Both Sides Now: A Review of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor

Yossi Klein Halevi (via YouTube)
The Palestinian national movement denies Israel’s legitimacy, and Israel in turn denies the Palestinians’ national sovereignty. A new book insists on accommodating both.

Last year during a long excursion in Israel and the Palestinian territories, this innocent abroad paid a visit to a new hotel in Bethlehem that boasts “the worst view in the world.” The “Walled Off Hotel,” opened by the avant-garde British artist Banksy, lies in the shadow — literally and figuratively — of the 26-foot concrete separation barrier that has become one of the defining symbols of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Guests are treated to far more than a room, for Banksy’s project includes a gallery, museum, and bookstore. They combine to form a veritable one-stop shop of unreconstructed Palestinian nationalism born in the heady days of pan-Arabism.

Perusing the shelves of the bookstore, I couldn’t help but notice that they groaned under the weight of chronicles of Israeli savagery and Palestinian woe. Here the “resistance” oeuvre was on full display: works by the likes of Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Ghassan Kanafani, Tariq Ali, and, seldom out of sight in this infamous company, Noam Chomsky. Only The Protocols of the Elders of Zion — the preferred reading material of Hamas, the Palestinian faction ruling Gaza — was missing. A visitor could spend the better part of an afternoon here, as I did, and not brush up against any Palestinian voices dissenting from their state’s rampant corruption and autocracy (or the symbiotic bond between them), much less testifying to any legitimate interests of the so-called Zionist Entity.

The exhibit leaves the impression that the most chauvinistic and militant positions against the Jewish state were the authentic and noble representatives of Palestinian opinion. It was an emotionally jarring and intellectually stultifying affair. As I took my leave, a companion sensing my discomfort pointedly inquired which book I would choose to smuggle into the Banksy bookstore. I can’t remember quite what I answered then — was it Ajami’s The Dream Palace of the Arabs? — but I know what I would say now.

Yossi Klein Halevi is the author of the new book Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. In it, he offers a heartfelt “invitation to a conversation” to a Palestinian neighbor whom he doesn’t yet know but must come to befriend. The alternative, in this conflict perpetuated by routine failures of leadership, is to remain mired in a “cycle of denial” whereby each side bitterly denies the legitimacy of the other. Halevi seems convinced that breaking the cycle may ultimately depend on the multiplication of such meager efforts. He therefore proposes to host his nameless Palestinian neighbor “in my spiritual home, in the hope that one day we will be able to welcome each other into our physical homes.”

It is by no means an exaggeration to say that Halevi’s work will stand or fall by how implausible — indeed, how delusional — that aspiration comes across by the time the reader turns the final page. It is for others more grounded in the argument and with more stake in its outcome than I to say whether Halevi manages to pull this off. (It ought to be noted that he has generously offered Letters in Arabic translation for free downloading.) My own impression upon closing the book was that his ambition, though audacious, is not unthinkable.

At a minimum, Halevi’s outstretched hand commands attention while many in Israel have theirs tucked under folded arms in resigned acceptance of a wretched state of affairs. Their sullen mood is understandable since the interlocutors, as Halevi notes at the outset, “are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home.” Nonetheless, he suggests that skeptics of dialogue on both sides revisit their hard-bitten assumptions and examine seriously where they are leading.

Halevi writes from French Hill in East Jerusalem, where the security barrier outside his window expresses the poignant duality of Israeli life. He pronounces himself “grateful to the wall I despise,” which provides safety to his family while representing “a negation of my deepest hope for Israel”: the tenacious longing to see the Jewish state overcome the agonies of history without ceding its essential humanity, to fuse the competing virtues of Jerusalem and Athens, to be at once compassionate and alert, avoiding the fate of being either a villain or a victim.

Every narrator harbors his share of prejudices, and Halevi is candid about his own. In so doing, he personifies the Jews’ renowned commitment to paradox: the Brooklyn-born citizen of Israel, for starters, but also the proud defender of religious tradition who casts his electoral vote for secular parties, the nationalist who seeks normalcy for his homeland as well as for it to serve as “a light unto the nations,” the theoretical advocate of “greater Israel” who favors a two-state solution, the devout Jew who detects a sacred element in the muezzin’s call to prayer.

Halevi’s epistolary exertion, he makes plain, has issued out of a marrow-deep fatigue and frustration with the unrelenting argument and counter-argument that attends his and his neighbors’ existence. This despair emanates from the irony that, in salient ways, Israeli claims to a land that is holy to one God and vouchsafed to His votaries alone are the mirror image of Palestinian claims. Still, the missives pour forth with an honorable purpose, seeking (to borrow from Tennyson) “by slow prudence to make mild a rugged people”: his own people as much as his neighbors.

