December 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.