Over the course of 10 letters, Yossi Klein Halevi, a bestselling author and researcher on Jewish and Israeli affairs based in Jerusalem, examines and unpacks issues central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The most significant obstacle to peace, writes Yossi Klein Halevi, is a lack of both sides listening to each other. His new book, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, has been recently translated into Arabic as part of Halevi’s aspiration to engage Palestinians and the broader Arab world. Halevi — also the author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, and Like Dreamers — puts the ideas he writes about into practice: Together with Imam Abdullah al-Entebli, he leads an American-supported project called the Muslim Leadership Initiative.
Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor presents a diary-like account of an Israeli citizen who aspires to engage Palestinians — both empathically, and on the basis of mutuality. Dividing the book into “letters” built around special days of sacred or symbolic importance, he shares stories about the events they commemorate, from ancient Jewish history to contemporary Arab-Israeli relations to the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Halevi delves into the impact of these events and their influence on people on either side of the conflict. He employs an appealing journalistic style — honed over decades of essay writing, notably in the American magazine The New Republic.
FIRST LETTER: "THE WALL BETWEEN US"
Halevi begins with reflections on the state of Israel as well as Palestine, from his vantage point on the French Hill in Jerusalem, not far from the separation wall. He clarifies the reason for addressing his reader as “neighbor:” though they do not know each other, their lives are vastly intertwined. “Neighbor,” Halevi explains, is a title that most closely reflects the current daily reality. “I feel the presence of that neighbor everywhere,” he writes, “even though I rarely see him.”
Halevi narrates his attempt to discover commonalities between the three monotheistic religions in this sacred capital. All regard the same God as holy, he observes, though the precariousness of this shared living is perpetuated by “mutual separation.” After all, the old city in Jerusalem is divided among Jewish, Muslim, and Christian areas.
In his quest to hone a religious language for peace, Halevi recalls his learning about Islam. He was surprised to find that the Islamic conscience fears neither death nor the temporality of being. He also concluded that if both Jews and Muslims build on the idea of temporality on this earth, they can develop a religious dialogue that reduces their polarization.
Halevi shows empathy with the Palestinian people, including its diaspora, and seeks to understand Palestinians’ claims to the land and listen to their narrative of struggle. At the same time, he explains, “Understanding your narrative doesn’t mean losing my loyalty and love for the right of return of my own, Jewish people to their land.” In the end, he believes it is a tenet of faith and doctrine.
Halevi then argues that the marginalization of the Israeli left — a movement opposed to the occupation of the West Bank — was a consequence of the collapse of Israeli faith in the peaceful intentions of Palestinian leaders. He blames the failed Oslo negotiation on Palestinian leaders, who did not respond to peace initiatives. He affirms that the best path to peace is a two-state solution — one that enables Palestinians to enjoy power as an independent state, and Israel to live peacefully among its neighbors in the Middle East.
He also blames the Arab world for rejecting Jews’ right of return, as well as Israelis for ignoring the rights of the Palestinians. He writes, “I cannot bear the impact of seemingly endless occupation on the lives of my neighbors — and also on my own moral credibility as a Jew.” He points to a teaching of Judaism: “Seek peace and pursue it.”
Halevy argues that the marginalization of the Israeli left — a movement opposed to the occupation of the West Bank — was a terrible mistake.
SECOND LETTER: "NEED AND LONGING"
In this chapter, the author delves deeper into Jewish life and holidays, and explains how Jews regard their special religious celebrations. He notes, for example, how something as mundane as a traffic signal in Israel reminds him of how his ancestors longed for statehood, then dwells on the lingering threat to his presence on this land. “We have returned to our land, but haven’t been fully redeemed.”
This letter shows how the assumption that the Holocaust was the main impetus for the Jewish return to Israel is incorrect. Israel, from a Jewish perspective, is a part of the Jewish collective memory: Jews have been asking God to return them to their land for centuries, since the Roman destruction of the Judean Kingdom and banning of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem, which continued into the Christian era. Halevi also notes that Muslim civilization was the more gracious in its dealings with Jews, beginning when Omar bin Al-Khattab allowed the return of some Jews to Jerusalem in 638 CE.
Halevi then goes on to review the birth of the Zionist movement, founded by Theodor Herzl, who failed to convince the Ottoman caliphate to permit the return of the Jews. His proposal was also rejected by the Vatican, which saw the Jews’ expulsion as punishment for their rejection of Jesus Christ. Halevi notes that Great Britain wanted to cooperate with Herzl, and proposed the so-called "plan of Uganda" to grant Jews citizenship there. This plan failed too, and Herzl died at the age of 44. Halevi believes that such a plan, had it succeeded, would only have amount to a further defeat in the Jews’ 2,000-year old longing to return to the land of their origin.
