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 just this general loss of hope that has convinced author Yossi Klein Halevi to write what he hopes is 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 by his hopes 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 between the two peoples. 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 Eden: A Jews’ Search for God With Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land, in which he recounted his journey seeking to understand other faiths and their traditions.
His new book is a series of letters addressed to an unknown and 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 the conflict persists, but why the Jews are there. Recognizing that among the chief obstacles 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 their ties to the same land. Rather, his intention is to demonstrate the legitimacy of both narratives in order to pave the way for a compromise that might enable a two-state solution that is, in theory, the most rational resolution to the century-old conflict.
Palestinian and Muslim readers have much to gain from this slim volume primarily because of the unproductive and misleading nature of most outreach programs. Dialogue between Arabs and Jews generally consists of the former lambasting Israel for its alleged sins and the latter agreeing with them. Such discussions do nothing to help Palestinians understand that an approach to the conflict that views Zionism as inherently evil will accomplish nothing.
While Halevi is honest about Israel’s shortcomings, he is not, like most peace activists, determined to ignore or downplay the case for Zionism or the legitimacy of Jewish security concerns. To the contrary, he realizes that Palestinians need to know why the 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 claim to speak for the cause of peace, Halevi does not consider Israel’s founding sinful or wrong. To the contrary, his belief in peace is rooted in the notion that the cause of Israel is just. Nevertheless, he asserts that peace must be based on a recognition of the common humanity of its antagonists and the necessity for sharing the land with them once they’ve given up their quest for Israel’s destruction.
That’s why we should all be hoping that the Palestinians to whom Halevi’s letters are addressed will read them.
While Halevi says he has already received some responses from Palestinians, given the current state of the conflict, it’s hard not to be skeptical about Letters gaining much of 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 in hatred of Israelis and Jews by the Palestinian Authority’s official media and school curricula. Even as Israel celebrates its 70th birthday as a nation with a First World economy and a military that makes it a regional superpower, Palestinians are discussing (and apparently believing) that history can be erased. If tens of thousands of them are charging the border fence in order to support the “return” by descendants of the 1948 refugees—in the goal of eliminating the Jewish state—then 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 publishers’ offer of free downloads of the book translated into Arabic.
But this dismal reality shouldn’t consign Halevi’s book to the remainder pile alongside, for example, Shimon Peres’ The New Middle East, an irrelevant appeal that documents the delusions of Jews about their antagonists. Young American Jews should be reading Halevi even if Palestinians don’t.
Palestinians could profit from learning the lessons Halevi teaches about the necessity and justice of Zionism, why Jews are a people and not just a faith community, what happened in 1948 and 1967, why the peace process has failed so far, 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, and who arrive on college campuses unarmed when confronted with anti-Zionist lies. It is this group of naive kids who are often unduly influenced by intersectional propaganda that should be enlightened by Halevi’s letters.
We hear a great deal from critics of Israel that most of what young Jews are fed about the conflict is one-sided, and 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, then Letters supplies exactly that. For those looking for a book that can reclaim the notion that it is possible to be both pro-Israel and pro-peace from groups willing to join the crowd of jackals snapping out unfair attacks at the Jewish state—and who deny the truth about Palestinian rejectionism—Halevi has supplied the answer.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.