn’t Mahmoud Abbas’s rejection – without a counteroffer – of an even better offer from Israel in 2008? It wasn’t the decision to turn land Israel fully relinquished (the Gaza strip in 2005) into a terror state run by a genocidal organization whose very Charter calls for the murder of every Jew on the planet, including Graubart?

No. According to Graubart, it isn’t Palestinian anti-Semitism, the Palestinian dismissal of any Jewish connection to the land of Israel or even the Palestinian rejection (in favor of violence) of offer after offer to have an independent Arab state in a land where there has never been one before in history that is to blame for the absence of a peace agreement. It is the Jews’ “biblical impulse” to live in Judea that is the problem.

Graubart even disparages the “impulse” of Jews to live in Hebron, one of the most holy and historically important cities for the Jewish people. Hebron, a city where Jews have lived for centuries and where our ancestors in 1929 were literally massacred, ethnically cleansed from and prevented from returning to (by the Jordanian Army after it illegally conquered and controlled all of Judea and & Samaria in 1949). Per Graubart, however, it is the “religious longing” of Jews to live in places like Hebron that is the obstacle to peace, all while 1.5 million Arabs can live among more than 6 million Jews in Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv Yafo, etc. without their presence “sabotaging” peace.

There is so much that is problematic with this perspective it is difficult to know where to start. Perhaps the most obvious problem is that, just like most arguments of the “blame Israel” camp, Graubart’s open letter to Halevi implies the Palestinian Arabs have no agency or responsibility for their actions, and that peace (or the lack thereof) is solely a function of what we Jews choose to do (or not do). The other problem is that this article completely whitewashes nearly 100 years of Arab rejection of peace in favor of violence and more than 1,400 years of Arab persecution of Jews throughout the Middle East, as well as the widely held belief among far too many Arabs that Jews can only be second class (dhimmi) in Arab conquered land, never sovereign and independent.

What Graubart’s piece (albeit likely unwittingly) does a great job of capturing, is the growing divide between many secular Jews in the United States  and the overwhelming majority of Jews in Israel. Jews, like Yossi Klein Halevi, who are in Israel considered quite moderate or even left-leaning.

This divide is represented most strikingly in Graubart’s article where he writes the following illuminating and astonishing paragraph directed at Halevi:

“In fact, if your book taught me anything, it’s that we must begin the admittedly difficult process of privileging basic values over national, religious narratives. In discussing Arab rejectionism after the Six-Day War, you write, ‘What people, in our place, would have resisted reclaiming land it regarded as its own for thousands of years?’ But the answer to this question is obvious: a people who valued peace and democracy and human rights over historical/religious narrative. People who weren’t willing to sabotage future peace negotiations by giving in to religious longings, no matter how deeply felt. People who loved peace more than they loved the ancient stories of their people. In other words, people like you and me and many Jews, in Israel and out. But not, sadly, enough.”

Wow. I agree with Graubart on one thing for certain. This is “sad.” It is sad that it is becoming more and more evident that many Jews living in relative safety in the United States  have not internalized the lessons most Jews in Israel have learned from the history of the last 100 years. It also becoming more and more evident that many of today’s secular leaning Jews in America are not very different from the many Jews in America who before 1940 rejected the very idea of Jews seeking sovereignty and independence in our indigenous homeland.

After all, if we just “privileged basic values” (depending – of course – on whose “basic values” we are talking about) “over national, religious narratives,” then why drain swamps, irrigate deserts, establish fence and stockade kibbutzim all over the land of Israel (where you were certain to be plagued by malaria and were almost always immediately attacked by your Arab neighbors)? Why revive Hebrew from being not only our religious tongue but our national language? Why even fight for our freedom and independence against five Arab armies and nearly a half-dozen Arab militias sworn to snuff out our independence before it even happened?

After all, if we value “peace” above everything else, then we could all just give up on our indigenous faith, stop being “stiff-necked” Jews, and convert to either Christianity or Islam or perhaps to the new pseudo-religion of “secular-humanism.” If only, our forefathers had thought of this solution … Plainly, that would have made the Jew-haters much happier and much more “peaceful” toward us.

Thankfully, most of our forefathers didn’t think abdicating our religious values and our “religious longings” to live in Zion was the way to go, as not only would there be no modern state of Israel today, but Graubart would also have needed to find a very different job; as by now the world would have been Jew-free and Judaism would be like the ancient faiths of Minoanism, Mithraism, and Ashurism After all, if we valued “peace” above everything else, including the justice of Jews being able to live anywhere in the land of Israel, then is there anything worth fighting for?

Of course, by Graubart’s definition, the Maccabees would also be disparaged as people who were “willing to sabotage future peace negotiations by giving in to religious longings.” A people unwilling to “love peace more than they loved the ancient stories of their people.” After all, the Hellenists “just” wanted us to accept their “narrative” and to stop insisting on our sovereignty and freedom in our religious, historical and indigenous homeland; just like so many Hellenized or Islamized people do today.

Today, most Palestinian Arabs reject the idea that there were ever Maccabees who fought to liberate the land of Israel and Jerusalem from the yoke of the Hellenists. And this is where Graubart is the most mistaken in his rejection of Halevi’s book. Graubart assumes it is the Jewish respect and love of our “historical/religious narrative” that is somehow the obstacle to peace. The reality is that it is, and has always been, the Arab rejection of Jewish history and our deep connection to the land of Israel that is the obstacle to peace. The Arab rejection of the fact (not “narrative”) that 2,606 years before Graubart published his article that there was a Jewish king named Zedekiah fleeing the Babylonians and their destruction of the first Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

And that is the ultimate message of Halevi’s book. In order for there to be peace, the Palestinian Arabs are going to have to meet us halfway and stop asking us to accept that their relatively new Palestinian identity deserves two independent Arab states in the former British Mandate for Palestine (as Jordan is the first); all while they reject more than 3,000 years of Jewish history and Jewish sovereignty anywhere in the land of Israel.

As should be painfully apparent, there are many other things wrong with this open letter to Halevi, but the most glaring problem is the willingness to disparage the “historical, religious narrative” of our people, which is at the core for why we finally have an independent and sovereign state in our indigenous homeland after 2,000 years of recurring persecution, oppression and mass murder of Jews in the Diaspora.

Micha Danzig served in the Israeli Army and is a former police officer with the NYPD. He is currently an attorney and is very active with numerous Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, including Stand With Us, T.E.A.M. and the FIDF. He is also a frequent guest on the One America News Network, including shows like The Tipping Point and The Daily Ledger where he is called on to discuss matters related to Israel and the Middle East.

Yossi Klein Halevi and the Art of Love

Does the Jewish world need another book on the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The very word “intractable” suggests that we don’t. We’re creatures of results. We like to fix things and move on. If a problem is insoluble, we tend to lose interest.

The problem with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, is that we can’t afford to move on. It’s more than a problem — it’s a ticking clock. Continuing with the status quo puts Israel at risk of becoming either a non-Jewish state or an undemocratic state — which are unacceptable options. That’s why there will always be an audience for new ideas, new thinking — anything — that can bring us hope for an eventual solution.

In that sense, my friend Yossi Klein Halevi’s new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” has come at a perfect time.

The reason I say this is not because he has found a magical solution — there isn’t any. Rather, it is because the level of discourse in Jewish America about the conflict has coarsened and shriveled.

Defenders of Israel are convinced you can’t negotiate with those who want to kill you. Critics of Israel act as if the solution is all in Israel’s hands. In particular, among a new generation of Jewish activists, the conversation has turned into a virtual temper tantrum, with protesters blowing off steam with simple-minded calls to “End the Occupation,” as if it were that easy. These protesters have updated Herzl’s famous dictum — in their case, “If you scream it, it is no dream.”

Yossi wants his Palestinian neighbor to appreciate the sacred depth of the Jewish connection to the Holy Land.

There’s something poignantly sad about all this. As if the intractability of the conflict weren’t bad enough, it has had the unfortunate side effect of making Jews turn on each other with anger and bitterness. Because there’s no solution in sight, time has become an enemy. Each side has dug in deeper. We’re down to hand-to-hand combat.

Into this communal food fight comes Yossi Klein Halevi with an invitation for all of us to take a deep breath and return to our core. In telling Israel’s story to a fictitious Palestinian neighbor, he’s as raw and honest and passionate as can be. But here’s the thing — he’s equally raw and honest and passionate when acknowledging the story of his neighbor. This is what disarms the reader, whether Arab or Jewish, right or left.

