September 21, 2019

Letters From My Palestinian Neighbors

“Dear Future Neighbor: I call you ‘future neighbor’ because we aren’t yet neighbors. Neighbors live in equality. Neighbors have shared rights and duties. Neighbors share moments of joy and check on each other in times of distress. As long as Israel continues to occupy me and my people, we can’t be neighbors. But I want to be your neighbor, and I hope that one day we will be. And so I write to you now, my future neighbor.”

So begins a letter I received from a young Palestinian man who grew up in a refugee camp in the West Bank. The letter was written in response to my book “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.” The book is a series of 10 letters about Israel, Zionism and Jewish identity, written to any Palestinian living in the village across from my home in the French Hill neighborhood at the edge of Jerusalem, separated by the security wall dividing our two hills.

My letters were attempts to tell something of the Jewish story to our neighbors. I often wrote during sleepless nights, looking out at the lights of Palestinian homes, listening to the muezzin mark the stages of my insomnia. I had no idea if anyone on the other side would read my letters or bother responding — let alone what someone might say.

To my knowledge, in all the years of conflict, no Israeli writer had turned to our neighbors to try to explain who we are and why we are here; why the Jewish people returned home; why we consider the land we share with Palestinians to be home. The letters are meant to counter the widespread perception in Palestinian society and throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds that Jews are thieves without any history in this land, being Jewish is a religion only, and we are not a people entitled to national sovereignty. Media, school curricula and sermons in mosques reinforce this virtually uncontested narrative.

In “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” I explain to my neighbors the meaning, as I understand it, of Judaism and Jewish identity. I want them to understand why Jews aren’t just a religion, but a people — a people with a religious identity and an attachment to a specific land. In my experience, many Muslims tend to misunderstand the centrality of peoplehood in Jewish identity, which only reinforces their denial of Israel’s legitimacy. “We have nothing against the Jews as a religion,” I’ve heard Muslims repeatedly say, “but Israel is political, not religious.” In “Letters,” I try to explain why Israel is not merely a political but also an identity issue. It is the heart of my identity as a religious Jew.

I wrote the book with one more intention: to elicit responses from my neighbors. I invited them to tell me their collective narrative and personal stories. My hope was that I would hear from Palestinians prepared to engage with me on the basic premise of the book: This was a conflict between two indigenous peoples — in our case, a re-indigenized people — each of whom could make a compelling case based on its own narrative for why this land belongs, by right, to them.

I had no delusions of convincing Palestinians to replace their conflict narrative with mine, just as Palestinians will not convince me to replace my narrative with theirs. 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 last Friday’s recent Gaza border riots.

We can reduce our war of narratives to this question: Is the “original sin” of this conflict the decision of the Jews to return after 2,000 years, or is it the Arab world’s attempt to thwart our return?

Both sides felt they had no choice but to act the way they did. Given the overwhelming centrality of the land of Israel in Jewish faith, identity and memory, sooner or later, we had to try to return home — and not only because of persecution. For its part, the Arab world, with its memories of foreign subjugation and humiliation, saw Zionism not as the return of a native people but as one more colonialist invasion.

My goal in reaching out to my neighbors was to find Palestinian partners — even a handful who, like me, represented no one but themselves. Those partners 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.

For me, the key word was “model.” I was keenly aware of my limited reach. I am a writer, not a politician. All I could hope to do was tell my people’s story, invite Palestinian response and see what happened next.

My decision to focus on the narratives came from the belief that this conflict is, above all, a struggle between competing histories. It’s not so much a war over tangibles, but intangibles: memory, identity, trauma, the right to define oneself as a people, the right to exist. Not that the tangible issues of borders, settlements, refugees and holy places aren’t crucial, but those dilemmas are results rather than causes of the deeper conflict. Diplomats and politicians will continue to fail at peace as long as they focus on consequences rather than root causes.

“I wrote the book with one more intention: to elicit responses from my neighbors. I invited them to tell me their collective narrative and personal stories.” 

