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Conversation with…Yossi Klein Halevi 

Israeli author reaches out to his Palestinian neighbors to explain the Jewish people’s return home to the land of their ancestors.

By Judie Jacobson

Yossi Klein Halevi wanted to start what he refers to as “the first public conversation between an Israeli writer and our neighbors about who we are, why we see ourselves as indigenous to this land, and what is our shared future in the region.” 

So he wrote a book. Published in 2018, it wasn’t long before Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, made it on the New York Times Best Sellers list. 

Now, Halevi, who is the senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and co-director the its Muslim Leadership Initiative with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, will bring the conversation to the University of Connecticut at Storrs on Monday, March 25, when he and Ghaith Al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a Palestinian Authoirty advisor, engage in an open dialogue. The conversation will be held in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center 7-9 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public.

In addition to Letters, Halevi is the author or several books, including Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, winner of the Jewish Book Council’s Everett Family Foundation; At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land; and Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist.

He also serves as chairman of Open House, an Arab Israeli-Jewish Israeli center in the town of Ramle, near Tel Aviv. 

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Halevi holds a B.A. in Jewish studies from Brooklyn College and an M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University. He moved to Israel in 1982 and lives in Jerusalem.

He recently spoke with the Ledger about his book and his upcoming dialogue at UConn.

 

JEWISH LEDGER (JL): Last spring when the Hamas-led weekly demonstrations aimed at breaching Israel’s border led Israel to respond with live fire, killing dozens of demonstrators, the world condemned the Jewish state. You then wrote an op-ed in the New York Times asking if Israel could “maintain its deterrence in the Middle East without fatally undermining its position in the West.” What is your answer to that?

YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI (YKH): The Israeli public, from left to right, was virtually united in perceiving the riots – not peaceful demonstrations – along the Gaza border as an intolerable threat to our ability to defend our borders. Our borders are under constant threat – tunnels dug from Lebanon and from Gaza into sovereign Israeli territory, rockets and missiles on our towns and cities, terrorism within our cities, and most worrying of all, Iranian Revolutionary Guard bases in Syria. 

The riots in Gaza need to be seen in a wider context. Allowing Gazans to breach the border would have a devastating impact on our deterrence; it would send the message to the Middle East that our borders are permeable. We also dispute the UN’s numbers about innocent casualties – our numbers show a much higher number of Hamas operatives among those killed. 

The international community continually downplays threats to Israel that other countries would regard as unbearable. For example, Israelis know that one of the leaders of the riots told the crowds on one occasion, ‘When you cross the border, tear their hearts out.’ Did he mean it literally? One reason the IDF exists is to make sure we never have to find out an answer to that question. 

At the same time, the human misery in Gaza keeps getting worse, and if we only think in terms of military solutions to keeping our borders safe we will not get very far. The fate of our neighbors in Gaza is ultimately our fate too. We need a more whole approach to the problem.

 

JL: Your latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor is directed towards, well, the Palestinians. Why did you choose this particular audience? What do you hope to accomplish through this book?

YKH: I chose to write to my Palestinian neighbors not only because they are my neighbors but no less because they are my unknown neighbors. Before the second intifada in the early 2000s, I had Palestinian friends. But the suicide bombings, and the wall, made those interactions increasingly difficult to maintain. And so I deliberately chose to write to an anonymous neighbor – “I don’t know your name or anything else about you” – a neighbor whose house I see on the hill across from mine at the edge of Jerusalem where I live, and who looks across over the wall and sees my house. I wanted to reach out, try to establish a connection, and that has begun to happen. 

Thanks to this book, I’ve been getting some very powerful responses from Palestinians whom I didn’t know before I wrote the book but who have since become friends. A sequel to this book would no longer be to an anonymous neighbor, and finding connections on the other side was one of the purposes of the book.

Another purpose was to try to explain to Palestinians who the Jews are and why we returned home. I’ve been accused by some of “Jew-splaining,” and I readily acknowledge: Guilty as charged. My purpose was to counter the systematic lies that appear on a regular basis in Palestinian media and textbooks about Jewish history and identity, about our attachment to Israel, about our indigenousness in this land we share with the Palestinians. There will never be peace so long as Palestinian society is taught that the Jews are foreigners, colonialists who came from Europe and need to return to Europe. (And what about the Jews who came from the Middle East, and who are today a majority of Israelis? They are never spoken about.)

In a sense, Letters is a sequel to a book I wrote in the early 2000s, called At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, which describes a journey I took into Palestinian Islam and Christianity. In that journey, where I learned to love the spiritual power and devotional lives of my Muslim and Christian neighbors, I listened and learned and asked my neighbors to tell me their story; in this book, I’m telling them my people’s story.