“We are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home,” he writes at the beginning of his first letter. “We are living incarnations of each other’s worst historical nightmares.”

This sets the tone for a book that will aim to do the impossible: to offer hope where there is none. Through the alchemy of love, candor and empathy, Yossi hopes to redeem the very idea of hope. And God is never far from the picture.

Through the alchemy of love, candor and empathy, Yossi hopes to redeem the very idea of hope. And God is never far from the picture.

“As a religious person, I am forbidden to accept this abyss between us as permanent, forbidden to make peace with despair,” he writes. “As the Qur’an so powerfully notes, despair is equivalent to disbelief in God. To doubt the possibility of reconciliation is to limit God’s power, the possibility of miracle — especially in this land. The Torah commands me, ‘Seek peace and pursue it’ — even when peace appears impossible, perhaps especially then.”

This weaving of the sacred with the real permeates the book. The letters are a cry of the heart, an appeal to understanding. Yossi wants his Palestinian neighbor to appreciate the sacred depth of the Jewish connection to the Holy Land. He also wants his neighbor to understand the genuine fears that lie in Israeli hearts, the cynicism that has built up when it comes to peace, the hard reality behind the erection of so many walls.

There’s an unspoken contract in the book — the better I hear you, the better you’ll hear me. By showing how well he hears his neighbor, Yossi hopes his neighbor will return the favor.

It is this art of “hearing” that American Jews could use right now. Yossi, in effect, is telling us: Stop screaming and start hearing. He’s telling young Jewish activists who claim to love Israel while screaming against Israel that there’s a better way. It’s called nuance. It’s called complexity. Hear the Palestinian side, yes, but hear your side, as well. And hear it deeply.

He’s also telling his Arab audience: You don’t own passion. You don’t own attachment. You don’t own history. Don’t be fooled by our power and our success. We may not have the drama of permanent victimhood, but we’re just as crazy in love with this land as you are. There’s room for both loves. We must find it. But first we must hear one another.

The book, then, offers us a road map to mutual empathy, an empathy earned the hard way, by confronting deep and uncomfortable truths.

Yes, the conflict may look intractable, but our conversations don’t need to be embittered. If we hear more carefully, more deeply, we can find redemption in the very act of encountering different voices. We can learn to converse with empathy, to love without sacrificing complexity.

“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” is, ultimately, a book about how to love.

A VISIONARY’S INSIGHT: Can Yossi Klein Halevi Bring Us Hope for Peace?

Yossi Klein Halevi

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 …

Only what?

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.

What the Israeli Left Can Teach the American Left

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

“The American left is quite different from the Israeli left,” said American-born Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi during a talk last week in New York City. “There is a sobriety, a maturity, to the mainstream Israeli left that you often don’t find here.”

Right on cue, a few days later, Women’s March organizers Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory were back in the news, this time over derogatory statements about the Anti-Defamation League’s involvement with anti-bias education at Starbucks; and Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman, the 2018 Genesis Prize winner, decided to boost her American-leftist status by announcing she would boycott the award ceremony in Israel.

All of which will no doubt give Halevi, who moved to Israel in 1982, more to talk about as he embarks on a tour for his new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” out in May.

While the American left celebrates victimhood, Halevi said, “Zionism is a profound rejection of victimhood.” Even the Israeli left finds victimhood “incomprehensible.”

“There’s no nobility to being a victim,” said Halevi, who as a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute has been active in coexistence efforts with American Muslims. Indeed, there isn’t. But somehow, following lockstep with Palestinian propaganda of the past 50 years, leftist (i.e., illiberal) propaganda has ennobled certain victims (notably not all victims) to the point of sainthood.

The maturing of the American left would entail an understanding that it’s been played.

As Portman, whose family moved to the U.S. when she was 3, essentially took the Hamas/BDS line in citing “recent events” when detailing her decision not to attend the prize ceremony, Halevi talked about how in Israel “the Jewish army is treated like a Jewish life force: our soldiers are our children and our security.” Meanwhile, members of the far-left group Breaking the Silence, which aims to monitor the Israel Defense Forces, are considered “pariahs in Israel — no one takes them seriously.” Perhaps most notably, “there’s never been a serious draft resistance in Israel. Our army is us.”

How does Halevi recommend maturing the diasporic left, especially young Americans? “We need to tell our truths, our story — who we are, what our experiences have been,” he said. And we need to do it in the “traditional form of one generation passing on our stories to another. We need to stop worrying about whether millennials will ‘get it.’ We need to stop indulging millennials.”

Indeed. What has this indulgence led to? Two-thirds of American millennials surveyed in a recent poll could not identify what Auschwitz was, and 22 percent said they had never heard of the Holocaust.

At the same time, millennials — and much of the left in general — believe that every aspect of our existence must be politicized. They have been taught that there is no separation between life and politics.

As Hen Mazzig, an Israeli writer and speaker, put it in an open letter to Portman in The Jerusalem Post: “It’s not about criticism, which we welcome here, it is about the way you do it, at this moment in time. I know you are used to a different type of political debate in the U.S., but we don’t need you to bring it here.”

The truth is, the American left — in its current descent into illiberalism — can learn a lot from the Israeli left.

“Palestinians threaten with their powerlessness,” Halevi said. It is the same powerlessness or victimhood that promotes anti-Semitic propagandists like Sarsour and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to positions of influence on the U.S. left. It is the same victimhood that enables Muslim migrants in Europe to kill or maim Jews on a routine basis.

The maturing of the American left would entail an understanding that it’s been played. That ideas like “intersectionality” and “identity politics” have been manipulated for nefarious propagandistic purposes by individuals and groups whose sole mission is to single out and malign the Jewish state.

Ironically, just as Israel and Arab countries are becoming allied in a fight against Iran, the American left puts Sarsour on a panel about anti-Semitism; and Palestinian professors and activists rewrite Jewish history on a daily basis at American universities.

Creating an atmosphere where Israeli-born Americans like Portman feel a need to regurgitate the Hamas/BDS line in order to retain status on the left is as evil as it is brilliant. Can real liberals like Halevi and Mazzig help put the American left on a corrective course? Let’s hope so.


Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic.

What Yossi Klein Halevi told Jason Greenblatt

Jason Greenblatt, left, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Jerusalem on March 13. Photo by Government Press Office

Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s Middle East envoy, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday ahead of Jared Kushner’s anticipated visit to the region on Wednesday.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

Also on Tuesday, Greenblatt met with noted Israeli author and columnist Yossi Klein Halevi, among others, in what is perceived as an attempt to facilitate the administration’s push for direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. “Met with Yossi Klein Halevi today and heard his perspective on peace. Appreciate Yossi’s insight and time,” Greenblatt wrote on Twitter.

In an email to Jewish Insider, Klein Halevi said he shared with Greenblatt his belief that the administration would be wise to focus on mediating an interim agreement rather than a comprehensive deal, “which I don’t believe is possible anytime soon,” he wrote.

“I also said that there’s not much that the Palestinian leadership can really offer Israel — or is willing to offer Israel — and that the most likely tradeoff Israel will get for concessions in the territories will come from our Arab neighbors in the form of normalization.”

Klein Halevi praised Greenblatt’s approach to the region. “Jason Greenblatt is a superb listener. At least at this stage, he’s come to listen more than to speak. After years of hearing lectures from the Obama administration, this is a refreshing change,” the Israeli author concluded.

Facing hostility, American Muslims take a lesson on Zionism

Alejandro Beutel bowed his yarmulke-covered head and pressed his hands and forehead into the 2,000-year-old stones of the Western Wall. After slipping a note into one of the cracks, Beutel whispered a prayer and cried.

It’s a scene that unfolds daily at the sacred site in the Old City here — except that Beutel is a convert to Islam, the son of a Jewish father and Christian mother. He was one of 11 Muslim activists who visited Israel this month as part of the Muslim Leadership Initiative, a 3-year-old program that brings North American Muslims to Israel to learn about Judaism and the Jewish connection to the Holy Land.

The yearlong program, which is fully covered by scholarships, begins and ends with 12-day seminars in Israel and the West Bank, and includes two retreats in the United States and monthly study sessions in between. Since its founding in 2013, MLI has brought 59 North American Muslims to Israel.

“I have never been able to articulate and understand Jews, Judaism and Zionism, even with Jewish relatives that I have, until I went through MLI,” Beutel said.