It is self-evident that there will be no chance for reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis if the Arab world continues to dismiss our legitimacy. Many right-wing Jews often do the same to Palestinians, telling them, You aren’t a real people. You’ve invented your national identity. This is true — but it’s true for all people. By definition, “a people” is an invented construct. When Israelis and Palestinians deny each other’s right to self-definition, they are in effect saying, We know who you are better than you know yourself. That mindset leads to the stalemate and despair that define our relationship today.

The initial responses I received from Palestinians, sent to my Facebook page, were hardly encouraging, but also hardly surprising to any Israeli who lives within this conflict. Most responses were one- or two-line messages of dismissal and contempt. Some expressed outright hatred: You have no history, no future; the army of Mohammed is coming to get you.

But there were other responses, too. “I am reading your book,” wrote a young woman from Gaza, “because I hope it will give me hope.” Correspondents invited me for coffee around the West Bank. Some respondents wrote long letters, arguing with my version of historical events; for example, who was responsible for the collapse of the Oslo peace process. Those letters were written with anger, pain and bitterness — but also respect. Some people expressed gratitude to me for reaching out. They were willing to engage with me and, more importantly, with my people’s story. Here were Palestinians who accepted my book’s premise of two indigenous peoples, each of whom was entitled to its sovereign place in the land we are fated to share.

It didn’t matter that they were a self-selecting group, with many of them writing in English, willing to engage with an Israeli and even a Zionist narrative. I had set out to find someone — anyone — on the other side with whom to model a new kind of conversation. I found partners — or rather, they found me.

One afternoon, a young Palestinian man I didn’t know showed up at my Jerusalem office in the Shalom Hartman Institute. “I read your book in English and then in Arabic,” he said to me in excellent English. “The Arabic is terrible.”

He retrieved a few pages of Arabic text from his bag. “This is my translation,” he said. “If you like it, I’ll translate your book.”

I showed the translation to a few Arabic speakers whose judgment I trust, and they were unanimous: Whoever did this is a gifted translator. I hired him to re-translate the book. Out of fear for his safety, he insisted on anonymity — and that, too, is part of this story.

Afterward, he wrote to tell me about his experience: “Translating this book has taught me about the Jewish fears that are based on deep traumas. For us Palestinians, understanding those fears is crucial. … I say ‘crucial’ because I witness the negative consequences of these fears and how they affect my day-to-day life and my reality as a resident of the West Bank — consequences that are also crucial for the Israeli side to acknowledge.

“I will be lying to you, neighbor, if I hid the difficulties that I faced while translating this book. Becoming your translator required me to focus on delivering your message objectively and to educate about your history and your pain — in my language. If you put yourself in my shoes, I am sure you will understand how emotionally challenging that has been.”

Professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi wrote a long response to my book on his Facebook page. Dajani Daoudi created a scandal in Palestinian society after leading a 2014 trip to Auschwitz for a group of 27 students from Al-Quds University, where he headed the American Studies graduate program and was general director of libraries. Dajani Daoudi left the university after the administration made it impossible for him to continue working there. His car was torched and he received death threats.

In his letter to me, Dajani Daoudi agreed Palestinian society needs to come to terms with Jewish indigenousness. However, he challenged me to stop excusing my side for its share of responsibility in the current impasse. He deeply disagreed with my version of why the Oslo peace process collapsed — faulting both sides for the failure. Like most Israelis, I unequivocally blame the Palestinian leadership. He wrote, “You argue that the occupation did not create violence but that violence prolonged the occupation. Since the premise is false, the conclusion cannot be valid. The occupation tarnished by subjugation boosted extremism.”

Then there is Subhi Awad. When I first posted an announcement on Facebook about my forthcoming book, he wrote, “So will you explain to your neighbor why occupation is a good thing?” 

“I’m hoping to create a different kind of conversation,” I responded. 

I assumed that was the end of our communication, but he disarmed me, immediately writing back, “I apologize for my tone.”

“Let’s get together,” I wrote. “Where do you live?”

“Australia,” he replied.

So we Skyped — and developed an instant connection, despite the fact that Awad was a boycott Israel activist. He had Googled me before our talk and knew exactly where I stood.

