Yossi Klein Halevi wants to extend an olive branch to his Palestinian neighbors, and does so, in his incredibly compelling and heartfelt book Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.
Unfortunately, we watch his olive branch shrivel and wither away, despite his best intentions, as he shares with us his own haunting Jewish story. Halevi is an Orthodox Jew who believes that by reaching out to the Palestinians he is following God’s mandate to bring “light unto the world.” He wants to break the stalemate; to recalibrate what he senses is an unholy imbalance.
Halevi begins each morning in prayer while listening to the sounds of Muslims being called to prayer from over the concrete wall that separates him from his Palestinian neighbors. He finds these sounds oddly comforting and his mind often drifts to imagining what their lives must be like. He admits that now he sees them as little more than an abstraction. Halevi, although well into his sixties, is still an idealistic man, and an intense one – someone who sees the impossible as possible if one just tries hard enough. But he isn’t anybody’s fool, either. He is worried about the Jews; always.
Halevi grew up in Boro Park, Brooklyn, in an observant Jewish family. He went with his father habitually to pray and observe the rituals of Jewish life, but neither father nor son had genuine faith; their actions were robotic and spiritually bankrupt. His father once had a cherished relationship with God, but lost it after the Nazis murdered his parents in Auschwitz.
Halevi’s father barely survived the war himself, hiding in a hole in the ground in the Transylvanian woods. But, years later, something possessed him to take his teenage son to Israel in 1967 after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. They prayed together at the Western Wall and each of them was rewarded with a miraculous and instantaneous resurgence of absolute faith. Halevi remembers the astounding beauty of that day; standing next to his father and listening to him whisper gently into his ear: “There is something about this little people that makes no sense…Who can understand this history?”
But Halevi seemed to, and found an enduring relationship with God that day that has sustained him for decades.
Even back then, in 1967, there were things he noticed in Israel that troubled him, like certain beleaguered Palestinian faces standing in front of their homes with drooping white flags hanging from their doorposts. He returned to New York and became enamored for a short while with Meir Kahane and his insistence on always fighting back. But Kahane’s violence frightened him, and soon Halevi was making impassioned speeches in New York advocating for the freeing of Soviet Jews. He was an intelligent talker who filled his speeches with the same emotional resonance he would later pour into his books.
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Soon enough Halevi was in love with a well-bred Connecticut girl who was not Jewish. She was crazy about him and in 1982, when he was 29, they left for Israel, where she would convert and then marry him; children soon followed. Israel was in duress when Halevi arrived, but he was smitten.
“Everything seemed at once familiar and strange,” he wrote. “I walked the streets slowly, feeling like a time traveler who had stumbled into the Jewish future. So this is what it looks like when the Jews returned home, I repeated to myself.”
But he still felt troubled by some aspects of his Israeli life. During his army service, he had joined his army buddies in waking up a Palestinian man in the middle of the night and forcing him to come outside and paint over a fence that was filled with antisemitic graffiti. He had never humiliated anyone in such a direct fashion before and the act bothered him greatly, even years later.
Halevi had always been interested in the spiritual experiences of those lucky enough to be blessed with an unshakable belief in God. For his 2001 book, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land
, he went on a religious pilgrimage to discover how Christians and Muslims experienced their faith. It was back then that he had the first inklings of an idea that would gel for him years later.
Halevi came to believe that it was only through the common bond of belief in God, even radically different beliefs in God, that sworn enemies could find a pathway toward forgiveness, acceptance and tolerance. It is this notion that he puts forth repeatedly throughout his new book.
ALTHOUGH A romantic of sorts still entranced by notions of a utopian world, Halevi is also weary and nervous by how things have been disintegrating in recent years. He is disturbed by the rockets and missiles that came flying into Jewish neighborhoods and the suicide bombers the forced the construction of the wall that sits just outside his home in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood.
He is distraught at the increasing prevalence of Holocaust deniers and skinheads and the general uptick in attacks on the Jews at the continual assault upon Israel by the United Nations, at the duplicitousness of the Palestinian leaders who preach one thing to the world press while encourage their followers to continue the violence.
He concedes that Israelis have often turned a blind eye to Palestinian suffering.
“For many years we in Israel ignored you, treated you as invisible, transparent,” he wrote. “Just as the Arab world denied the right of the Jews to define themselves as a people deserving national sovereignty, so we denied the Palestinians the right to define themselves as a distinct people within the Arab nation, likewise deserving national sovereignty. To solve our conflict, we must not only recognize each other’s right to self-determination, but also each other’s right to self-definition.”
However, his high hopes are continually dashed by the daily reality on the ground that ironically negates most of his proclamations about a possible lasting peace.
One senses that despite his desire to create change, he is held back by two conflicting voices struggling for dominance inside his own head. There is Halevi the devoutly religious man fighting Halevi the pragmatist who is still haunted and traumatized by his own memories – distinctly Jewish memories: his beloved father’s pain which soon enough became his own, the loss of his paternal grandparents at Auschwitz.
And more recent losses that occurred after he came to Israel. Like the café near his office, which was destroyed by a suicide bomber, killing a father and daughter on the literal eve of her wedding. His son’s childhood friend who was stoned to death. The vicious assaults of the second intifada when “skeletons of exploded buses became part of the Israeli landscape,” and his own growing suspicion that the Arab world will never recognize Jewish sovereignty – ever.
Halevi sees his return to Israel through a religious lens, “as part of the return of an indigenous, uprooted people, and a reborn Jewish state as an act of historic justice, or reparation. For me, being a Jew in Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty is a source of uplift, of religious inspiration.” He accepts that Palestinians view it differently, and see the Jewish presence as one of “invasion, occupation, and expulsion.”
How can anyone possibly square that? But Halevi remains undeterred. He is convinced that through mutual respect for each other’s devout faith in God, a solution can emerge. Secular readers may find his zealousness foolish – almost reckless – since history has shown us that it is precisely our differing views about God and how he is to be worshiped that seem to have the most explosive and violent power to turn us against one another. It touches something vulnerable inside of us that resists compromise and negotiation and tolerance.
Yet Halevi wholeheartedly disagrees and refuses to succumb to despair. He describes his morning ritual and the comfort it brings him: “I bind my arm with the black straps of tefillin, fasten a small black box on my forearm, facing my heart, another on my forehead. Heart and mind bound in devotion.”
Then he leaves his Jerusalem porch and goes inside.
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