Yossi Klein Halevi wrote his latest book with his neighbors in mind. His Palestinian neighbors, that is — those he doesn’t know — who live nearby.
But of course, this is the Middle East, where a neighbor isn’t just a neighbor. While they may be close in proximity, they are over the Green Line, and in many cases, beyond a concrete wall. Mentally, they have competing narratives, so the likelihood of him getting to meet them anytime soon is an abstract concept.
“We are intruders into each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home,” he writes. “We are living incarnations of each other’s worst historical nightmares.”
Even so, there are many things he’d like them to know. But hoping that Palestinians will read a book written in English is idealistic. Which is why Halevi had his latest work, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” translated into Arabic. It’s downloadable free in Arabic (with the support of the Paul E. Singer Foundation). For now, the first few letters are posted on the Times of Israel’s Arabic website, with more to follow, but they’ll also be on the book’s website, on Facebook and possibly more sites.
Halevi will discuss his letters next Wednesday, June 6 at Palo Alto’s Cubberley Theatre, in conversation with Aaron Tartakovsky. The event is sponsored by the Oshman Family JCC.
“As far as I know, this is the first time that an Israeli author has tried to directly address our Palestinian neighbors and the region beyond,” said Halevi in an email interview. “My hope is to initiate a public conversation over the story of the Jewish people’s return home, as we Israelis put it, our legitimacy and indigenousness, our shared future with the Palestinians and the Arab world generally.”
“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” is an especially difficult read given the violence of the past weeks. It is an attempt at dialogue by a person who has engaged in conversation with “the other” much more than have many Israelis. Halevi is a religious Jew who has traveled the diversity of opinions regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. His first book, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” told of how he went from being a yeshiva-educated boy from Brooklyn to following and then unfollowing the militant ideology of Rabbi Meir Kahane. His later book, “Like Dreamers,” won the top prize in the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards.
Halevi first visited Israel as a teenager with his father, a few weeks after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, and immediately fell in love with the country. He resolved that he would one day return as an immigrant.
He moved to Israel in 1982, and through his prior books, and out of his own interest, got to know many of Israel’s Christian and Muslim inhabitants.
These efforts led him to travel to Auschwitz in 2004 with a group of Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jewish Israelis, at the initiative of a Melkite (Byzantine rite) priest from Nazareth. In the next-to-last entry of “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” — and perhaps the most hopeful — he describes what it was like for him, as the son of a man who spent World War II in hiding, mostly in a hole in the ground, to see young Arab men escorting elderly Holocaust survivors. He witnessed Palestinians truly grasping the horrors of the Holocaust for the first time.
“We were pilgrims to brokenness, a hope of shared humanity in the place beyond hope,” he writes. And that journey of 300 Arabs and Jews is now part of the story of the Middle East, even though it and the hope that it fostered are now long forgotten.
We are living incarnations of each other’s worst historical nightmares.
Yet to him, giving up hope is not an option.
“I’m a writer, not a politician. I don’t have delusions of transforming the Middle East,” he said. “But I am hoping to start the first (as far as I know) public conversation among Palestinians about who we, the Jews, are — not only a religion, as I’ve frequently heard from Muslims over the years, but a people with a deep connection to a particular land.”
In the introduction, Halevi says that he’ll try to answer every letter that is sent to him from readers “in the spirit of engagement.”
He has already received some interesting responses. While some are outright hostile and even “genocidal,” he said, he has also received invitations to have coffee in the West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus.
Responses have also come from Gaza.
“I’ve found several partners who want to appear at public events with me,” he said. “One new friend, Walid Issa, who grew up in the Dheisheh refugee camp and came to the U.S. to study, has begun writing letters to me in return. He addresses me as ‘future neighbor,’ because, as he puts it, so long as he is occupied, we can’t be neighbors. His letters — he’s written two so far —are deeply moving, telling his own family story and his belief in the need for both peoples to listen to each other’s narratives.”