We began corresponding with long letters posing hard questions to each other, exploring possibilities of convergence. Are you prepared to accept a right of return only to a Palestinian state rather than to Israel? I pressed. Given that Awad had grown up in a refugee camp in Beirut, this was a particularly sensitive question. Yes, he replied.

Are you prepared to accept a Palestinian state with territorial contiguity and not a pretend state broken up by settlements? he asked.

Yes, I replied.

When my book came out, I sent him a copy. He wrote back: “I have read your book three times. One with my Palestinian hat on, one with my attempting empathy hat on, and just now as a rookie book critic. And I find my reaction to it full of duality, too.”

“Duality” aptly describes the extraordinary experience of another letter writer who responded to my book, Yousef Bashir. As a teenager growing up in Gaza during the Second Intifada, Bashir was shot in the back by an Israeli soldier. Bashir was paralyzed — then healed in an Israeli hospital. The prolonged encounter with Israelis transformed him. Similarly, Dajani Daoudi’s encounters with the humanity of Israelis at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem transformed him from radical to peacemaker. Israeli hospitals may be the most potent sources of coexistence in this conflict.

Bashir, who served as congressional liaison for the PLO Embassy in Washington, D.C., recently published an excellent memoir called “The Words of My Father,” which includes a letter to the unknown soldier who shot him. In his letter to me, Bashir challenged my right to live in my East Jerusalem neighborhood, French Hill, which was built over the green line after the Six-Day War. Israelis across the political spectrum regard French Hill, like other post-’67 neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, as part of the state of Israel; in fact, half the families in my building are Arab Israelis.

Despite our deep disagreement, Bashir ended his letter to me with these simple but stunning words: “Welcome home, Yossi.” Those are words Jews still wait to hear from a Palestinian leader. Hearing them from Bashir, a proud Palestinian nationalist, reminded me that transformation is possible.

Bashir also validated one of the key premises of my book: In trying to explain Zionism to Palestinians and Muslims, only a religious language seems to have a chance of resonating. “It is a wonderful thing to be reminded by you that we both proclaim God’s oneness,” Bashir wrote, “because above all else, that is what’s important. I appreciate your connection to God. It brought me closer to your narrative in some profound ways.”

One of the ironies of the Israeli-Arab conflict is that the secular left-wing camp, which is keen on dialogue with our neighbors, culturally and spiritually is the least able to do so among Israeli Jews; while that part of Israeli society — religious and traditional Jews, especially Mizrahim — that is best qualified to find common ground with the Arab world tends to be the least interested. The reasons for that include the traumatic memories among Mizrahim of uprooting and expulsion from the Muslim world.

“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” is an attempt to break that deadlock by nurturing a religious language for peacemaking.

Huda Abuarquob, regional director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (an umbrella organization of coexistence groups), reinforced the religious point in her letter to me. “Your letters confirmed my feeling that religious narratives shape the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” Abuarquob wrote. “Religion is meant to unite us; why do we, the descendants of Abraham, fight among ourselves? And for what? Is it because these religious narratives put us in two different categories: the chosen and the non-chosen? Is it because Abraham did not resolve his issues in his relationship with his sons and wives? Is it because we both think we are victims of ongoing forms of oppression? Should we rethink these narratives and try to offer the next generation of Jews and Palestinians a new narrative of shared destiny and shared values of humanity and justice?”

While preparing this new edition of “Letters,” I reached a self-evident decision. Rather than include my responses to their letters, I would let their words stand alone. That meant giving the Palestinian narrative the last word in the book. I did so to honor the courage and goodwill of those who wrote to me. In seeking a new kind of conversation between Palestinians and Israelis, I felt the need to discard the old pattern of scoring points. In my decision was an implicit critique to the generally brutal culture of current discourse. Showing generosity to a political opponent isn’t weakness, but it is strength.

“My decision to focus on the narratives came from the belief that this conflict is, above all, a struggle between competing histories. It’s not so much a war over tangibles, but intangibles: memory, identity, trauma, the right to define oneself as a people, the right to exist. Not that the tangible issues of borders, settlements, refugees and holy places aren’t crucial, but those dilemmas are results rather than causes of the deeper conflict.” 

