No, I’m not using a generic Jewish name, I’m addressing you, my friend, Yossi Klein Halevi, the author of that stunningly beautiful new book, Letters to a Palestinian Neighbor.
It’s a love letter to the Jewish people, in all our complexity, richness and craziness. It’s a love poem defining Zionism as “the Jewish attachment to the land of Israel and the dream of renewing Jewish sovereignty in our place of origin,” because “Judaism isn’t only a set of rituals and rules but a vision linked to a place.” It’s a patriot’s embrace of Israel, which you love unconditionally, treating “Israel’s flaws” as “challenges, not deterrents,” addressing them loyally as “my flaws, distortions in my own Jewish being that I need to confront.” It’s a wise warning for humanity, telling your people – and implicitly others – that “not seeing” is a “sin”; it’s wrong to become “so enraptured with one’s own story, the justice and poetry of one’s national epic, that you can’t acknowledge the consequences to another people of fulfilling the whole of your own people’s dreams.” And it’s a peace offering to Palestinians, our neighbors, enemies, rivals and, in your expansive vision, potential friends.
With a heavy heart, achingly empathetic to those who settled the Biblical lands you so love – and would pay a steep price for what everyone so loosely throws around as the “two-state solution” – you teach that “Peace requires a mutual constriction: My side contracts settlements” and the Palestinian “side contracts refugee return.” Few want a partition, you recognize, but everyone must adjust sweeping dreams to challenging realities.
I’m writing you this public letter because you’ve mastered this epistolary form and I need your advice as a fellow centrist. In addition to writing letters reconciling with Palestinians, we need conciliatory letters healing our fellow Jews.
Our polarizing rhetoric scares me. Leftists and rightists tar one another with the international vocabulary’s ugliest epithets and our history’s most painful words: Racist! Apartheid! Ghetto! Pogrom! Kapo! – even Nazi!
All the dooming-and-glooming about the Jewish future and our people, depresses me. Last week, an American Jewish Committee poll had the hysterics hand-wringing again about the American Jewish versus Israel “rupture,” spelling “the end of the Jewish people.” Yet the poll showed that more than two-thirds of Israelis and American Jews view one another as “siblings,” “first cousins,” or members of our “extended family” – while nearly 80% desire a thriving Diaspora and Israel. That shows a remarkable maturity among our people, acknowledging differences while still feeling connected – despite the immaturity among our sky-is-falling leaders, writers and pollsters.
The gravitational physics surrounding the Israel conversation frustrates me. Like you, I’m running around like Mendele Mocher Sfraim, Mendele the bookseller, hawking my new book, The Zionist Ideas
. Echoing your book’s constructive spirit, I speak about the need to return to fundamentals, to develop more basic, less polarizing, more inviting, left-to-right conversations about Zionism, Jewish identity and our search for meaning. I get – as I’m sure you do – sympathetic nods, bursts of applause, even sighs of relief. Yet, rather than discussing Identity Zionism, rather than accepting my invitation to mute partisanship and dream, the questions inevitably address BibiBDSTrumpGazaPalestinians.
Our nattering negativity reflects what you repeatedly call our “Jewish trauma.” From left to right we’re still bleeding from historic antisemitism and its new incarnations. We’re suffering from what you call Israel’s “living under extremity” – with guns and under-the-gun. We’re traumatized by watching America, Israel, Jews, Westerners, become so polarized, with fellow citizens so quick to demonize, far too willing to assume those who disagree with us are evil, not just wrong.
Partisans love dismissing centrists like us as spineless marshmallow moderates, lacking their passion, their clarity. I embrace you as a muscular moderate. No one can read your book and dismiss you as a wimp or a smug know-it-all. You explain who we are proudly, eloquently, effectively. You won’t apologize for surviving. Yet while rendering our story so exquisitely, living our narrative so fully, you recognize the hurt we’ve caused, understanding that “one of the main obstacles to peace is an inability to hear the other side’s story.”
It may all come down to the profound, paradoxical advice you gave your son before he joined the Israeli army: “There are times when as a soldier you may have to kill. But you are never permitted, under any circumstances, to humiliate another human being. That is a core Jewish principle.” Obviously, death is worse than humiliation. But, as an idealistic realist, juggling different thoughts, feelings, principles, and headaches – you distinguish the hurts we’re sometimes compelled to cause from those we can avoid imposing.
Brave enough to confront messes, wise enough to think two thoughts simultaneously, you see “Israel as a testing ground for managing some of the world’s most acute dilemmas – the clash between religion and modernity, East and West, ethnicity and democracy, security and morality. These are worthy challenges for an ancient people that wandered the world and absorbed its diversity.”
That multi-dimensionality is missing from today’s constant clashes of absolutes and absolutists. That gives your “invitation to a conversation” such credibility. That’s why your “spirit of engagement” is so inviting. And that’s why I hope Jews read your book along with Palestinians – and democracy-lovers everywhere. I hope that, as we learn to be more sensitive to “the other,” we also start becoming more accepting of each other.The writer is the author of the newly-released
The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology
The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American History, including
The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. www.zionistideas.com.
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