January 18, 2019

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.