The new epilogue contains several letters from non-Palestinian Arabs, including a Jordanian referring to himself as “your somewhat distant neighbor.” He wrote: “Why the hell did it take your people so long to reach out to us, the people you will be living in the midst of?” I was tempted to adopt that line as the book’s epigraph.

Several Arab publications have taken notice. The first Arab-language newspaper to write about “Letters” was one of Morocco’s leading dailies, Al Ahdath Al Maghribia, which published a front-page review. “Perhaps Yossi’s book constitutes an opening for Palestinians and Israelis to embark on constructive and honest dialogue,” wrote the reviewer, “one based on greater familiarity with each other’s identity and making full peace with it. As for the region as a whole, this dialogue is a great step toward peace.”

Most intriguing was the review published on June 18 in Majalla, Saudi Arabia’s most popular news weekly. The review, which appeared in both the magazine’s Arabic and English editions, offered a letter-by-letter synopsis of the book. It concluded: “Yossi Klein Halevi has honored his commitment to objectivity. He has aired the manifestations of intolerance and extremism on both sides. … He pins his hope on spiritual aspects of the commonality between the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac. ‘Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor’ is a source of reference on the history of Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At a time of turbulence across the Arab region, it paves the way for a future of greater understanding.”

For all the success of “Letters,” it took me two years to find a publisher. Nearly every editor to whom the manuscript was submitted offered variations of the same response: Find a Palestinian interlocutor with whom to exchange letters and we’ll publish it. Otherwise, this just sounds like one-way preaching.

I understood the point. The greatest challenge I faced with “Letters” was finding the right tone. How do I write in a credible and empathic way to an adversarial neighbor? How can I be sensitive to Palestinian suffering, cognizant of the vast disparity in power between my hill and my neighbor’s, yet be unapologetic about my people’s story?

Still, I rejected the editors’ recommendations and insisted on my original format. I explained that addressing an unknown neighbor was the most honest reflection of our dismal reality. To find a Palestinian willing to engage with me might be comforting to a New York editor, but that hardly reflected my daily reality, or the reality of most Israelis and Palestinians. We are increasingly cut off from one another, lacking even the most casual human interaction.

So I began the book this way: “Dear Neighbor, I call you ‘neighbor’ because I don’t know anything personal about you. Given our circumstances, ‘neighbor’ may be too casual a word to describe our relationship. We are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home. We are living incarnations of each other’s worst historical nightmares. Neighbors?”

However, there was a deeper reason why I insisted on a one-way series of letters. The Israeli narrative, I told editors, was being erased, not only in the Arab world but increasingly in progressive circles in the West. I felt an urgent need for a book that would tell the Israeli story without the distraction of another Israeli-Palestinian debate. But that, I explained, would be the first phase of the book. The second phase would be going public with Palestinian responses.

Just when I had given up finding a publisher, Sofia Groopman, an editor I didn’t know at HarperCollins, wrote to say she wanted to publish it. I don’t mean to minimize the significance of your outreach to your neighbor, wrote 27-year-old Groopman, but as a young American Jew who has been alienated from Israel, you have my attention. 

Groopman confirmed another hope I’d nurtured: This book also would speak to young American Jews who might be tempted to “eavesdrop” on my conversation with my neighbor.

“Diplomats and politicians will continue to fail at peace as long as they focus on consequences rather than root causes.”

To my surprise, the mainstream American Jewish spectrum embraced “Letters.” AIPAC Policy Conference and the J Street National Conference invited me to speak about the book. Both left-wing Forward and right-wing Commentary endorsed the book: the Forward for the empathy with Palestinian suffering, and Commentary for the rigorous defense of Zionism. For a highly opinionated book about Israel to be endorsed by both the Forward and Commentary seemed to be potential good news for American Jewry; the possibilities for common ground over Israel may be broader than we realized.

Those combined endorsements embodied the book’s intention: to acknowledge the Palestinian tragedy while affirming the integrity of our people’s story. In holding both those positions, “Letters” seeks to transcend the sterile left-right debate and offer a different approach with which to speak about the conflict.

