Review: Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor looks for spiritual common ground

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor

By Yossi Klein Halevi

Harper, 224 pages

Yossi Klein Halevi is a very brave man. He is an Israeli writer, journalist, scholar and public intellectual who ventured into disputed territory a few years ago. He was looking for common themes that Jews, Christians and Muslims share – a spiritual language that defies the language that separates them. Listening to people in the West Bank and Gaza, he had hoped to find some answers to the questions that bedevil his small area of the world. It’s an area of only about 20,700 square kilometres – smaller than Vancouver Island – that has tended to preoccupy world news, cause endlessly caustic exchanges among diplomats and, most recently, provoke deadly protests surrounding the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Seventeen years ago, Halevi wrote At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land, at a time when there were brief flashes of hope that there could be peace at last between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours. Sadly, not much has changed since then. There have been periodic attempts at making peace, there have been more attacks by Palestinians, more Israeli soldiers marching through Gaza and more shootings. Indeed, rockets are falling on both sides, as I write. Halevi’s new book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, builds on what he discovered in his earlier quest: that this spiritual common ground could lead to mutual acceptance. I hope the book reaches its intended audiences both in the Middle East and around the world. For Halevi, in the end, is still optimistic that there could be peace.

My recent visit to Israel in April happened to coincide with three crucial days of commemoration – two of mourning, one of celebration. At 11 a.m. on the first of the three days, a siren stops all traffic, pedestrians as well as cars. Drivers and passengers step out and stand still for two minutes to remember the Holocaust.

In the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem, and in the ultra-Orthodox section, it is just an ordinary day. The ultra-Orthodox do not believe in the state of Israel any more than the Palestinians do. This is a complicated country.

The latest uproar during my time there came in an interview with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who blamed the Jews for the Holocaust. It was, he said, Jews’ “function in society, which had to do with usury, banks, and so on” that caused their persecution.

Halevi believes Israel has a right to exist and be a country. He wants this new book to explain to his Palestinian neighbours that Israelis are not newcomers. That contrary to what Palestinians learn and hear, they were here in the beginning. That they have dreamt over many centuries of returning to Jerusalem. That they have come here in successive waves of immigration, many from lands that persecuted them. That their dream of a homeland is as valid – though he does not say more valid — as the Palestinians’ own dream of return.

He is willing to offer sacrifices to end the intifadas, the attacks on civilians, the necessity to send young men and women to march through the occupied streets, becoming inured to the hate and the humiliation they inflict (as a soldier in 1990, Halevi patrolled the Gaza refugee camp of Nuseirat). To end the constant threats of war, the sacrifices would have to come from both sides. However, Halevi makes it clear that Israelis could not propose a peace that allows all succeeding generations of Palestinians the right to return to what they call Palestine and what the Israelis call Israel. I have seen the refugee camps, those grim towns with narrow streets and concrete playgrounds. The people who live there do not plan to stay; the return for which they long would be the end of Israel.

So, how to make peace with a neighbour who refuses to acknowledge one’s national existence?

I remember seeing the maps of Palestine without a trace of Israel on classroom walls in Ramada on the West Bank. They are maps that exclude everything Israelis built, even Tel Aviv, the big bustling city of high towers and green, leafy neighbourhoods only a 10-minute walk from the ancient town – and now popular tourist destination – of Jaffa. Posters on the schools’ walls glorify the shahids of the modern era, heartbreakingly young people now designated martyrs in the cause of killing Jews.

“One of the main obstacles to peace is an inability to hear the other side’s story,” Halevi writes in a note to the reader, and he invites the other side to listen. “For peace to succeed in the Middle East, it must speak in some way to our hearts.” Not in the language of politics, but the language of the spirit. It is, he believes, a language shared by both Muslims and Jews, two ancient peoples who have co-habited this tiny part of the world for centuries. Both are traumatized by history, both feel equal attachment to this land. They are caught in a conflict between two narratives, both of which are, Halevi feels, just. That is why political solutions, peace accords and ceasefires do not work.

The second day of mourning in Israel is the Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel’s Wars and Victims of Terrorism. This year, during my visit, it was punctuated by renewed attacks on Israeli border points, and Israeli soldiers shooting demonstrators. But still, there was the traditional siren and two minutes of stillness.

In Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park, there was another effort to bring the two narratives together: The Parents Circle invited both bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families to a mass event attended by some 6,000 people. Author David Grossman, whose book, A Horse Walks into a Bar, won the Man Booker Prize and the Israel Prize for Literature, spoke about the “deep silence around us, the void of losing our loved ones.” His son, Uri, was killed 12 years ago. Yet, like Halevi, he, too, is offering a hand in friendship across the wall. There has to be a path to peace.

The day after, Israel celebrated its 70th year and, on the other side of the wall, Palestinians began their mourning for Nakba Day – the day they lost their homeland. Israel is a very complicated country.