The brainchild of Imam Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University, the program is co-directed by American-Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish education center in Jerusalem. Among the program’s previous participants is Rabia Choudry, a fellow at the New America Foundation who came to national attention for her role in the first season of the NPR podcast “Serial.”

Antepli believes MLI will breed a deeper interfaith dialogue than similar efforts that stick to superficial issues while ignoring the elephant in the room — Israel — which, when acknowledged, often leads to screaming matches.

MLI “will force Jews and Muslims to diversify their sources of information about each other rather than relying on the voices pumping fear and suspicion into both communities,” Antepli said.

The vehement criticism of the program within the Muslim community is a testament to how controversial that goal is. Muslim activists have described MLI as a vehicle for Israeli propaganda and called for a boycott. Antepli has received death threats. Last year, an MLI cohort was harassed during a visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

Participants told JTA they have lost friends and suffered financial consequences due to their involvement in the program. MLI leaders requested that JTA not publish this story until participants had left Israel. Antepli feared that news of their presence “could spark provocations.”

“It’s pretty confusing,” said Khurrum Wahid, a Florida attorney who has defended several high-profile terrorism suspects and whose Muslim empowerment nonprofit, Emerge USA, lost 15 percent of its funding because of his participation in the program. “Before I was regarded as a terrorist, and now suddenly I’m being called a Zionist.”

For Antepli and the MLI participants, the hostile reaction merely confirms the urgency of the initiative.

“There’s a misunderstanding within our community of what Zionism is — that it’s an exclusive, prejudiced agenda,” said one participant who requested anonymity due to the contention surrounding MLI. “When people hear we’re going to speak with Zionists, they hear, ‘We’re going to meet with the KKK to hear why they hate black people.’ That’s why this work is so important.”

She continued: “I don’t think I ever understood how deeply some Jews are attached to this land. The risks and sacrifices we’ve made to do this really means a lot to our Jewish partners. It creates this sense of trust that we wouldn’t have otherwise. That’s a really valuable part of this program.”

MLI has no illusions that it can create a warm and cozy relationship between Muslims and Jews or solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The objective, MLI leaders say, is to deepen understanding of the Jewish connection to the Holy Land so that Jewish-Muslim dialogue can be more informed.

“It’s about getting them to simply understand,” Halevi said.

Muslim critics in the United States have charged that MLI aims to turn participants into Zionist advocates or apologists, but the program is a far cry from pro-Israel propaganda.

In one session last week, participants read Israel’s Declaration of Independence and discussed why the document’s promise of equal rights for all citizens has not yet been realized. In another, they heard from Mohammad Darawshe, co-director of Givat Haviva, which supports Israeli-Palestinian coexistence efforts, who told them that his family had lived in Palestine for generations and that their land was confiscated by Israel.

“Even after a year in the program, it has not changed my opinion on the treatment of Palestinians,” said Wahid, adding that like most participants, he still views Zionism as a racist ideology that privileges Jews over Arabs. Several participants even support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, including Antepli, but only in the West Bank, not in Israel proper.

“Israelis as a people and a state need to prioritize human rights and freedom in order to get to security,” Wahid said. “They’re going about it the other way around.”

Several participants noted a recent report from the Center for American Progress, which found that much of the “Islamophobia network” in the United States is funded by American Jews. They believe not only that better relations with the Jewish community can help counter Islamophobia, but that the Muslim community can learn from the Jewish community how best to integrate into American society.

“The Jewish community blazed trails,” said Amanda Quraishi, a Muslim activist in Austin, Texas. “We’re such a new community in America and have so much to learn from them.”

Khaliff Watkins, an interfaith activist in New Jersey, had many Jewish friends as a child but avoided discussing Israel because it was divisive. Before the trip, he didn’t understand the Jewish connection to Israel, which he regarded as a “colonialist project.”

After the trip, Watkins says he can better understand Israeli Jews who have endured “the trauma of having one’s narrative and one’s identity not being accepted in the world … and their genuine commitment to humanity and living in peace with others who are not Jewish.”

Voices of Six-Day War haunt us decades later

The focus of the Israeli film “Censored Voices” is an aged, rapidly spinning, reel-to-reel tape recorder.

From the recorder emerge the voices of young Israelis just returned home to their kibbutzim after fighting and miraculously triumphing in the Six-Day War of 1967.

But their talk is not of battles won and heroic deeds by comrades, nor of a glorious homecoming, cheered by their fellow countrymen and by an admiring world after overwhelming the armed forces of five Arab countries.

The disembodied and often halting voices speak of watching Palestinians as their homes and farms are destroyed, of endless lines of wandering refugees, of humiliated Arab civilians stripped down to their underwear.

“We won,” declared one voice, “so the next war will be much crueler and deadlier.” Another voice expresses the fear that “a constant state of war can also destroy a nation.”

When the movie’s camera pans from the tape recorder and sweeps across the room, we see a group of elderly men listening intently, sometimes rubbing their eyes, other times staring as if to identify the voices emerging from the machine.

The voices the elderly men hear are their own, recorded nearly 50 years earlier, a few days to a couple of weeks after they returned from the Six-Day War.

With them is writer Amos Oz, who had originally convened the recording sessions, taking the tape recorder from kibbutz to kibbutz, whose young men traditionally served as the elite spearhead troops in Israel’s wars. Traveling with Oz was Avraham Shapira, who edited the tapes and excerpted them for a book.

During the days and weeks before June 5, when the war started, Israel was filled with a sense of foreboding and occasionally the sound of air raid sirens. Then came the call-up of reserves, under such code names as “Love of Zion” and “People of Labor,” and a grim feeling that “the country would be annihilated,” one soldier recalled.

With the destruction of the enemy’s air forces in the opening hours of the Six-Day War, followed by quick battle victories and entry into Jerusalem’s Old City, the country’s mood changed drastically.

The movie shows newsreels and archival footage of delirious dancing, songs praising the Lord of Israel, and less pious soldiers’ songs, such as “We’ll F— You Up.”

Both the initial fear of annihilation and the subsequent euphoria of victory evaporated for Israeli soldiers who actually experienced combat.

“My company lost 45 men; I kept hearing the cry of, ‘Medic, medic,’ over and over again. I was in despair,” recalled the voice of one veteran.

But, surprisingly, the worst memories of the Israeli soldiers were not of what the enemy was doing to them, but of what they themselves did to the enemy.

Different voices emerge from the tape recorder:

“We asked our commander for orders, and he said, ‘Kill as many as possible. Show no mercy.’ … I was outraged, but I didn’t protest.”

“We were shooting at some Egyptian soldiers. … They were not ducking, just falling down. … It was like some game at an amusement park or at a summer camp. … In war, we all became murderers.”

“The Egyptian prisoners of war came up with their water canteens filled with urine. We gave them some water and they kissed our feet.”

“When the enemy becomes your prisoner, you feel this power. You shove them roughly, all restraint disappears.”

“The Temple Mount is not holy, that’s not Judaism. It’s people that count. They blew the shofar at the Western Wall; it sounded like a pig’s squeal.”

When the tapes were initially transcribed and edited by Shapira into book form as “A Conversation With Soldiers” (in the English edition, “The Seventh Day”), Israeli authorities censored about 70 percent of the text.

That’s hardly surprising. What is amazing is that the book became an instant best-seller in Israel, and the nearly uncensored film version this year won the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar as the country’s best documentary.

The voice tapes themselves were locked away for decades, despite pleas by journalists and filmmakers, until a young Israeli film school graduate, Mor Loushy, persuaded Shapira to let her use them for a film.

It is difficult to conceive of another country, including the United States, that would give subsidies from government funds to make a film critical of its own soldiers in their most triumphant war, or whose film academy would award the film its top prize.

In a phone interview, however, director Loushy was not surprised her film had screened all across Israel without incident and little criticism.

The 33-year-old filmmaker is the mother of a 3-year-old boy and currently is almost eight months pregnant. Her forebears on her father’s side came from Persia to the Holy Land 10 generations ago; her mother was born in Poland.

She has faced no personal criticism in Israel. “After all,” she said, “it’s not my voice in the film but the voices of the soldiers who fought in the war.” She blames the current shootings and knife stabbings in Israel directly on the occupation after the 1967 war and sees little chance that Israelis and Palestinians will sit down for real peace negotiations.

Nevertheless, she refuses to give up, especially because of her children. “If I don’t have hope for the future, why stay here? I really have no choice,” she said.