That approach comes from my long-time affiliation with the Israeli political center. Many American Jews have yet to internalize the profound changes that have happened in Israel since the Second Intifada, beginning in 2000 — especially the collapse of the left and the emergence of the center.

During the Second Intifada, most Israelis concluded that for the Palestinian national movement, the conflict wasn’t about ending the consequences of 1967, but of 1948 — undoing Israel’s existence. As a result, the Israeli left — which had assured us that if we made a credible offer, the other side would respond — lost all credibility and never recovered. 

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the Israeli narrative of the Second Intifada, what ultimately matters is most Israeli Jews deeply believe it. Any discussion of Israeli society’s rightward drift in recent years must begin there. The events of 2000 transformed Israeli politics for a generation, much like the Arab world’s violent rejection of U.N. partition in 1947 did for the founders’ generation.

During the recent Israeli elections, the contest wasn’t between right and left, but right and center — with the centrist Blue and White party tying the Likud at 35 Knesset seats (although the right wing generally emerged as the larger bloc). The four left-wing parties combined barely won a sixth of the Knesset’s seats. Labor, the party that founded the State of Israel and governed virtually uncontested for its first three decades, emerged with all of six seats — smaller than either of the two ultra-Orthodox parties.

Yet American Jewry remains in a kind of time warp, still fighting the old battles of left versus right. It is only when I visit liberal American Jewish communities that I encounter far-left groups such as Breaking the Silence, which have virtually no presence in Israeli discourse but fill great space in many American Jews’ imagination.

In effect, the Israeli center has internalized the left-right argument over the Palestinians, absorbing both camps’ crucial insights. A centrist agrees with the left that ending the occupation is an existential necessity for Israel, saving us from the demographic and moral disasters of a binational state. Yet a centrist also agrees with the right that ending the occupation could be an existential threat to Israel, creating a Hamas-led state on the border with Tel Aviv and inside East Jerusalem. A centrist, then, has two nightmares: There won’t be a Palestinian state, and the status quo will continue indefinitely; and there will be a Palestinian state, and Israel may not be able to adequately defend itself. 

A centrist opposes the twin delusions of the left’s “peace now” and the right’s “annexation now.” A centrist insists on holding open the possibility of a two-state solution and resists the current slide toward a one-state disaster — a dissolution of the Jewish state. A centrist is committed to exploring — however warily — any opening on the other side for partners in an eventual agreement.

A centrist shares the two sources of anguish about Israel that divide the Jewish people. Like Jews on the left, a centrist agonizes about the consequences of keeping Palestinians in permanent limbo. How is it possible, asks the centrist, that the Jewish people, which for thousands of years have told themselves a foundational story about slavery in Egypt and the need to treat the stranger fairly, that defined itself as a people of rachmanim bnei rachmanim, merciful children of merciful parents, now make their peace with ruling over another people? Why does there appear to be so little anguish about the moral consequences of occupation among right-wing Jews? How is it possible that after the Holocaust, some Jews seem to have lost their commitments to remaining a people grounded in morality?

But a centrist also has a right-wing side. Like Jews on the right, a centrist never forgets the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is part of a wider context. We live on a volcano erupting around us, with one Arab country after another imploding, and with enemies on our borders digging tunnels, firing rockets and organizing mass riots to tear down the fences. Centrists view the conflict through a kind of split screen in their heads: On one side, it’s Israel versus the Palestinians, and we are Goliath and they are David; on the other side, it’s Israel versus the region, and we are acutely vulnerable.

Centrists share the rage of the right: How is it possible that 70 years after the Holocaust, the Jewish people must still fight for their legitimacy, their right to exist? How is it possible the Jewish state is the most hated country in the world? How are we the only country targeted by an international boycott movement, and against whom the U.N. passes more resolutions than against all other countries combined?

“In telling only the story of Zionism as refuge, we have forgotten how to tell the story of Zionism as longing — the extraordinary story of an exiled people who maintained a kind of vicarious indigenousness with the land they lost but never forfeited.”

