How might The New York Times review a soulful and nuanced book that makes the case for Jewish life in the Jewish state? The first course of action, naturally, is to ignore it: Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor came out in May and was ignored as fervently by the Paper of Record as it was lauded by pretty much every other media outlet in America. But then the book inconveniently made it to the Times’ own bestseller list, and attention was merited. To that end, the paper enlisted the aid of Palestinian activist Raja Shehadah.
The premise of Shehadah’s malicious review is simple: In attempting to communicate his point of view—or his “narrative,” as assistant professors of post-colonial studies might put it—Klein Halevi is guilty of the gravest offense a heterosexual white male can commit: mansplaining.
“Reading your words,” Shehadah writes, all indignant, “I wonder how aware you are of what our feelings are on the other side. Though you do at least acknowledge that there is a Palestinian ‘counterstory,’ one of ‘invasion, occupation and expulsion,’ a history of ‘dislocation’ and ‘humiliating defeats,’ the sentiment you most express, again and again in your letters, is how deeply we, the Palestinians, misunderstand you. It is our ignorance of your history and religion and attachment to the land that you seek to correct here.”
This noxious premise would’ve been ridiculous no matter the context, given how it argues that every author everywhere is obliged to present both her point of view and its inverse. But it’s particularly vile given Klein Halevi’s own biography: Together with Imam Abdullah Antepli he co-directs the Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute, which fosters dialogue between Muslims and Jews. He’s also the author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, a book recording his efforts to learn from Muslim and Christian Palestinians and understand the way they see the ancient conflict. In case the title and the premise aren’t enough, here’s a taste of that sweet and heartfelt book:
At difficult moments—when I am overwhelmed with fear for my children’s safety and rage at the Palestinian leadership for rejecting compromise and despair at the Middle East for turning the Jewish homecoming into another form of exile—I try to recall what I learned from my teachers, the monastics and sheikhs of the Holy Land. I remind myself of Sister Johanna’s warning against building barriers in the heart and excluding even one person from our love. … And Sheikh Abdul-Rahim’s contempt for death. … The cross and minaret have become for me cherished symbols of God’s Presence, reminders that He speaks to us in multiple languages—that He speaks to us at all. Even if much of Arab Islam has descended into the kind of Jew-hatred for which Christianity is now trying to atone, I insist on revering Islam and its fearless heart. The fanatics will not deprive me of that victory.
Klein Halevi makes his work with the Hartman Institute and his previous book known to the readers of his current one. Having spent years trying to understand the other side, he says, he thought it might be useful for the other side to try and understand him. To that end, he wrote a warm and intimate book that invited his imagined Palestinian neighbor to try and empathize.
But Klein Halevi’s concrete Palestinian critic has no use for empathy. For him, the arc of history is long, and it bends towards Israelis admitting their cosmic guilt and offering the appropriate concessions. “Suffice it for you,” Shehadah writes, “to recognize your responsibility and to put a recognition of that culpability on the agenda for negotiations when the time comes for arriving at a settlement between us.”
That the time for arriving at a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians had indeed come, and that the corrupt and murderous Palestinian leadership was, for all but the most rabidly dogmatic observers, at least as culpable for the collapse of the talk as the Israelis, doesn’t really interest Shehadah. Nor does he acknowledge Klein Halevi’s repeated mentions, throughout his book, of the Palestinian view of the conflict or his calls for Israel to make the most painful sacrifices imaginable for the sake of peace. These points, which ought to have registered with anyone engaged in the craft of reviewing a book, elude Shehadah. Nowhere in his review does he bring up any of Klein Halevi’s specific arguments, and nowhere does he grapple with his actual work. Instead, he returns Klein Halevi to his appropriate place in the Palestinian cosmology, that of the irredeemable oppressor who must now bow before his blameless victim.
That, naturally, would be Shehadah himself. If you’re not familiar with his work, you may walk away from his short review thinking he’s a noble man silenced by some monstrous machine. In fact, he tells you as much himself: “Your letters,” he accuses Klein Halevi, “seem like an intellectual exercise, which is a privilege that you enjoy but we do not.” That’s a rather audacious claim for the author of Palestinian Walks: Forays Into a Vanishing Landscape, A Rift in Time: Travels With My Ottoman Uncle, Occupation Diaries, and other large-scale intellectual exercises favorably reviewed by the international press to make. The jagged and complicated truth of life in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, however, has never particularly troubled Shehadah: The legal aid organization he co-founded, Al Haq, vociferously criticizes every Israeli violation, real or imagined, but has steadfastly refused to categorize the PA’s executions of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel as a human rights violation, treating it instead as a lamentable but entirely understandable reaction to the real Big Evil, the Israeli occupation.
And while Shehadah is free to nurse his conspiratorial, hate-filled fantasies, it’s dispiriting, if not surprising, that the Times would pass such nonsense as a legitimate attempt at grappling with another author’s serious work. One can only hope that the old dictum about there being no such thing as bad publicity is true and that Shehadah’s preposterous bit of propaganda will do nothing more than drive more readers to Klein Halevi’s moving and eminently deserving book.