Still, “Censored Voices” raises some critical questions. For one, how representative the soldiers heard in the film are of all the men who served in the Six-Day War, the Journal asked, to which Loushy gave no specific answer.

In another attempt to answer this question, this reporter’s wife has two relatives who served in the 1967 war, one on the left and one on the right, politically. Neither saw heavy combat, but both said they believed Israel’s survival was at stake and they had no regrets about serving in the war.

All that said, a legitimate concern has been raised by Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-born Israeli journalist and author, who has written extensively about the Six-Day War, and has worked for the reconciliation of Jews, Muslims and Christians in Israel.

“People abroad who don’t remember the way we do the circumstances of the Six-Day War will turn [this movie] into an indictment of Israel,” Halevi said. “If there were isolated acts of abuse by our soldiers, that should not become the narrative [of] what the Six-Day War was about. Many of us here [in Israel] are, frankly, sick and tired of the blame-Israel-first narrative.”

The Israel Film Festival will screen “Censored Voices” at 7:15 p.m. Nov. 12 at the Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino, and at 5 p.m. Nov. 15 at the NoHo 7 in North Hollywood. After that, the film will open Nov. 27 for one-week runs at the Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and at the Town Center in Encino.  

Geographical circumstances reason for divide between U.S. Jewry and Israelis

The growing divide between American Jews and the State of Israel is a challenge to be tackled on both sides of the ocean by defining common goals, according to Middle East expert Yossi Klein Halevi.

“One of the main problems we face in our relationship between Israelis and American Jews is that our two communities have diametrically opposing challenges and goals,” Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Insitute, explained during a conversation held a Columbia University last Thursday. “The goal of Israelis in the Middle East is to survive in one of the world’s most brutal and inhospitable regions. The goal of American Jews is to find their place as Jews in the most hospitable atmosphere that Jews have ever had and that leads to very different strategies. Our (Israelis) strategy is to be as tough as possible and your strategy is to be as quiet and pleasant as possible.”

“The question we face is whether our geographical circumstances are going to define the essence of what kind of Jewish community we are. Is Israel going to be a brutal society? Are we going to take up the brutality around us? And the question for American Jews is whether the naivete of America is going to define an American Jewish politics of culture? And there are signs of this coming through as we’ve seen with the Iran deal, and the blind support that a majority of American Jews has given to this president,” Halevi asserted. “And that risks some worrisome trends. If we become defined by brutality from one hand and naivete on the other, then we have no common language.”

Halevi spoke to over 100 students at a discussion over the recent wave of terror, the future of Israeli democracy and the relationship between Israelis and U.S. Jewry at Columbia University. Jordan Hirsch, visiting fellow at the Institute for Israel and Jewish studies, was the moderator.

During the hourlong event, Halevi related to the present security situation in Israel as the “intifada of lies.” He blamed the “Al-Aqsa is in danger” rallying call on the “destructive” role of the Arab-Israeli political leadership, who’re acting “in a way of treason.” But he also put the blame on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “who played an enormous destructive role” during the March Knesset election by creating a further gap between the Arab minority and the Israeli-Jewish majority.”Israel will never be a just society if the minority doesn;t feel part of the mainstream society, ” Halevi stressed.

Describing the situation in Israel, Halevi said, the reason Israelis are reacting in a hysterical and unease manner in this round of violence is the intimacy – terrorism of neighbors. “The intimacy of this terrorism – a teenager crossing the street and stabbing his neighbors – creates not only fear but rage, precisely because it is so personal.

Halevi also addressed the danger of the Religious Zionist community’s campaign for Israeli presence on the Temple Mount as playing with fire, which might not have been the cause of the recent wave of violence but pretense.

This post originally appeared at Jewish Insider.

Israel under the knife

“The streets are empty, even the main pedestrian walkways are empty,” my friend Selwyn Gerber told me on the phone from Jerusalem. Gerber, who lives in Los Angeles and is a frequent visitor to Israel, said he’s “never seen Jerusalem like this.” Evidently, the fear of being stabbed by terrorists has spooked the Jewish pedestrians of the holy city.

“It’s all around us,” author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi emailed me from Jerusalem after I asked him how he was holding up. “We hear sirens, tear gas all the time.”

Halevi, who made aliyah to Israel in 1982 and whose acclaimed book “Like Dreamers” came out two years ago, added: “I’m beside myself about this — the lie of Al Aqsa being in danger, the hysteria in the Muslim world, the stupidity of our own right-wing pyromaniacs, the criminal incitement of Arab Knesset members who in any other Middle Eastern country would be sitting in prison for treason, the outrageous coverage of much of the world media which treats this as one more Israeli crime. Other than that, I’m fine.”

I recall a conversation I had with Halevi a few years ago at his Shabbat table, when we were discussing Israel’s ability to cope with terror. He used a term that stayed with me: “Neurotic Zen,” he called it. It’s the ability to live in the moment and embrace life, knowing that a disaster may strike at any second.

This talent is being pushed to the limit right now with the “knife war” against the Jews of Israel.

“In every generation,” we read at Passover, “they rise up against us to destroy us.” Well, in Israel, it seems to happen even more regularly. 

For decades after Israel’s birth, its enemies tried to destroy the Jewish state with standard armies — with tanks, fighter jets and infantry. When that didn’t work, they tried terrorism, including hundreds of suicide bombers detonating themselves amid Israeli civilians.

When Israel rooted out terror cells and built a wall to keep out the terrorists, the terrorists fired thousands of rockets over that wall. When Israel shot down their rockets with the Iron Dome, the terrorists built tunnels under the wall to sneak in and attack Jews.

Finally, having failed with everything else, Israel’s enemy is down to the lowly and lethal knife. In an open country where everyone is free to walk around, how do you stop such retail terrorism?

“There is no missile defense system against stabbings. We can’t lock ourselves in a shelter all day,” Sarah Tuttle-Singer wrote last week in The Times of Israel. “Stabbings have no sirens, so we don’t know when to run.”

Tuttle-Singer is a single mother of two young children who moved to Israel from Los Angeles a few years ago. She writes:

“Stabbings can happen anywhere at any time. Stabbings can happen in a park on a quiet bench. They can happen in the market, with soldiers standing just a few steps away. They can happen in front of a school or in a synagogue or on the street.”

As a result, “Everyone is on edge right now — most of us feel that prickle of fear just below the neck or deep in our stomachs — because when these attacks are random, everyone is a potential target. Everyone.

“The young rabbi at the Western Wall. The barista with the dirty laugh. The soldier who still wears braces. They guy who sells the best pomegranates in the Ramle Shuk. The mother with two children. This mother. My children.”

It would be the height of irony if the only citizens of the Jewish state not afraid of getting stabbed in the back were the Arab citizens. They may be afraid of a policeman asking for identity papers or vengeful Jews aggressing them, but a knife in the back? Not quite.

Sitting here in America, unencumbered by the trauma of daily fear, it’s easy to look at the violent mayhem and wonder whether Israel is partly to blame. After all, it’s the Jewish thing to do, isn’t it? We take responsibility for what happens to us.

It’s also true that violence has a way of obliterating complexity. We see people being stabbed to death just because they're Jews and it's hard to stay calm and balanced. 

As much as we want to think straight about the long game, sometimes we just need to vent about the here and now, or at least show empathy for what the Israelis are going through.

The truth is, I can’t pretend to understand what it must be like to walk around never knowing when someone might stab me in the back. I don’t have enough practice in the art of Neurotic Zen.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Israeli election coverage with Donniel Hartman and Yossi Klein Halevi

Read about the election results here:
Winners, losers and Israel’s next coalition

Live Blog 2015 Israeli Elections Results Live Stream

We encourage you to post advance questions for Donniel and Yossi at Hartman@jewishjournal.com or by visiting hartman.org.il.

During the program, send direct messages to the Hartman Institute Twitter account (@hartman_inst) or visit the Institute Facebook page.


Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and the Director of the Institute's iEngage Project. He has a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a Master of Arts in political philosophy from New York University, a Master of Arts in religion from Temple University, and Rabbinic ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute.

His new book, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself, is scheduled for publication by Beacon Press in February 2016. He is currently working on his next book, which is entitled, Who Are The Jews: Healing A Divided People.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a member of the Institute's iEngage Project, co-director of the Institute's Muslim Leadership Initiative, and a prizewinning author. His most recent book, Like Dreamers: The Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, won the Jewish Book Council's Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award for 2013.