How is it, wonder centrists, that many Jewish leftists have seemingly lost their capacity for outrage against our enemies, against the attempts to boycott, isolate, demonize and ultimately erase the Jewish state? That many left-wing Jews seem to be stirred by threats to Israel’s soul yet show so little concern for its physical well-being? How is it possible that some Jews after the Holocaust seem to have lost their most basic instincts for self-preservation?

Along with a centrist perspective, “Letters” is an attempt to convey a 21st-century narrative of Israel. The American Jewish community still largely tells a 20th-century Zionist story, which begins with the pogroms in czarist Russia and culminates with the Holocaust and Israel’s founding.

This Euro-centric narrative has several problems. First, it erases half of Israel’s population, who come from families that left one part of the Middle East and came to another, and who didn’t experience the Holocaust. Second, it leaves us vulnerable to the anti-Zionist retort: Why should the Palestinians pay the price for what Europe did to the Jews? In telling only the story of Zionism as refuge, we have forgotten how to tell the story of Zionism as longing — the extraordinary story of an exiled people who maintained a kind of vicarious indigenousness with the land they lost but never forfeited. This is the story I have tried to tell in “Letters” — both to my Palestinians neighbors and to my American sisters and brothers.

The first phase of this book, telling my version of the Jewish story, came naturally to me. In one way or another, I’ve been defending our story for most of my life — as an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement, as an Israeli citizen, as a journalist and a writer. But the second phase of the book, the attempt to model a different kind of conversation with our adversaries, is uncharted territory for me. It is far more intuitive than structured — which is another way of saying I don’t know where I’m going with this or what to expect or even hope for.

It is deeply unsettling — even subversive — to lower one’s defenses and admit your adversary’s voice into your being. It is far easier to cope in a seemingly endless life-and-death conflict when you are armored with the certainty that absolute justice is on your side. Even if you reject basic elements of the other side’s narrative, giving place to its trauma risks weakening your resolve.

And for what? A fantasy of peace? Almost everyone in Israel knows there is no chance for peace anytime soon. The Israeli public — justifiably — will not risk creating one more dysfunctional Middle Eastern state on our most sensitive border. Not with the very real chance Hamas would take over the West Bank, even as Iran encircles our borders, with its Hezbollah proxy in southern Lebanon, its Hamas ally in Gaza, and its own Revolutionary Guard on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. If anything, whatever momentum is in the region is leading us closer toward war, not peace.

How do we balance the need for sobriety and self-protection while insisting on hope? How do I tell my Israeli neighbor that despite everything we’ve experienced over the past two decades — suicide bombings, rockets, missiles and now explosive-filled balloons aimed at civilian Israel — we still need to affirm the possibility of peace? How do we support the principle of a two-state solution while opposing the immediate creation of a Palestinian state? How do I tell my Palestinian neighbor who, after 52 years of occupation, is demanding statehood: Not now?

In other words, why should we even try to be peacemakers when peace is impossible for the foreseeable future? The answer is: Because one day it may become possible, and we will need new approaches from which to draw.

The region is changing rapidly, and no one can foresee where these changes will lead. Consider that review of “Letters” in Saudi Arabia’s leading news weekly. If someone had told me even a year ago that Majalla would publish a positive review of a book celebrating the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, I wouldn’t have believed it. The reason for the unprecedented willingness to respectfully treat a Zionist perspective is, of course, the growing strategic relationship between Israel and parts of the Sunni world against Iranian expansionism. My hope is this security alliance can evolve into a political alliance and Arab countries become involved in a regional effort — initiated not by Washington, but by the region itself — to solve the Palestinian problem.

Meanwhile, the most immediate threat toward an eventual solution comes from the Israeli right. For years, I’ve written that I support a two-state solution in principle, even if the time isn’t right. Now, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing to annex parts of Judea and Samaria in exchange for right-wing support in his legal battles, this is the time for those of us in the center who believe in a “yes, but” approach to a Palestinian state to say a vigorous “no” to any move likely to bury a two-state option.