Halevi explains the formation of the Israeli polity, which began with the arrival of European Jews, and continued with the return of Jews from Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Russia, and elsewhere. Perhaps the most important point in this letter is the observation by Halevi that Zionism came to be shared as strongly by Orthodox, socialist, and secular Jews. In other words, Jews, with all their differences, share the connection to a certain land. Halevi meanwhile laments the present Palestinian reality of exile and diaspora, and believes that Palestinians too have a right of return to a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza — and the right to acquire Palestinian citizenship.
THIRD LETTER: "FATE AND DESTINY"
Next Halevi answers his Palestinian neighbor’s hypothetical questions about who the Jewish people are. Are they truly a nation or only a religion? He explains that the idea of "God's chosen people" means not that Jews enjoy divine privileges, but rather that they endure greater burdens and responsibilities as a nation. These observations also relate to the Jewish principle that every Jew is part of a larger family.
FOURTH LETTER: "NARRATIVE AND PRESENCE"
The next piece is written on the backdrop of Israel's independence day, a memory Jews cherished as they developed from living immigrant camps in the new and impoverished state of Israel to building skyscrapers in Tel Aviv — from the socialist kibbutz model to a grand Israeli state, albeit one notorious for its settlement policy in the West Bank. Halevi takes the reader back to 1882, when the first Zionist groups arrived in the port of Jaffa. "The Jews succeeded where the Crusaders and Ottomans and the British failed,” he tells his Palestinian neighbor, “because we didn’t merely come here; we returned.” He also clarifies that the intention of the Zionists was the resettlement of Jews, not the possession of Palestinian land or robbing of their property. He cites Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the leader of revisionist Zionism, who wrote, during the period leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel, “Arabs will be granted equality with Jews.”
Halevi urges Palestinians and Israelis to respect each other’s historical narrative, as doing so is essential to pave the way toward peace. He speaks out of experience interacting with Palestinians as a former Israeli soldier who served during the first intifada in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Halevi then returns to the historical trajectory, asserting that the war against the Zionist movement began in the aftermath of the First World War, with the massacres of Jews who arrived from Tsarist Russia to Palestine. The bloodiest massacre occurred in Hebron in 1929, in which Arabs killed 69 Jews, even as some Arabs saved 400 others by allowing them to escape. According to Halevi, the massacre proved an important turning point in the Zionist mindset, in that it severely challenged the belief in the possibility of coexistence between Jews and Palestinians. It was then that Ben Gurion and other Zionist leaders began to prepare for a long-term war with Arabs.
The Jewish population in the Arab world was about one million at that time. One of the most prominent Palestinian leaders, Jerusalem’s Grand Mufti Amin al-Husseini, meanwhile lived for a time as a guest of Hitler's, exhorting Muslims to ally with the Nazis and further the mass murder of Jews in the Middle East.
The letter explains that after 1947, hostilities were fueled by the United Nations decision to establish two independent states in Mandatory Palestine — a proposal that was rejected by the Palestinian national movement. Arabs attacked the Jews for six months in an attempt to conquer Israel. With respect to the displacement of Palestinians after the war, Halevi says it owed to a combination of voluntary flight, forced flight by Jews, and Arab leaders’ advice that they evacuate their homes for use by their armies.
FIFTH LETTER: "SIX DAYS AND 50 YEARS"
The next letter begins with the author’s preparations for Jerusalem Day, commemorating the unification of the city of Jerusalem on June 7, 1967. Halevi expresses his regret at the decision by the Israeli Supreme Court to reject a proposal by some activists to prohibit celebrations in Arab neighborhoods on this day. Halevi tells the story of the 1967 war, covering Israel’s preemptive strike on Egyptian air force fighter jets on June 4, and the subsequent Jordanian shelling of Israeli neighborhoods in West Jerusalem on June 5. Halevi writes that Israel took the decision to occupy the Old City and free it from Jordanian control. The events drastically changed the demarcation of the borders of the state of Israel. The letter also covers the settlement issue: Halevi explains that the first settlement, Kfar Etzion, was populated by young people returning to their homes that had been destroyed in 1948.
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and communist socialism in the early 1990s, the UN voted to reverse its previous decision, and dozens of countries began establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. This prompted Israelis to move forward toward the Oslo peace talks, demonstrating that Israelis are willing to work towards peace when met with mutual respect and recognition. That is what happened in 1977 after the late Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat visited Jerusalem. The visit led to a peace deal and Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai.
Halevi proceeds to offer a historical reading of events in Jerusalem, personal memories, and impressions of Israel. During his first visit to Israel, he writes, he felt both a permanent feeling of attachment to the land that his ancestors had struggled to access, and an awareness of the persistent insecurity and fear of Israel’s annihilation.
