Is peace still possible between Israelis and Palestinians? After the events of the last 25 years, the answer from most Israelis seems to be “not for the foreseeable future.”
But it is this loss of hope that convinced author Yossi Klein Halevi to write a book that can be the beginning of a new sort of dialogue. His Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor is an eloquent plea for mutual understanding by someone who believes deeply in peace, but is not so blinded as to ignore the reasons why efforts to end the conflict have been unsuccessful.
Halevi is no stranger to the task of trying to bridge the gap. A fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, he has championed the concept of honest dialogue between Jews and Muslims. Though perhaps best known for his riveting 2013 Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, he also wrote At the Entrance to the Garden of Evil: A Jews’ Search for G-d With Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land, in which he recounted his journey to understand other faiths and their traditions.
His new book is a series of letters addressed to an unknown, unnamed Palestinian who lives across the valley and beyond the security fence from Halevi’s Jerusalem home. In it, he attempts to explain not only why conflict persists, but why the Jews are there. Recognizing that the chief obstacle to reconciliation is a Palestinian narrative that denies Jewish ties to the land or even Jewish peoplehood, Halevi lays out the case for Israel. In doing so, he has not written a polemic that seeks to deny Palestinian peoplehood or ties to the same land. Rather, his intention is to demonstrate the legitimacy of both narratives, to pave the way for a compromise that might enable a two-state solution.
Palestinian and Muslim readers have much to gain from this slim volume, primarily because of the unproductive nature of most outreach programs. Dialogue between Arabs and Jews generally consists of the former lambasting Israel for its sins, and the latter agreeing. Such discussions do nothing to help Palestinians understand that viewing Zionism as evil accomplishes nothing.
While Halevi is honest about Israel’s shortcomings, he does not, like most peace activists, downplay the case for Zionism or the legitimacy of Jewish security concerns. He realizes that Palestinians need to know why Jews have returned to their ancient homeland and, just as important, why they don’t plan on leaving.
Contrary to the rhetoric we often hear from some who speak for “peace,” Halevi does not consider Israel’s founding sinful. His belief in peace is rooted in the notion that Israel’s cause is just. Nevertheless, he asserts that peace must be based on recognition of the humanity of its antagonists and the necessity of sharing the land with them.
We should all hope that the Palestinians to whom Halevi’s letters are addressed will read them, but while Halevi says he has already received responses from Palestinians, it’s hard not to be skeptical about Letters gaining an audience on the other side of the border. The generation that grew up in the West Bank and Gaza after the Oslo Accords has been indoctrinated with hatred of Israelis and Jews. Even as Israel celebrates its 70th birthday as a regional superpower with a First World economy, Palestinians apparently believe that history can be erased. When tens of thousands are charging the border fence to support the “return” of descendants of the 1948 refugees — with the goal of eliminating the Jewish state — it isn’t likely that many will be swayed by Halevi’s appeals for mutual recognition. Nor do I think there will be many takers for his publisher’s offer of a free download in Arabic.
But this reality shouldn’t consign Halevi’s book to the pile alongside, for example, Shimon Peres’ The New Middle East. Young American Jews should be reading Halevi even if Palestinians don’t.
Palestinians could profit from the lessons Halevi teaches about the necessity and justice of Zionism, why Jews are a people and not just a faith, what happened in 1948 and 1967, why the peace process has failed, the nature of Israeli society and the case for a two-state solution. But it is also required reading for a generation of American Jews who are largely ignorant about the conflict, who arrive on college campuses unarmed when confronted with anti-Zionist lies. It is this group of kids, often unduly influenced by intersectional propaganda, who should be enlightened by Halevi’s letters.
We hear from Israel’s critics that young Jews are fed one-sided accounts of the conflict, that we don’t hear enough about Palestinian suffering. Those arguments are largely specious. But if what has been lacking is a rational account that makes a case for both Israel’s rights and for peace, Letters supplies exactly that. For those looking for a book that is both pro-Israel and pro-peace, Halevi has supplied the answer.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.