Yossi is a frequent contributor to the op-ed pages of leading North American newspapers. He is active in reconciliation efforts between Muslims and Jews and serves as Chairman of Open House, an Arab-Jewish coexistence center in the town of Ramle, near Tel Aviv.

LIVE Israeli election night coverage with Donniel Hartman and Yossi Klein Halevi

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JewishJournal.com will present Shalom Hartman Institute President Donniel Hartman and iEngage Project Fellow and prizewinning author Yossi Klein Halevi in a live Election Day webinar program from Jerusalem on March 17. 

The program will begin one-half hour before the Israeli polls close at 9:30 pm Israel time (12:30 pm Pacific, 1:30 pm Mountain, 2:30 pm Central, 3:30 pm Eastern). Donniel and Yossi will report the election results one-half-hour into the show, shortly after the polls close, analyze the outcome, discuss what the results may mean for Israel and world Jewry, and field audience questions.

Viewers can register and post advance questions for Donniel and Yossi at Hartman@jewishjournal.com or by visiting hartman.org.il. During the program, send direct messages to the Hartman Institute Twitter account (@hartman_inst) or visit the Institute Facebook page. Preference will be given to viewers from communities that embed the program on their website.

Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and the Director of the Institute's iEngage Project. He has a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a Master of Arts in political philosophy from New York University, a Master of Arts in religion from Temple University, and Rabbinic ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute.

His new book, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself, is scheduled for publication by Beacon Press in February 2016. He is currently working on his next book, which is entitled, Who Are The Jews: Healing A Divided People.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a member of the Institute's iEngage Project, co-director of the Institute's Muslim Leadership Initiative, and a prizewinning author. His most recent book, Like Dreamers: The Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, won the Jewish Book Council's Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award for 2013.

Yossi is a frequent contributor to the op-ed pages of leading North American newspapers. He is active in reconciliation efforts between Muslims and Jews and serves as Chairman of Open House, an Arab-Jewish coexistence center in the town of Ramle, near Tel Aviv.

Q&A with Yossi Klein Halevi: Jewish extremists endanger Israel’s control of Jerusalem

In 1972, when Yossi Klein Halevi began writing a book that 23 years later would become his “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, he was just 19 and allied with the extremist right wing of the Free Soviet Jewry movement. 

As a follower of Rabbi Meir Kahane (assassinated in 1990) and a member of Kahane’s Jewish Defense League (JDL), Halevi used his journalistic ability to clarify world events on behalf of the JDL. At the time, he still lived in his native New York City, so his role was to filter news about Israel and Jews through a prism largely shaped by the fear of another Holocaust, in which Jews and Israelis felt themselves unwelcome neighbors in a hostile gentile world.

The young Halevi likely never could have imagined that one day he would write a rebuke of Jewish extremism, saying it preaches ideas that are anathema to Judaism. 

Halevi’s memoir was first published in 1995, almost to the day of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by the Jewish extremist Yigal Amir. “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist” chronicles Halevi’s evolution from his teens into his late 20s. His other books, “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden” and, most recently, the National Jewish Book award-winning “Like Dreamers,” have become known not for extremism, but rather for thoughtful moderation steeped in the author’s love for Judaism and Israel.

The re-release of “Memoirs” in October could not have come at a more appropriate time, as a new brand of Palestinian terrorism of cars and knives shakes Israel, and vandalism, assaults and the murder of an Arab teen by three Jewish extremists all have made Jerusalem feel in recent months like a city waiting to explode into a war of neighbor versus neighbor. 

On Nov. 29, extremist Jews lit a Jerusalem bilingual Jewish-Arab school on fire and spray-painted inciteful anti-Arab messages, including one that read, “Kahane was right.”

In a Nov. 19 interview with the Jewish Journal, one day after a brutal terrorist attack at a Har Nof synagogue just outside Jerusalem, where four Jews were murdered during morning prayers, Halevi described the feeling among Israelis as, “Anything can happen at any moment.”

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview: 

Jewish Journal: There are some calls now to cede Arab parts of Jerusalem to the Palestinians so as to separate Jews and Muslims. Would that help ease tensions in the city?

Yossi Klein Halevi: It’s a very understandable reaction and a very dangerous one. There is no vacuum in Jerusalem [that wouldn’t] be filled by Hamas. As traumatic as the status quo is, there’s no alternative. The status quo needs to be improved. We need to make sure that, first of all, serious security efforts are being imposed on the ground, and at the same time, we need to start listening to the grievances of mainstream Palestinians in Jerusalem who don’t want the city to be torn apart  — and, in my experience, that’s a majority of Palestinians in the city. 

This latest round of rioting and violence and terror happened for two reasons: One, because of the burning of the 16-year-old Palestinian boy [Mohammed Abu Khdeir] this summer — that triggered the initial wave of violence and that was an act committed by Jewish extremists. And then feeding on that momentum was the return of the Palestinian lie that Israel intends to change the status quo on the Temple Mount. This is a lie that has persisted since 1929, when hundreds of Jews were massacred because Palestinian leaders spread a false rumor that Jews were intending to take over the Temple Mount. There’s no chance that this government will change the status quo on the Temple Mount. The danger comes from provocative acts by small groups of Jews, by far-right Knesset members who feed the big lie about an Israeli intention to change the status quo — Moshe Feiglin in particular, but he’s not the only one.

 

JJ: What’s the end game for Jerusalem if Jewish extremists grow in number and in impact?

YKH: I’m speaking as someone who believes we have no alternative but to maintain Israeli control of united Jerusalem. Of course, most of the terrorism being committed these days in Jerusalem is by Arabs against Jews. But Jewish street violence against Arabs is growing, too. It’s hard to talk about this, given the pathological nature of the Palestinian attacks against us in recent weeks. But I have a deep concern for our ability to continue holding Jerusalem. The more attacks there are against Arabs, the more expressions of Jewish extremism, the greater the international pressure will be on Israel to leave parts of Jerusalem. 

 

JJ: What are some examples you’ve encountered in recent months of Jewish extremism in Jerusalem?

YKH: Outbursts against Arabs; physical attacks on the streets. It’s not only Jews now who are afraid to go into Arab neighborhoods. Arabs are afraid to go into Jewish neighborhoods. I was in downtown Jerusalem the day after Abu Khdeir was murdered, and there was a demonstration by Jews to protest the murder of the three kidnapped Jewish boys, and they arranged memorial candles on the pavement to spell out “Death to Arabs.” As if that burned body wasn’t enough.

 

JJ: What is the mindset, the worldview, of the Jewish extremist?

YKH: In the ’60s and ’70s in New York, we were mainly concerned with saving Soviet Jewry and opposing the Soviet Union, and the Holocaust was our primary emotional motive. But what we do share in common — the Israeli extremist of today and my generation of American-Jewish extremists — is the sense of the radical aloneness of the Jewish people. And this is something that Israel’s critics need to internalize: that by pushing Israel into a corner, by isolating Israel and boycotting us and turning us into the world’s criminals, they are reinforcing the argument of the radical right in Israel. The radical right is the greatest beneficiary of BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], because it just reinforces everything that they’re saying: “The world hates us; we have no friends.” And if you have no friends, you might as well just do what you need to do and not be squeamish about it.

 

JJ: So are you saying there’s a feedback effect between Israel’s isolation and the rise in Jewish extremism? Does one lead to the other?

YKH: Absolutely; there’s a cycle. What I’m really worried about right now as a citizen of Jerusalem is, God forbid, some Jewish lunatic attacking a mosque. We’ve had a fair number of arson attacks and desecration of mosques in the last few years in the West Bank, and if that happens in Jerusalem — well, I’ll just leave it at that.

 

JJ: Are today’s Jewish extremists yesterday’s Yossi Klein Halevis?

YKH: I think there are levels of extremism, and I was prepared as a teenager to go pretty far, but not that far [murder]. I don’t know anyone from those years who would’ve been capable of burning alive a 16-year-old boy. There’s been a loosening of constraints, and the result is that, on the far fringes of the Jewish people, we have Jews who are apparently capable of doing absolutely anything. To my mind, this is new. 