Halevi then references Yasser Arafat’s duplicity after the Oslo Accords — and his efforts to manipulate Israelis, which strengthened the conviction of a large segment of Israeli society that each of their concessions had brought only a new wave of Palestinian violence.
SIXTH LETTER: "THE PARTITION OF JUSTICE"
This letter begins in a tone fraught with uncertainty about the best way to reach a solution to the conflict. Can two peoples who have fought each other for a century reach peace? In light of the collective memory of each side, Halevi regards a two-state solution as the answer — albeit painful and by no means easy, as uprooting Jews from Judea, Samaria, and Hebron will leave a painful mark on the Jewish people. At the same time, he acknowledges how difficult it will be for Palestinians to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state without Jaffa and Haifa. Halevi concludes that the choice is between another 100 years of killing, or dividing the land.
SEVENTH LETTER: "ISAAC AND ISHMAEL"
The letter begins with the advent of Eid al-Adha, an occasion to highlight the commonality between Jews and Muslims, who share a father: Abraham of Hebron. Halevi notes the importance of the city of Hebron for both religions, and laments events such as the massacre of worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque by Baruch Goldstein, in which 29 Palestinians were killed and dozens injured. Halevi alerts readers that respect of others’ beliefs and traditions can dispel hatred and curb resentment. Not many Jews appreciate the depth of religious meaning the Al-Aqsa Mosque has for Muslims, while not many Arabs grasp the Jews’ holy connection to the Temple Mount. Halevi ends the letter with an explanation of the Jewish and Muslim versions of the story of Abraham and his son Ismael.
EIGHTH LETTER: "THE ISRAELI PARADOX"
Halevi now reveals his fears about the consequences of the separation wall on future generations of Israelis and Palestinians. Whereas friction and misunderstanding pervade the area today, before the wall was built in the year 2000, both sides had the opportunity to directly communicate.
Halevi goes on to explain the nature of present-day Israeli society, and the paradox of a secular state based on a sacred land. One contradiction in the structure of Israeli society is that the establishment of the state resulted in the unification of Jewish communities that had been dispersed across the world. He draws on his own story as an example. Growing up in a Jewish community in New York in the 1960s, Halevi brought the values of pluralism and the American way of life with him to Israel. This stands in contrast to Jews who arrived from the Soviet Union, who grew up facing systematic persecution. Halevi also addresses the contradictions of Palestinians who remained in Israel after the birth of the state in 1948 and received Israeli citizenship. He explores the culture that subsequently evolved among them, arising from their hybrid Israeli-Palestinian identity.
NINTH LETTER: "VICTIMS AND SURVIVORS"
The letter opens with the memory of the Holocaust. Halevi reminds his Palestinian neighbor that the Israeli state did not result from the West's guilt complex toward Jews in Europe, but rather derived legitimacy from the Jewish faith and inherent attachment to the land. He then describes principles on which the early Zionist state was built: a focus negative consequences on Jews living as a minority, and a desire to break with the past. Jews bear a sense of responsibility to end their history of mistreatment in the diaspora. Their rejection of the mentality of victimhood, Halevy finds, is one of the main contributors to Israel’s success today.
Halevi relates that his father was a survivor of the Holocaust. Readers experience the fears he still carries even in recalling what happened to Jews who had been stripped of their humanity.
Halevi asserts the the best solution for peace is two states, granting Palestinians political sovereignty, and allowing Israel to engage its region in peace and security.
TENTH LETTER: "A BOOTH AT THE EDGE OF THE DESERT"
The tenth and final letter explores Sukkot, a holiday commemorating the journey of Jews from the Sinai desert to the land of Israel. They built shacks along the way in braving the harshness of the desert. Jews today build shacks in front of their homes for a week, and many live in them as part of their observance of the holiday. Each family decorates its shack with what it deems appropriate. Halevi chooses to adorn it with Qur’anic verses, Tibetan flags, and Jewish symbols. The shack, he writes, is a symbol of the fragility of life.
Halevi contemplates the realities around him and feels unsafe. The situation in the Middle East lies between rubble and ruin: Syria is like a tomb, Iraq is devouring itself, a Turkish dictator suppresses and tortures the elite of his population, and Yemen is starving. Taking stock of the destruction that surrounds him, he asks, “What future awaits our two peoples on this land?”
He considers the larger perils facing humanity — from environmental, nuclear, and technological disasters — and avers that humanity is capable of destroying itself. He ends his letter with questions such as, What is our responsibility as beings placed on this earth by God, amid one of the most complicated conflicts and one of the most grave periods of history?
In sum, Yossi Klein Halevi has honored his commitment to objectivity. He has aired the manifestations of intolerance and extremism on both sides, and situated them among whirlpools of ignorance, a failure at reciprocity, and, for that matter, piles of maps and historical documents. 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.