My goal from the outset was to invite Palestinian (and Arab and Muslim readers generally) to respond with their stories and narratives. And that’s exactly what happened. The paperback edition of Letters will have a new epilogue – Letters From Palestinians to Their Israeli Neighbor. I’m hoping that the next phase of this project will model what a respectful argument over competing narratives can sound like.

 

JL: Is there any hope for a negotiated peace in the Middle East?

YKH: I’m afraid that Palestinian and Israeli leaders will not be able to negotiate an agreement on their own. After 20 years of failed on again/off again attempts to negotiate an agreement, each side knows that the minimal needs of one side are below the red lines of the other. For example, Israel cannot withdraw from the West Bank without a Palestinian agreement that the return of the descendants of refugees from 1948 will be to a Palestinian state and not to Israel. But no mainstream Palestinian will or can make that concession.

The only possibility I see is to involve the Sunni states, who have entered into a tacit strategic alliance with Israel against Iran. We need to try to nurture that strategic relationship into a political relationship. By involving the region in negotiations, you open the possibility for economic incentives for a Palestinian state, and for security arrangements which will commit Arab countries. It’s very much of a long shot; but as we say in Israel, zeh mah yesh – that’s the only real possibility I can see for breaking the deadlock.

 

JL: Realistically, do you think Palestinians will ever accept Israel as a legitimate state? And, if not, is the two-state solution everyone loves to promote, a realistic possibility?

YKH: I don’t think there is such a thing as “the Palestinians.” There are Palestinians – far more than the left cares to admit – who don’t accept our legitimacy here. And there are Palestinians – more than the right realizes – who are ready to come to terms with our indigenousness in this land, and that for me is the key point: indigenousness. 

The new epilogue to my book will publish letters from Palestinians who are grappling with the Jewish narrative of peoplehood and land and national sovereignty. There is much that appears in those letters that I find deeply problematic, some of it even offensive; but I am far more moved by the courageous attempts by those who wrote me to listen and factor our presence and legitimacy into their understanding of the conflict.

I don’t know if a two-state solution is possible, or whether it will even be viable. But I deeply fear that a one-state solution will be no solution at all – a dissolution, an erosion and collapse of the state. A one-state solution will come to resemble Yugoslavia or Syria. You can’t expect two peoples who have fought a 100-year existential war to suddenly create a single state together. Those on the right who advocate it have something sinister in mind, I suspect – an eventual expulsion, at the “right moment,” of Palestinians. And those on the left are either terribly naïve or, like the “transferists” of the right, sinister – they’re hoping for the collapse of the “colonialist apartheid Zionist entity.”

As for Bibi, I am grateful to him on the one hand for all he’s done to keep Israel safe, especially for all he has done to defeat the farcical “Iran deal” which would have given Iran a belated but inevitable path to nuclear power. But as for the Palestinians, he’s allowed a false status quo to fester and open the way to increased settlement, which is bringing us ever closer to a dysfunctional one state. 

 

JL: Speaking of Bibi, what is your take on his brokering a marriage between the extremist right-wing party, Otzma Yehudit, and the more moderate right-wing party, Jewish Home?

YKH: That is one of the most disgraceful moves any Israeli leader has ever done. Period. 

 

JL: Can you predict the outcome of the upcoming election in Israel? What would you like the outcome to be?

YKH: I’ve been a centrist voter in Israel every since I cast my first ballot in 1988 for the ill-fated centrist religious party, Meimad. I’ve voted for small centrist parties and large centrist parties. With the emergence of the centrist party, Blue and White, I feel vindicated: We finally have a centrist party of government that can shift us away from a sterile left-right debate, where each side is partly right and partly wrong: The left was right that we can’t occupy the Palestinians but wrong about the chances for peace with a Palestinian national movement that doesn’t accept our legitimacy; the right was correct about all the land belonging to us but wrong to think that we could settle and annex it without paying a fatal price to Israel’s identity, its soul, as a Jewish majority and democratic state. So yes, I’m a passionate centrist. 

The polls are encouraging for my camp, but Bibi is a take-no-prisoners campaigner, and many Israelis understandably regard him as the most experienced leader able to get Israel through all the dangers we face. 

I’m hoping that the counter-weight of no less than three former IDF commanders in chief in the centrist Blue and White party will be enough to convince Israelis that we can take a chance on desperately-needed political change.

For more information on “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” with Yossi Klein Halevi and Ghaith Al-Omari on Monday, March 25, 7 p.m. at UConn Storrs, call (860) 486-5131.

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