I understand Jewish rage, but there’s a line that has been crossed that I don’t believe was possible, was conceivable in the past, and that worries me. It worries me because of its effect on us, its effect politically but also spiritually. It weakens our spiritual resistance to evil, it compromises us fundamentally, and it divides us. It opens up a counter-reaction from the far left, and then you have this pathology of far left and far right feeding off of each other, pointing at each other as validations for their own distorted positions. What makes me a centrist is a deep belief that the center is the place to hold the conflicting truths of Jewish history that we are struggling with now, the conflicting voices, commanding voices of Jewish history to our generation. The voice of the command to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt — don’t be brutal. The command to remember what Amalek did to us when we were leaving Egypt, another biblical commandment, and that message is, don’t be naïve. We’re struggling between these two imperatives. The extremists of right and left can’t hear both of those. For them, it’s either/or.

 

JJ: What prompted your transformation?

YKH: My father raised me with the idea that the Jews have no friends. That was his lesson from the Shoah, and he was trying to prepare me — as a Jew in a hostile world — for survival. My father’s great fear was that his American-born children would not have the savvy to survive another Holocaust, that Americans were too naïve, too soft, and he was trying to raise his children with a sense of alertness. As my father put it, “Nobody likes the Jews. When Christians speak of love, they mean [for] everybody but the Jews.” The problem with that teaching was that my father was saved by a non-Jew [in the Holocaust]. My father survived the war in a hole, in a forest with two friends. What I began to realize as I grew older was that my father wanted me to know that his black-and-white view of the non-Jewish world was inadequate, and so he repeatedly told me the story of this non-Jew who saved him, who used to bring food to him during the Holocaust.

 

JJ: In “Like Dreamers,” are there any heroes that stake out the center ground?

YKH: For me, the heroes of the book are those who ended up in the center. Yoel Bin Nun, first of all, was one of the founders of the settlement movement. From the left, his friend Avital Geva, who was a fellow paratrooper and one of the founders of the anti-settlement Peace Now movement, realized that there was a naiveté in his camp, that we really don’t have a credible partner [for peace] on the other side. I would also put Arik Achmon in that camp. He grew up on a kibbutz and became the first privatizer of an Israeli company. I would divide the heroes of “Like Dreamers” into two camps, and it’s not left and right. There are those who are in the camp who evolve as the book tells their story, and there are those who stay the same. For me, the heroes of “Like Dreamers” were those who struggled with the limitations of their youthful ideas and were able to grow.

 

JJ: How can today’s Jewish extremists be changed? Or can they only be contained?

YKH: Anyone can be changed, and the question of human change, of evolution, of growth is in some sense my life’s work as a writer. That’s the story that I’ve been trying to tell in my books, and it’s a story that I tried to tell in “Like Dreamers” — the evolution of the Israeli story through the evolution of several leading figures in Israel. I am an optimist, to some extent, about human nature. I think we are here in this world to grow, to evolve — I’m speaking now as a believing person. We are here in order to help our souls grow. Evolution is at the heart of the divine unfolding of this world. That’s an insight I learned from Rav Kook, the great 20th- century mystic. 

 

JJ: Do you believe the mindsets and motivations of all extremists are similar, whether they are Muslim or Jewish?

YKH: In my generation, the motivation for Jewish extremism was much less religious. Today’s Jewish extremists are coming from a complicated mix of nationalism, historic grievance and rage, along with some poisonous ideological ideas of Jewish superiority, which are floating around the fringes of the Orthodox world in Israel. And that mix of historical grievance and notions of religious superiority make them the Jewish equivalent of Islamist extremists. So, today’s Jewish extremists are much closer to the model of Islamist extremists than my generation was. When you bring in the element of religion, you’re adding a very potent level of explosive to the mix.

 

JJ: How can someone be prevented from becoming an extremist?

YKH: I don’t know how to stop someone else. I know how the process happened for me, and I wrote this book in part because I’m hoping that young people of any religion or nationality or inclination who are tempted by their own extremist direction will have an example of someone who healed himself, who pulled back from the abyss. My story involves discovering that the non-Jewish world wasn’t a monolithic world of anti-Semites. I fell in love with a non-Jewish young woman who converted to Judaism and has been my wife and partner for the last 30 years. For me, the defining transition from extremist to someone able to hear more complicated ideas about the world is empathy. Are you able to have empathy for people who are outside of your closed circle? Are you able to have empathy for those whose ideas you find deeply problematic? That’s true for extremists on the left as well as on the right. This is not only a right-wing problem; this is an extremist problem. 

Right-wingers are not the only extremists. Look at Jewish Voice for Peace, whose members marched in pro-Hamas rallies this summer. Look where extremism can lead people. Extremists are in danger of losing their Jewish soul, either by turning too far left or too far right. One way leads to betrayal, the other to brutality. That, for me, is really the warning to our generation of “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist.”


Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the author of, most recently, the National Jewish Book Award-winning “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation.” With this article, he joins the Journal as columnist and contributing editor.  

Calendar: September 28–October 4

SAT | SEP 28

“THE GUARDSMAN”

If you thought your beautiful new spouse was cheating on you, wouldn’t you create a disguise and test her fidelity? Ferenc Molnar’s comic game of love and marriage may or may not remind you of you and yours, but with wit and deception aplenty, it’ll certainly be fun to watch. Directed by Michael Michetti. Sat. 8 p.m. Through Nov. 30. $34-$54. A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 356-3100. SUN | SEP 29

PEDAL FOR PEACE

StandWithUs wants you to ride with them! The international nonprofit is cycling 60 miles from West Los Angeles to Oxnard in support of Israel. If that sounds a little far, participants can opt for a shorter ride and three-mile walk in Oxnard. And don’t worry, if you can’t find your sneakers, you can still sponsor someone! The journey will conclude with a kosher lunch at the Emerson beach house along with free T-shirts. Suggested donations for walkers and riders. Sun. 6:30 a.m. Meeting location to be announced. (310) 836-6140. ” target=”_blank”>westhollywoodbookfair.org.

WILSHIRE BOULEVARD TEMPLE DEDICATION

It’s a coming-out (again) party! Renewed and ready for action, come celebrate the community-wide (and interfaith) dedication of the newly transformed Wilshire Boulevard Temple. The choral concert will include 150 voices from the Cantorial Choir of the Academy for Jewish Religion and a special closing performance by Burt Bacharach. Sun. 5 p.m. Free. RSVP required. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Erika J. Glazer Family Campus, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (424) 208-8932. MON | SEP 30

“PHOTO OPPORTUNITY”

It’s a presidential election year. A candidate makes a campaign stop and meets an elderly Jewish woman — what they learn about each other is a secret that haunts her and threatens him. Joshua Metzger’s play, directed by Elizabeth Sampson, will be read featuring actors Judith Scarpone, Amy Tolsky, Chet Grissom and Laurie Okin. The playwright, a prior winner of the National Playwrights Conference, will be in discussion after the performance. Tue. 8 p.m. Free. NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 761-8838. TUE | OCT 1

“ETGAR KERET: IS REALITY OVERRATED?”

 

The Israeli author, filmmaker, professor, thinker, mover and shaker is in conversation with Literary Death Match host Adrian Todd Zuniga. Internationally acclaimed for his short stories, which have been published in more than 20 languages, Keret will read from his newest collection, “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door.” A signing and a reception follow the discussion, which is sure to be a reality check. Tue. 5:30-7:30 p.m. Free. RSVP required. UCLA Fowler Museum, Lenart Auditorium, Room A103B, Los Angeles. (310) 825-9646. THU | OCT 3

YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI

The globally revered journalist discusses his new book “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation.” Chronicling the 40-year story of the soldiers who reunited Jerusalem and divided a nation, it’s one of the year’s more controversial stories. Sponsored by the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and UCLA Hillel. Thu. 3-4:15 p.m. Free. Please register. UCLA School of Law, Room 1314, Los Angeles. (310) 825-9646. ” target=”_blank”>lajfilmfest.org.

DUDAMEL & BRONFMAN 

As part of its 10th anniversary celebration, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is honoring composer Peter Lieberson. Having premiered Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs” in 2005, it is only fitting that the L.A. Phil premieres the late composer’s last piece: “Shing Kham.” Under conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra, international pianist Yefim Bronfman and percussionist Pedro Carneiro collaborate for a memorable and moving night of melody that includes Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Through Oct. 6. Thu. 8 p.m. $77.50-$180. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown. (323) 850-2000.