It is only by expressing Israel’s narrative, unvarnished, and by Palestinians following suit, that a recognizable version of each narrative may eventually be accommodated — and, more important still, that the maximalist version of each may be repudiated. The beginning of wisdom is to understand that for two peoples with contradictory but legitimate claims to the same patch of land, “neither will find peace or justice until we make our peace with the other’s claim to justice.”

Toward that end, Halevi furnishes a fast-paced but richly excavated description of the Jewish story and the centrality of Israel in that tragic, arduous, ennobling tale. He conveys the sweep of this history and the resulting disposition not only to undermine the prevailing Palestinian narrative that Israel is fundamentally an illegitimate state, but to express the cold logic of sacrifice that partition will entail — a sacrifice that is demanded of both peoples if they are ever to escape their tormented condition.

In this divided land it can be difficult — dangerous, even — to attempt to glean a sense of The Other. “Coexistence in the Holy Land is often ensured by mutual separation,” Halevi writes in his first letter. “The four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem — Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Armenian — reinforce the message: Safety is measured by the distance between us.” In a former life, Halevi flouted that message and made his way into a forbidden land. His objective was to catch a glimpse of how Israel’s enemies, as well as its victims, viewed their quarrel with his people. This effort to “step out of my own narrative” and confront “the wrongs done by my side against yours” was a personal insistence “on the possibility of intimacy.”

The experience of his encounter with Palestinian life — its poetry as much as its people — left Halevi shaken. Although he remained in thrall to the Jewish “return home” — to borrow the Jewish phrase — he could no longer pretend that the end of Jewish exile did not also expel another people from their own home. Halevi became fully seized by this awful truth, and confronted the tragedy born of his own people’s long-awaited triumph. “Our two narratives now coexisted within me,” Halevi writes, as “opposing versions of the same story.”

Halevi maintains that the claim of biblically mandated real estate is religiously valid and historically legitimate, but politically and morally calamitous. So much of the trouble emanating from the area today derives from absolutists embracing the former while rejecting the latter.

The consequences of this epiphany were straightforward, and dovetailed with the rise of the Israeli Left during the First Intifada, which broke out in Gaza in 1987. With this uprising, Halevi’s army unit was sent into the refugee camps, and he began to intuit that Israel’s domination of a subjugated non-Jewish population could not and should not last. “We could not remain a democratic state with ethical Jewish values,” Halevi avers, expressing the emerging Israeli consensus at the time, “if we became a permanent occupier of your people.” The Zionist project would survive and thrive only if Israel renounced the administration of a garrison state that governed another people against its will.

This determination to treat Palestinians as a distinct people deserving national sovereignty, coupled with the well-trained habit of self-criticism, is all the more remarkable given where Halevi started out. For the antique dream of a Jewish state encompassing all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea once stirred him to the soul. As a youngster Halevi cut his teeth under the banner of the right-wing Zionist youth movement, Betar. This organization of Jabotinsky rejected the U.N. partition plan of November 29, 1947, which garnered the support of most of the Zionist movement to establish “independent Arab and Jewish states” in mandatory Palestine.

The messianic Betar cult did not recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinian claims in the West Bank, which it referred to by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria. It even squinted toward the territory that became the kingdom of Jordan after the British granted it to the Hashemites. And so Halevi and his compatriots sang, without a blush, “both banks of the Jordan are ours, this one and the other, too.” Halevi now maintains that this maximalist claim of biblically mandated real estate is religiously valid and historically legitimate, but politically and morally calamitous. So much of the trouble emanating from the Jewish state today derives from absolutist forces embracing the former claims while adamantly rejecting the latter.

The Israeli disenchantment with the crimes and costs of occupation was submerged by the disappointments of the Oslo peace process. The Second Intifada brought forth an unremitting campaign of suicide-murder from the holy warriors of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, leaving thousands of Israelis dead and maimed. The indiscriminate terror unleashed in these “martyrdom operations” came to a halt only with the construction of the security barrier, but not before ending Halevi’s travels within Palestinian society, now forbidden by Israeli authorities.

The Second Intifada also brought to the surface the perennial Israeli fear of lowering its guard and frittering away its deterrence. In the nearly two decades since, the Israeli Left has been in a state of paralysis, serving as little more than an echo chamber for the peace movement’s preposterous implication that it is within Israel’s power unilaterally to make peace. Under the sway of the Right, the Jewish state has proceeded apace with its designs to entrench the prerogative to settle across the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 eastern boundary. Halevi is not so innocent as to believe that a rapid removal of settlements would advance the complex imperatives of Israeli security, much less bring enduring peace. Nonetheless, he recognizes that the robust irredentism of Palestinian political culture is not all that needs to be known about the stalled “peace process.”

Grappling with Israel’s share of responsibility for its sins of omission and commission does not prevent Halevi from insisting, gently but firmly, that Palestinians reconcile themselves to their neighbor. It requires no great literacy in the matter to realize that this means explicit recognition of Jews’ status as a distinct people and their right to a state. It means an unequivocal denunciation of “armed struggle” against Israel, and letting go of the received narrative that strips Palestinians of their agency.

