Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a fascinating and unique little book. The frame is a set of ten letters written by the author to a Palestinian neighbor. He does not know this neighbor, Halevi explains, and doesn’t know to whom to send these letters. And that is part of the story of the letters: the need for these neighbors to speak to each other, but there is seemingly infinite distance to reach each other. The letters to an anonymous neighbor express a sense of hope although one that is shadowed by the vast distance that remains: a hopeful despondence? A despondent hope?
This paradoxical situation is the leitmotif of the book. It is a deeply personal expression of paradox and ineluctable tension of ideas and people. The modern and premodern; religious and secular; Israeli and Arab; Israeli identity and Jewish identity; Judaism and Islam; East and West; the past and the future; and Jew and Jew.
As a book of letters to his Palestinian neighbor, the book is hardly directed at me and yet it is important for an American Jew to read to this book—indeed for anyone looking for some measure of insight into the Israel-Arab conflict—and also for insight into Jewishness.
Halevi’s goal here is to tell the Jewish/Israeli narrative. His hope is that if both sides can express their narratives, there can be some mutual understanding that can be the basis for moving forward. So Halevi presents his personal statement about what Jewishness is and what Israeli life is about. He talks about how these identities connect. And how this relates to the land of Israel and to the Palestinians.
Halevi is reaching out to an audience which may not and mostly will not accept it or appreciate it (An Arab translation is available free online). But he tells the narrative with the intent of trying to respect that Palestinian need for that denial while calling for them to move beyond it. He doesn’t ask for agreement or affirmation; just the space to tell his narrative. He invites Palestinians to tell their narrative and wants to grant them the same space: the space to tell each other our national narratives without dismissal or rejection. The idea is that if we can start there, we can start to see and hear each other; and then we can start a dialogue that might lead to some kind of mutual understanding.
Interestingly, Halevi is also writing to the Israeli far right. They know the Jewish narrative. But they need to see it in relation and conflict with the Palestinian narrative. Halevi is arguing that both narratives have some measure of validity and that both sides need to understand and deal with these perspectives. If we are to see each other we have to stop ignoring, downplaying and denying each other.
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