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United and divided: Inside ‘Like Dreamers,’ Yossi Klein Halevi’s extraordinary new book

The stirring scene that opens “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” by Yossi Klein Halevi (Harper, $35), is a flashback to the night of June 6, 1967, when the 55th Paratroopers Reserve Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces crossed the no man’s land from West Jerusalem and approached the Old City, a sacred place that had not been under Jewish sovereignty for nearly 2,000 years.

“They changed the history of Israel and the Middle East,” Halevi observes. But Halevi has not written a hagiography of those courageous young men. Some of them were secular kibbutzniks and some were religious Zionists, a fact that strikes Halevi as emblematic of the tensions that have reshaped Israel during the half-century that followed what is now known as the Six-Day War. Their story, he insists, is really about “the fate of Israel’s utopian dreams, the vast hopes imposed on this besieged, embattled strip of land crowded with traumatized Jewish refugees.” In that sense, “Like Dreamers” is as much about the future of Israel as it is about what the author describes as “Israel’s most transcendent moment.”

Halevi is a journalist, memoirist and commentator with a unique perspective on both Jewish history and the destiny of Israel. Born in Brooklyn, he was an early follower of the late Meir Kahane, a member of Kahane’s controversial Jewish Defense League and an activist in the movement to liberate Soviet Jews. As he recounts in his autobiography, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” he gradually moved from the far right of political Zionism into Orthodoxy and ultimately emerged as an advocate for rapprochement among Jews, Muslims and Christians, as he advocated in “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden.”

Today, at 60, Halevi lives with his family in Jerusalem, where he serves as a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. His byline is familiar to readers of many publications, among them the New Republic — where he holds the position of contributing editor — The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs magazine. He is much sought after as a commentator on the Middle East, and he brings a hard-edged, highly realistic perspective to his work. To his credit, he refuses to mythify or idealize the people whose exploits he is writing about, and yet he is capable of showing how seemingly ordinary men and women are capable of doing great things.

Thus, for example, Halevi is quick to point out that all of the main characters in his book are Ashkenazim — Jews of European ancestry — even though nearly half of Israel’s Jewish population today is of Middle Eastern origin. And he emphasizes that the seven members of the 55th Brigade whom he interviewed over a period of 10 years are markedly unsentimental; he is impressed by their “faith in human initiative and contempt for self-pity,” and “their daunting quest for solutions to unbearable dilemmas that would intimidate others into paralysis.” Above all, their feat of arms in 1967 — which united Jerusalem as an Israeli city, taking what had been ruled by Jordan — can be seen as an augury of the problems Israel still must resolve: “To a large extent,” he writes, “Israel today lives in the partial fulfillment and partial failure of their contradictory dreams.”

Halevi uses the biographies of those seven Israeli soldiers as a device to tell a much larger tale about the influences and pressures that shaped them. Avital Geva, for example, grew up on a kibbutz that belonged to Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist movement with distinctly Marxist values.  “Avital and his friends had been raised to revere the Soviet Union as the ‘second homeland,’ ” he explains, and he reminds us that Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 was mourned on the front page of the movement’s newspaper. By contrast, Yoel Bin-Nun was a member of a religious Zionist youth organization Bnei Akiva, and when he confided his “deepest longing” to a girl of his acquaintance, it was to see the construction of a third Temple.  “With animal sacrifices and blood and all of that?” she asked. “That’s what is written in the Torah,” he answered.

Halevi allows us to see the conflicting Israeli views of the Holocaust barely 20 years after the liberation of the camps. Some native-born Israelis were astounded by and contemptuous of the survivors, whom they called sabon — the word for soap, a reference to the notion that corpses were rendered into soap. Only when Arik Achmon, chief intelligence officer of the 55th Brigade, met the survivors who had founded Kibbutz Buchenwald did he come to see that they were worthy of his respect: “They’d survived through not passivity but constant alertness,” Achmon came to realize. “Sabon: what jerks we were.” But Halevi reminds us that one of the enduring victories the 55th Brigade achieved was to “[replace] skeleton heaps in death camps with paratroopers at the Wall as the enduring Jewish image of the century.”

The centerpiece of the book, of course, is the operations that took place on the night of June 6-7, 1967, when the 55th Brigade was assigned a mission that had been a failure when it was tried during the War of Independence, in 1948. A tactical map of the battle lines will come as a shock to anyone who has since visited Israel as a tourist and strolled through the streets of Jerusalem where, on that night, the trenches and minefields were laid out. At the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces, the fast-changing situation on multiple fronts was under constant scrutiny, but at least one order was clear and unequivocal: “Be prepared to take the Old City,” Gen. Uzi Narkiss, commander of the central front, told Arik Achmon. “I hope you will erase the shame of 1948.

Exactly here, I think, is where we glimpse the unique importance of the battle for Jerusalem, and the various reasons why it was so consequential. For the battle-hardened officers of the high command, the taking of the Old City was a point of honor as well as a crucial strategic objective. For others, it was a religious undertaking with messianic implications: “Next year in Jerusalem,” sang a group of soldiers, echoing the closing words of the Passover seder. A student watching them provided a new lyric: “Next week in Jerusalem — in Jerusalem rebuilt.” For just about everyone, including the largely secular popular of the Jewish state, the strains of a new hit song called “Jerusalem of Gold” represented “the nation’s suppressed anguish for the Old City of Jerusalem.”

But Halevi presses on in his search for the layering of meanings contained within the taking of the Old City. The tensions within the 55th Brigade are now writ large in Israel — the divisions between the religious and the secular, the settlers and the kibbutzniks, and the arguments over whether and how to change the “facts on the ground” that were first established in 1967. We read of how the veterans of that fateful mission go on to live their lives, to reinvent themselves, to enter and leave relationships, to pursue careers and enterprises in civilian life, to endure illness and confront death, and Halevi shows us how the same urgent issues that stirred in their hearts and minds in the heat of battle remain the same issues that the whole nation confronts today, often with heartbreaking and even fatal consequences.

That’s why “Like Dreamers” is such a rich, complex and eloquent book, both challenging and enlightening, an extraordinary effort on the part of the author to capture a vast historical saga through the lens of the lives of seven flesh-and-blood human beings.  

“In their disappointment, some Jews had forgotten to celebrate, how to be grateful,” Halevi concludes. “It was a recurring Jewish problem, as ancient as the first Exodus.” His achievement in “Like Dreams” is his own ability to celebrate the courage of the men of the 55th Brigade, without for a moment overlooking the perplexing aftermath of their victory on that remarkable day.

Rabbi David Wolpe and Sinai Temple, together with the Jewish Journal, host a discussion with Yossi Klein Halevi on Oct. 3, 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (310) 481-3243 or visit 

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Yossi Klein Halevi’s dream

Too many books about Israel try to tell us what to think or feel. Whether from the left or right, it seems that the subject of Israel brings out the emotional partisan in many of us. We feel strongly one way or the other, so we like to read books or articles that support our opinions.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong or surprising about that — it’s just that it usually doesn’t make for fascinating reading.

In his new, magisterial book about Israel, “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” my friend Yossi Klein Halevi has taken a different approach.

He’s written a book not of opinions, but of stories. Stories and dreams. By following the lives of seven soldiers bonded by a seminal event, and recounting their divergent narratives, he’s captured the complexity of Israel in human terms.

Yossi’s own dreaming began after a miraculous Israeli victory during one unforgettable summer.

“In late June 1967, a few weeks after the end of the Six-Day War, I flew to Israel with my father,” he writes in the book. “I was a fourteen-year-old boy from Brooklyn, and my father, a Holocaust survivor, had decided that he couldn’t keep away any longer.”

These paratroopers who “fulfilled a dream of two millennia” didn’t just change the history of Israel and the Middle East, he writes, they also changed his life.

“At the Wall, I watched my father become a believing Jew. He had lost his faith in the Holocaust; but now, he said, he forgave God. The protector of Israel had regained His will. It was possible for Jews to pray again.”

“That summer,” he writes, “everyone in Israel felt like family … Israel celebrated its existence, life itself. We had done it: survived the twentieth century. Not merely survived but reversed annihilation into a kind of redemption, awakened from our worst nightmare into our most extravagant dream.”

The young Yossi dreamed of returning one day to become an Israeli, and for good reason: “The great Jewish adventure was happening in my lifetime; how could I keep away?”

He made aliyah in the summer of 1982, but was hardly prepared for the messy adventure that awaited him. Israel had just invaded Lebanon in response to terror attacks on the Galilee. This was no summer of love.

