November 15, 2019

Yossi Klein Halevi’s New Conversation

Yossi Klein Halevi

One of the most celebrated books in the Jewish world last year was my friend Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” described by Halevi as “a series of ten letters about Israel, Zionism and Jewish identity, written to an anonymous Palestinian who lives in the village across from my home in the French Hill neighborhood at the edge of Jerusalem, separated by the security wall that divides our two hills.”

The book achieved the rare feat of appealing to all sides of the ideological spectrum. The left-leaning Forward called it “Refreshingly honest. … In explaining Israel to the Palestinians, [Halevi] appeals to a certain ideal, a higher ambition, a sense of wonder and beauty.” The right-leaning Commentary called it “Powerful and eloquent. … Capturing the enduring Jewish love of the land of Israel and the magic as well as the dilemmas of Zionism, the letters are highly compelling. There is no one better suited to tell the story of Israel and the Jewish people than Halevi.”

“Halevi gives us an exclusive firsthand account of how these Palestinian responses found their way to him, and how they ended up in the new edition of the book.”

The magic of the book, however, was not simply in Halevi’s ability to recount his Jewish narrative. It was in how he simultaneously recognized a narrative that runs totally counter to his.

As Halevi writes in his cover story this week:

“For me, 1948 is the greatest moment of Jewish redemption since the biblical Exodus; for Palestinians, it is the shattering of their collective and personal existence. I blame the Arab and Palestinian leadership for initiating a war of destruction against our return home; they blame Zionism for supposedly intending, since its founding, to usurp their home.

“I consider Israel’s preemptive strike in the 1967 Six-Day War the ultimate expression of a nation’s right to self-defense; Palestinians consider it an act of aggression, a premeditated land grab. We disagree about almost every facet of this conflict, from Zionism’s origins to the most recent Gaza border riots.”

When I read words like “1948 is the greatest moment of Jewish redemption since the biblical Exodus,” I get Zionist goosebumps. When I read words like “for Palestinians, it is the shattering of their collective and personal existence,” it sobers me up.

This dance between the passionate assertion of one’s truth and the compassionate recognition of an opposite truth is virtually unheard of in the same book, let alone the same person. It is that dance, so artfully rendered by Halevi, that made “Letters” break through the polarized talking points of our stale communal conversation.

And yet, for all of its magic, the book was just a beginning. Halevi’s wish was to ignite responses from real Palestinian neighbors and begin a deeper and more complex conversation.

He got his wish.

In his cover story, Halevi gives us an exclusive firsthand account of how these Palestinian responses found their way to him, and how they ended up in the new edition of the book, which is being released this month.

In reaching out to his Palestinian neighbors, Halevi wanted to find “partners [who] would be willing to model a new kind of conversation, in which both sides accept the legitimacy of each other’s presence in the land. In the conversation I envisioned, neither narrative would attempt to displace the other but would, instead, maintain a painful coexistence.”

“The net effect of this new edition is a sense of humility. It reminds us that there are no easy answers. It honors uncertainty.” 

The Palestinian letters, he writes in the new edition, “express, in turn, deep anger, and passionate but respectful disagreement.” You will see examples of those sentiments and a few others in Halevi’s story.

Some of the responses are difficult to stomach for an Israel lover who hears them for the first time. Others are pleasantly surprising. They are all, in their own way, heart-wrenching. These are sincere voices, and it is to Halevi’s credit that he publishes them in full, even if he disagrees with plenty of it.

The net effect of this new edition is a sense of humility. It reminds us that there are no easy answers. It honors uncertainty. After reading this book, you realize the emptiness of easy answers like “End the Occupation,” which are utterly devoid of any humility or complexity. 

Halevi wants answers, too. He just knows that answers are not possible until both sides honestly confront the painful questions. His new edition is a conversation guide for how to get there.