Let­ters to My Pales­tin­ian Neighbor

By – May 4, 2018

Yos­si Klein Hale­vi yearns for a mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tion with a Pales­tin­ian coun­ter­part who is will­ing to read, lis­ten respect­ful­ly, and respond. He hopes to deter­mine whether two peo­ples can share a land while main­tain­ing their sep­a­rate con­tigu­ous states. Hale­vi under­stands that his over­ture must be root­ed in his own will­ing­ness to lis­ten. With some admit­ted reluc­tance, he has accept­ed the two-state solu­tion as the only way to move forward.

Hale­vi makes this over­ture with the utmost sin­cer­i­ty and a ful­ly nuanced under­stand­ing of mod­ern Israel’s evo­lu­tion and chal­lenges. He seeks a Pales­tin­ian part­ner whose desire for peace is equal­ly fer­vent, a per­son whose vision of the past includes the under­stand­ing that nei­ther par­ty can afford to be stuck in that past. The voice in the let­ters is filled with empa­thy, hope, and a bit of despair. It has an invit­ing, embrac­ing, and win­some lyri­cism, as well as dig­ni­ty and resolvethe per­fect pitch for its colos­sal purpose.

Hale­vi has craft­ed a sequence of ten let­ters, imag­ined for a read­er whose dwelling is near­by but who he hasn’t yet encoun­tered. The let­ters have over­lap­ping con­cerns, with undu­lat­ing shifts in empha­sis. These con­cerns include the func­tions of Holo­caust mem­o­ry, the need to pur­sue jus­tice, and the many pro­found par­al­lels in Jew­ish and Islam­ic holy texts and reli­gious practices.

Hale­vi meets dif­fi­cult issues head-on, includ­ing the Israeli pen­chant for set­tle­ment build­ing, which he under­stands in all its mul­ti­va­lent com­plex­i­ty. He has come pre­pared; he seems to have antic­i­pat­ed the like­ly respons­es and rejoin­ders from a Pales­tin­ian heart, soul, and mind.

Halevi’s exper­i­ment will, no doubt, reach many more Jews than Pales­tini­ans and Mus­lims. His effort is exem­plary: many oth­er pas­sion­ate Jew­ish minds need to see the promise of such dia­logue, cre­ate sim­i­lar oppor­tu­ni­ties, and move the process for­ward. The Pales­tin­ian on the near­by hill may answer full-heart­ed­ly. Let’s hope so.

With intel­li­gence and an essen­tial, human con­sid­er­a­tion for the Oth­er” across the way, Hale­vi argues a new direc­tion to be tak­en by indi­vid­u­als, com­mu­ni­ties, and gov­ern­ments in the Mid­dle East and across the globe. To this end, this mod­est­ly-sized vol­ume is a bless­ing, and may serve as a vehi­cle for dia­logue and peace.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions

Although Hale­vi address­es his book to his as-yet-unknown Pales­tin­ian neigh­bor, it should be required read­ing for every Amer­i­can (and per­haps Israeli) Jew as well. Hale­vi lays out, lyri­cal­ly, beau­ti­ful­ly — the con­cept of the Jew­ish peo­ple, and their attach­ment to, and pres­ence in, the land of Israel and the State of Israel. When so many Jews see Israel as a nev­er again” refuge, Hale­vi clear­ly puts forth the deep his­tor­i­cal and reli­gious con­nec­tion of the Jews to Israel.

At the same time, he rec­og­nizes that there is an oth­er” that has her own claim to peo­ple­hood and to the land, and invites that oth­er to engage in dia­logue with him. He writes: Nei­ther side can relin­quish its emo­tion­al claim to ter­ri­to­r­i­al whole­ness.” And yet, it is nec­es­sary, in his vision of a just soci­ety in Israel, for each to self-con­tract, in order to live togeth­er as neighbors.

Hale­vi under­stands and crit­i­cizes flaws in both the Israeli polit­i­cal right and left, in beliefs, in actions tak­en, and in stereo­types each hold. He avoids what might be a pater­nal­is­tic attempt to lay out a nar­ra­tive of Pales­tin­ian con­nec­tion. And yet, in open­ing the door and invit­ing dia­logue, he embod­ies the Torah’s notion of know­ing the soul of the other.”

This short, enjoy­able book is sure to offer much grist for thought and dis­cus­sion between Jews, Jews and Pales­tini­ans, and, per­haps, all people.