“Instead of uniting Israelis, as it had in 1967, war now divided them. For the first time there were antigovernment demonstrations, even as soldiers were fighting at the front.

“The euphoria of the summer of ’67, the delusion of a happy ending to Jewish history, had been replaced by an awareness of the agonizing complexity of Israel’s dilemmas.”

Making sense of this agonizing complexity would come to define Yossi’s next 30 years.

This wasn’t exactly the dream he had in mind when he made aliyah — the dream shaped by his idealized view of Israel in that heroic summer of 1967.

This was a grown-up type of dream, where the test of love would be trying to understand all sides and not rush to judgment.

I’ve known Yossi since the summer of 2000. When I first met him, I knew only about his reputation as one of Israel’s most astute political analysts. I had no idea he was also deeply spiritual and meditated every morning. I learned more about that side of him from his last book, “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope With Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.”

These two sides — the spiritualist and the realist — have melded together in “Like Dreamers.” He has married the heartfelt sensitivity of spirituality with the hard-nosed demands of reality. 

“I tried to listen to the conflicting certainties that divided those who saw the results of 1967 as blessing from those who saw it as curse,” he writes. “Israel was losing the feeling of family that had drawn me there in the first place. Much of my career became focused on explaining the unraveling of the Israeli consensus.”

Not satisfied with producing only the piercing essays for which he is well known, in 2002, Yossi embarked on a decade-long journey to better understand the country he loves — to feel the Israeli reality through Israelis themselves — and to write about it.

The result is a poignant and deeply human portrait of a little nation navigating existential rapids through four tumultuous decades.

His masterstroke was to tell this story through the lives of the paratroopers who liberated the Western Wall where his father regained his faith in that fateful summer of ’67— when Yossi first began dreaming about Israel.

In thinking about these soldiers, he wondered: “How had the war changed their lives? What role did they play in trying to influence the political outcome of their military victory?”

It took hundreds of interviews all over the country, years of research, plenty of midnight meetings and more than a little soul searching to get at those answers.

In his journey, he discovered a group of Israeli soldiers who grew to become remarkably diverse — kibbutznik, religious Zionist, artist, peace activist, settler leader, capitalist, even an anti-Zionist.

The group came to represent some of the major schisms within Israeli society who “not only helped define the political debate of post ’67 Israel, but also its social and cultural transformations.”

Each of the paratroopers has a powerful story, but what truly distinguishes the book is how Yossi tells these stories.

By infiltrating the lives of these seven main characters over so many years, by observing and faithfully recounting their distinct and often-clashing narratives, by showing empathy even when it was difficult and by weaving in his insightful commentary, Yossi has delivered an Israel that dares to be authentic. 

An Israel that transcends caricature and humanizes the flawed heroes and dreamers of the Jewish nation, including, yes, even the much-maligned settlers.

An Israel gritty enough to face the reality of life-threatening problems with no easy answers.

An Israel that can be both united and divided, as when he writes: “Secular kibbutzniks and religious Zionists disagreed about God and faith and the place of religion in Jewish identity and the life of the state.

“Yet for all their differences, religious Zionism and the secular kibbutz movement agreed that the goal of Jewish statehood must be more than the mere creation of a safe refuge for the Jewish people.”  

It is this unifying and aspirational idea that fuels the book.

As its title suggests, the book is indeed a story of dreams, “a story about the fate of Israel’s utopian dreams, the vast hopes imposed on this besieged, embattled strip of land crowded with traumatized Jewish refugees.”

It’s a story of dreams that don’t go away, dreams that crash on each other, dreams that sometimes overlap, dreams that grudgingly evolve, dreams that are never fully realized.

It’s a story, above all, of complexity.

Here in the Diaspora, we’re tempted to look at this complexity and feel exhausted and get impatient and say, “Yeah, but the bottom line is that Israel must do this, or Israel must do that,” as if there really were only one bottom line.

Maybe the hidden message in “Like Dreamers” is that the absence of one bottom line is the bottom line.

And maybe the broader message in “Like Dreamers” is that if you had to pick one bottom line, it would be having the very freedom to follow one’s dreams.

That may well be Israel’s least-noticed and most notable achievement — how an embattled Jewish nation surrounded by enemies managed to create a society where its “traumatized refugees” felt free to follow their dreams, even when those dreams threatened to tear the country apart.

In giving us such a compelling portrait of Israel’s complex humanity, Yossi Klein Halevi has followed his own evolving and never-ending dream.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

‘For 2,000 years, the Temple Mount was off-limits to Jews’

Excerpted from Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Like Dreamers: The Story of Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation”

The next morning, the three battalions of Brigade 55 assembled on the Temple Mount, for a victory lineup. Only a week earlier they had been boarding buses ascending in a slow convoy to Jerusalem.

They gathered in the area between the Dome of the Rock and the silver-domed Al Aqsa mosque. The ceremony was delayed for the wounded. Motta had given the order that those who could be moved from their hospital beds should be brought to the ceremony.

Yoel Bin-Nun stood at the foot of the steps leading up to the Dome of the Rock. Any further, and he risked treading on the area of the Holy of Holies.

“Why aren’t you going up?” a kibbutznik asked him.

“This is the area of the Temple,” Yoel explained. “A victory lineup could have been done at the Wall. I see the bulldozers have already cleared the area,” he added sarcastically.

“But Yoel, isn’t the Temple Mount the essence?”

Yoel savored the irony: Here was a kibbutznik from Hashomer Hatzair berating a Kookian for seemingly underplaying the centrality of the Temple Mount. Kibbutzniks and Kookniks together: That’s what made the victory possible. 

In two days, Israel would be celebrating the holiday of Shavuot, marking the giving of the Torah at Sinai. For Yoel, it was also the festival of Jewish unity: The Torah was received by the whole people of Israel, functioning like a single body with one heart. And not since Sinai had the Jews been as united they were in these last weeks. The spiritual calculus was self-evident: Disunity brings destruction; unity, redemption.

The midday sun was strong, and men began removing their helmets. One dropped to the stone ground, then another, until there was a volley of crashing helmets. To Hanan Porat, it seemed a spontaneous ceremony marking the end of the war, perhaps the end of all war.

Accompanied by nurses, the wounded arrived, in casts and on wheelchairs. Avital Geva wasn’t among them: He was recovering from one operation and awaiting the next.

The intact rushed over to the wounded. There were hugs, anxious inquiries about missing friends.

Then the men lined up by battalion and faced the Dome of the Rock. Motta, Stempel and Uzi Narkiss stood before the soldiers. Motta had asked Arik to join them, but he preferred to stand with his staff.

I would gladly have forgone this victory, thought Arik, had it not been forced on us. Motta addressed his men: “For two thousand years, the Temple Mount was off-limits to Jews. Until you came — you, the paratroopers — and restored it to the embrace of the nation. The Western Wall, toward which every heart beats, is again in our hands.

“Many Jews risked their lives, throughout our long history, to come to Jerusalem and live in it. Innumerable songs expressed the deep longing … In the War of Independence, great efforts were made to return to the nation its heart — the Old City and the Western Wall.

“To you fell the great honor of completing the circle, to return to the nation its capital and the center of its holiness.

“Many paratroopers, including our closest friends, the most veteran and the best among us, fell in the difficult battle. It was a merciless battle, in which you functioned as a body that pushes aside everything in its way without noting its wounds. You didn’t complain … Instead, you aspired only forward …

“Jerusalem is yours — forever.”

The brigade was discharged, but the officers stayed on for debriefings and hospital visits to see the wounded. Motta asked Arik to remain in uniform for another three months, until the fall semester at university, to prepare the final report on the battle for Jerusalem. Arik had had other plans. He needed to make up exams. And he intended to marry Yehudit Hazan. But he couldn’t say no to Motta.

That night, the two men shared a hotel room. After showering, they sat in their underwear, on the edge of their beds. “Tell me who,” said Motta.

Until then, Motta hadn’t had a complete list of the brigade’s dead. Arik began reciting from memory the names of their fallen friends, over 20 of the brigade’s veterans alone, with whom they’d served since the mid-1950s.

Motta broke out in loud sobs.

Arik couldn’t remember the last time he had wept; that was a privilege denied him. He bowed his head, averting his gaze to give Motta an approximation of privacy, and waited until the weeping passed.

Yossi Klein Halevi on “Peoplehood and Identity in Contemporary Israeli Music”

Yossi Klein Halevi talks to UCLA’s Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israeli Studies.