To hear some in Jerusalem tell it, the onus of responsibility lies with the Palestinians who, after all, have rebuffed the most recent peace offers. There is some force to this argument, although prospects of a two-state accommodation have conspicuously dimmed thanks also to Jewish zealots who have begun to change “facts on the ground” in service of Eretz Israel Ha’shlema — the “complete” land of Israel. Still, the project of extending Jewish sovereignty over the West Bank has long been of limited significance because, in the first place, the Palestinians have patently not been in a position to negotiate and, in the second place, the Israeli consensus has remained doggedly opposed to the principle (if not the reality) of occupation.

The trouble, however, is that these conditions may not obtain for much longer. The dangers of Israeli maximalism becoming a greater stumbling block to peace in the not-so-distant future are generally overlooked. Within a generation, the on-and-off lip-service to a two-state arrangement adopted by, say, Prime Minister Netanyahu may no longer be an act of political cowardice but of political courage. If Palestinians, some years hence, assume their responsibilities in reforming their sclerotic state institutions, it would become conceivable for them to make genuine overtures for peace. This outcome would defy the laws of political gravity, to be sure, but if it came to pass it would squeeze Israel in a pincer of its own making. Under such circumstances, Israelis would be shocked to learn that at the very moment they have discovered a serious partner with whom to make peace, their own appetite for the Whole Land will have foreclosed that possibility.

It is against this horrible fate that Halevi has taken up his pen. Although Halevi himself has not renounced the historical claim to all the land between “the River and the Sea” — Hebron as well as Haifa — through bitter experience he has realized that the human cost for implementing such a claim would be appallingly high. Thus it must be abandoned, and with some haste. The force of this argument is enhanced by his concomitant demand that Palestinians do likewise. By laying claim to all the land and voluntarily contracting the claim, it might license the view in both societies that Israelis and Palestinians become partners in the mutual pain of partition even as they become partners in peace.

To ward off a nightmare for both Israelis and Palestinians, it is incumbent for each to curtail their own dream.

In any case, the Israeli interest properly understood cannot abide the absorption of millions of Palestinians into Israel, under annexation or occupation, which would vitiate either the Jewish character or the democratic character of the state. The Palestinian interest properly understood cannot abide the rejectionists who promise a vain struggle against a superior foe while condemning their “own” people to lives of misery and squalor. To ward off a nightmare for both peoples, it is incumbent for each to curtail their own dream.

This does not mean that the risks of ending the occupation are trivial. They are not. Israel cannot leave the West Bank only for it to collapse into chaos, or for Hamas to impose theocratic control there, as it did after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. A sovereign Palestinian state with territorial contiguity is a necessary but not sufficient condition for peace. In the midst of justified skepticism, however, none should conclude that Palestinian statehood is, ipso facto, a menace to Israel. This is a counsel of despair that, by mentally reinforcing the brick and mortar of occupation, risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For all his commitment to liberal principle, however, one must beware the temptation to let Halevi off too easily. He acknowledges that the conflict isn’t merely a territorial dispute but at root a cosmic conflict whose supernatural dimension “immeasurably complicates our chances for a solution.” Halevi asks “how to respect the other’s religious commitments and longings when those seem to threaten our own?” It is a good question, and one for which he doesn’t have a satisfactory answer.

As Halevi points out, his own sensibility — profoundly wedded to Jews’ religious claims in their ancestral homeland but also to the principle that Jews and Arabs are equal in humanity, in dignity, and in worth — approximates the midpoint of the Israeli consensus. This is true enough, and good reason for liberal Palestinians to take it seriously, but he never allows himself to be drawn out on religion’s poisonous role in the clash to begin with.

Although Halevi acknowledges the dueling parties of God are conspiring to sustain the inherent tension in this conflict, he does not fully reckon with the sheer lunacy of religious fundamentalism on such lavish display here. By now it’s abundantly clear that such a cruel conflict is perpetuated only by the exclusive claims to God-given authority promulgated by the messianic rabbis and mullahs. The moment such claims are granted respect, it becomes nigh-impossible — as the vast majority of absolutists in this land attest — to insist, bowing to political necessity, that it be contracted even by a single inch, that the divine warrant not be carried out.

These amount to small blemishes on an exemplary enterprise to love a crooked neighbor with one’s crooked heart. None should underestimate the scale of the challenge that lies ahead. A series of letters will not close the narrow but deep distance between Israelis and Palestinians on questions of paramount importance, but perhaps it’s not too naïve to hope that a little common understanding could still go a long way.

I am left to wonder, a bit ruefully, when a book will appear with as much intelligence and candor and goodwill bearing the title Letters to My Israeli Neighbor. Let’s hope that whenever it does, it will find a place alongside, not instead of, this one — on Jewish and Arab bookshelves alike.


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