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Return to Sender

Yossi Klein Halevi’s ‘Letters to a Palestinian Neighbor’ may not reach its intended audience, but it may well have another closer to home

Liel Leibovitz
May 04, 2018
Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
A general view shows Israel's controversial separation barrier between the West Bank city of Abu Dis (foreground) and East Jerusalem (background) on March 13, 2018.Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
A general view shows Israel's controversial separation barrier between the West Bank city of Abu Dis (foreground) and East Jerusalem (background) on March 13, 2018.Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

The title of Yossi Klein Halevi’s new book gives you some idea about its intended reader. It is Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, and while the recipient of Halevi’s moving dispatches isn’t a concrete person, he or she is not an abstraction either: From his desk in Jerusalem, Halevi sees the separation barrier, and, just beyond it, the great big Other of Israeli life, the Palestinian men and women who are clearly visible yet ultimately unknown.

Having earlier in his career traveled to meet these neighbors and listen to their stories, Halevi now reciprocates by telling them his, the epic of the Jewish people, their history, and their faith. Unsurprisingly for one of our finest writers, he avoids the two tender traps Israelis and Jews writing about what is often nebulously called “the conflict” too often commit: He is neither limply sentimental, apologizing for sins real and imagined, nor needlessly steely, harrumphing his truth to the exclusion of all other possible points of view. Instead, he explains, with the lived-in conviction of the true believer, the thorniest and most intricate questions faced by Jews in general and Israelis in particular, from the notion of peoplehood to the ravages of the Holocaust.

The epistolary form is perfect for this sort of undertaking. As any astute observer of life in the too promised land will tell you, the earthly tragedy of daily violence is sometimes dwarfed by the ontological calamity of two peoples rubbing elbows yet knowing nothing about each other’s beliefs and ideas. Halevi writes warmly, intimately, opening his mind and his heart to his imagined neighbor even when he acknowledges that same neighbor’s darkest biases.

“Israel and the Jews are routinely portrayed in your media as monsters,” Halevi writes early on in the book. “We were responsible for 9/11, we collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust that never happened, we kill Palestinians to harvest their organs, and we even manipulate nature to create environmental disasters. And, of course, we secretly rule the world.”

The reader may be tempted to ask what, if the above is really believed, is the point of engaging in a correspondence with an Other so intractable. Halevi’s answer isn’t the usual calculus of what-better-choice-do-we-have, but an invitation to listen to whatever better angels our natures still accommodate. Each of the book’s letters addresses a specific moment in time, often elaborating on Jewish holidays and festivals. He saves Sukkot for last: “The very act of building and inhabiting the sukkah,” he writes in the book’s final pages, “is an expression of defiance against despair. This open and vulnerable structure is the antithesis of the fortified concrete room in my basement, which every Israeli family is required by law to build, against possible missile attacks. We live with that threat as a constant reality. But the sukkah is our spiritual air raid shelter, promise of a world without fear.”

It’s an apt description of Halevi’s book itself, a short meditation that, like the best of prayers, dares you to trust the grim facts and still believe that redemption is possible, because to believe otherwise is to doubt the very same miraculous premise that delivered us to the first sovereign Jewish nation in millennia. Whatever their rational and factual disagreements, most Israelis and most Palestinians share a view of the world that looks ever upward, to God; the tantalizing proposition of Halevi’s book, never belabored but always peeking from between the lines, is that faith might unite these two warring tribes whereas reason only fanned the flames of discord.

All of that is enough of an achievement for a short and heartfelt book, but Letters, I suspect, will find readers very different from Halevi’s Palestinian neighbors (to whom the book, translated into Arabic, is offered for free online). Framed as an exercise in coexistence, it is likely to attract many of the young Jews who, when it comes to being Jewish, have no stronger emotional impulse than looking askance at the Jewish state. These youthful readers, reared not on Judaism’s robust traditions but on the steely dogmas of the Social Justice movement, will find in Halevi’s plain-spoken but insightful explanations something that too many of them had never encountered—a coherent and compelling story: their own.

When everyone from Mahmoud Abbas to Natalie Portman speaks of Israel as a direct outcome of the Holocaust—one with malice, the other out of ignorance—it may be refreshing for the passionate and the progressive to hear about the millennia that preceded Auschwitz, about the Temples and the exiles, about the deep and immovable roots that bind us to the land and from which Jewish self-determination had bloomed for thousands of years.

The next time some perplexed soul, then, asks for a slim and graceful volume that explains who we are and what we believe, point them to Halevi. His Palestinian neighbor may listen—inshallah!—and may not, but his Jewish sisters and brothers should. We can ask for no better guide.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.