“It is deeply unsettling — even subversive — to lower one’s defenses and admit your adversary’s voice into your being. It is far easier to cope in a seemingly endless life-and-death conflict when you are armored with the certainty that absolute justice is on your side. Even if you reject basic elements of the other side’s narrative, giving place to its trauma risks weakening your resolve.”

We need to nurture not only the hope that peace is possible, but the very aspiration for peace. This is not at the expense of self-protection, of keen awareness of the threats we face, but to keep us from cynicism and despair, which pose their own dangers to Israel’s long-term well-being.

One of Yasser Arafat’s most unforgivable crimes was to poison, with his duplicity and double-speak, the mere word “peace” for a generation of Israelis. Peace became conflated with threat. During the Second Intifada, I would cringe when I heard American Jews speak about “peace” — which became synonymous with the wishful thinking that had turned Israel’s public spaces into atrocity zones.

Despite our traumas, I now am trying to salvage — if only for myself — the very idea of peace as a primary Jewish value. “Seek peace and pursue it,” instructs the Torah. Why is there a need to mention the pursuit of peace? Isn’t seeking peace enough? Perhaps it is to tell us: Seek peace — when it is possible. Pursue peace — when it is not.

What the Torah seems to be telling us is that we are not responsible for making peace, only for pursuing it. Even I can’t bring peace, I need to act as if I can. With humility, common sense and caution, and with an open heart. As a person of faith, I must remember we are not alone. God can magnify any act of goodwill, no matter how forlorn.

Still, I sometimes ask myself, “Nu, really, what’s the point?” At those times, I think of Rawan Odeh and Bar Galin. Here is the joint letter they wrote me:

“Dear Yossi,

We are a ‘Palestinian girl’ from Nablus and an ‘Israeli boy’ from Jerusalem who met in Washington, D.C., during a program at American University. We are writing to tell you about the work we’ve begun together.

Rawan lived half her life in NYC and the other half in what she describes as the absolute opposite of the Big Apple, a conservative Muslim village outside Nablus, in the West Bank. That is where she experienced the implications of the Israeli occupation, where IDF (Israel Defense Forces) soldiers invaded her home and traumatized her and her younger siblings, where her mother was shot by an Israeli settler, where she first interacted with the other side holding rifles and pointing a gun at her on the Hawara checkpoint. … 

Bar was born in the Negev Desert in Kibbutz Beit Kama, next to the Bedouin city of Rahat. … The most important factor that made it hard for Bar to believe that the other side wanted to end the conflict was the fact that the Israeli disengagement from Gaza did not lead to peace, but rather to rockets falling around his neighborhood. From that moment on, including during his three-year army service, every interaction with Palestinians was centered around violence. … 

As a result of your book, we decided to travel to campuses across the U.S. and tell our very different stories alongside one another to students. This book brought us together to create a serious dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis in their twenties. We are the next generation that will be responsible for handling the consequences of the failures of the generation of Oslo, who today cannot let go of their preconceived notions of the other — especially the notion that the other is the only obstacle for moving forward. We have no other option except to create a new story.

In our program, we bring our narrative to all sides and meet with Christians, Muslims and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis. We’ve noticed that the audiences come with the same preconceived notions as the Oslo generation, denying either the notion of Palestinian nationality or Israel’s right to exist. We stand together to talk about the issue of Palestinian refugees, to discuss freedom of movement, and to address security requirements of both peoples. Although these hard subjects are almost impossible to negotiate today, the fact that we stand on a stage together shows that change is possible. We believe that a book can inspire people to respond, but a dialogue like ours can break barriers.

Your book showed us how to develop this method of encounter. We want these encounters to spread not only between Israelis and Palestinians living in the U.S. and other Western countries, but also to bring our approach to Israel and Palestine. We appeal to Israelis and Palestinians: If you see yourselves as responsible for helping create a new story, if you believe that the narrative of the other side doesn’t undermine your narrative, then say it out loud. Join the movement.”


Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. With Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, he co-directs the Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, which brings emerging Muslim American leaders to Jerusalem to study Judaism and Israel. He is author of the 2013 book “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” which won the Jewish Book Council’s Everett Book of the Year Award.

The new edition of “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” is available at Amazon. “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” is available in Arabic for free here.