he following passage appears at the outset of Yossi Klein Halevi’s new book: “The muezzin’s call to prayer filled the building. The voice was so strong, it seemed to be coming from the walls. I noticed some Jews turning visibly anxious. But one young man in a black hat and side locks, a visitor from New York, said to me, ‘You know, when you think about what they’re saying—“Allahu akbar,” God is great—it’s a good thing, no?’ Yes: so obvious, and yet in Hebron, Muslims and Jews can never take each other’s goodwill for granted. I wanted to hug him.”
I fear these words made me want to roll my eyes, as did the book’s title: Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. After so many years of Jewish frustration, so much process but so little peace, what else is there to say to the Palestinians? And when will Yossi Klein Halevi stop trying to hug everybody?
This was unfair. As his powerful and eloquent book proves, Halevi suffers no illusions about the Palestinian national movement. He knows that the Palestinians have rejected every peace offer and partition plan, denied Jewish peoplehood and history, and, to the extent that they countenance it at all, see the two-state solution as a prelude to a maximalist victory—one Palestine from the river to the sea. “In supporting the Oslo process,” he reflects, “I had violated one of the commanding voices of Jewish history, the warning against naïveté.” Halevi includes all of this and more in the ten letters that form his book.
It is precisely because he has no more time for leaders such as Mahmoud Abbas that Halevi turns to a hypothetical Palestinian neighbor. The risk, both rhetorically and in actuality, is that because he has given up on official Palestinians, he is merely creating a fictional Palestinian with whom he can negotiate from his study in French Hill. But he’s up to something more interesting.
Capturing the enduring Jewish love of the land of Israel and the magic as well as the dilemmas of Zionism, the letters are highly compelling. There is no one better suited to tell the story of Israel and the Jewish people than Halevi—and not just to Palestinians. An inspired reading of the Israeli soul, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor should be recommended to non-Jews and Jews alike.
Halevi offers Jews a model of productive engagement, teaching by example how to speak about Israel not just with sensitivity but also with honesty and integrity. And yet Halevi would be the first to admit that if only Jews buy his book, it will have been a failure. In order to reach everyday Palestinians, Halevi has released the Arabic translation of his book for free online. But of course he cannot compel his Palestinian neighbor to read it. Crucially, Palestinians still must choose to read Halevi’s letters and be exposed to the Israeli perspective. It is not altogether clear why Halevi thinks Palestinians will make that choice now, or even why listening to one another’s stories will help break the deadlock and achieve some real understanding. At times, the best reason he can offer is “the possibility of miracle—especially in this land,” noting that “as a religious person,” he is “forbidden to make peace with despair.” Elsewhere, he speculates that, because Israel has changed often since the 1980s, “if the past is any indication, we are due for another drastic shift in the Israeli story.”
Many readers will want reasons more solid than the winds of history or the possibility of miracles. For them, Halevi suggests that intimacy between Palestinians and Israelis could create a “basis for political flexibility, for letting go of absolutist claims,” and for fighting through the pain of trauma. “We must know each other’s dreams and fears” so both parties can work around some of their own.
Here, Halevi is at his best. He recognizes that until the Palestinians understand the Jewish attachment to the entire biblical land of Israel, any partition will remain unthinkable. Exchanging stories matters because Palestinians must realize that “partition is an act of injustice” not just to their side, but to the Israelis, too. After all, political moderation makes sense only in the face of worthy yet compelling claims to justice.
Storytelling is not the only path to intimacy. In a previous book, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, Halevi wrote of Jewish–Muslim brotherhood through the mystical search for God. Indeed, he has predicted in these pages that “the next step in the evolution of the interfaith encounter will be shifting from dialogue to shared spiritual experience. Interfaith will become a great spiritual adventure, providing access to one another’s inner worlds.”
While Halevi may verge on the sentimental in matters of religion, when it comes to politics, he hopes for only enough intimacy to convince the Palestinians that they must respect a border. “No two people who have fought a hundred-year existential war,” he writes, “can share the intimate workings of government.” Furthermore, he recognizes that even a Palestinian cold peace would probably require a miracle, and to my relief, he makes clear that he will not give away the house until that miracle occurs.
If, one day, a Palestinian of Halevi’s stature publishes Letters to My Jewish Neighbor, and his book is imbued with the same understanding, charity, and dignity, we will know that the miracle is under way. Hugging will be superfluous.