While reading the first letter of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor I was taken by surprise when Yossi introduced himself as an observant religious Jewish writer.

I would love to share with you some of my thoughts about the book and its writer:

I could easily feel Yossi’s religiousness. He is a practicing and somewhat conservative person but at the same time not an extremist. Yossi did not seem like an ignorant alien who comes from another planet; on the contrary, he is fully aware of what is happening around him in the Middle East.

I believe that Yossi managed to be objective and balanced in his book even though he was teaching us about his own story.

Yossi’s discourse is rational and balanced, and he doesn’t sell illusions to which we Arabs have become accustomed by reading the writings of our Arab writers and intellectuals. His style of narration is both rational and emotional at the same time.

To be honest, I was surprised when I read some terms in Yossi’s book, such as “the Israeli occupation” and “Palestinian sovereignty”. I was drawn to read more. When such terms are written by an Israeli Jewish writer it demonstrates his respect to the other side’s suffering. This also shows Yossi’s balanced approach and eloquence. He managed to be balanced even though he is at the heart of this conflict, making me respect him even more.

Whilst reading the book I honestly sensed a genuine human being who did not allow this conflict to destroy his humanity nor obliterate his sympathy for the people on the other side. Yossi managed to tell us not only about his own sorrow, but also of his neighbor’s – the neighbor whom Yossi sees from his window on the hill right across from his house.

However, I am not interested in learning about the narratives of either side. The conflicts and wars which I have witnessed as a twenty-three-year-old Arab Yemenite man exhausted me and made me hate history. The wars and conflicts in Yemen are all about the past and twisted history because, unfortunately, we, Arabs, are the masters of twisting history.

I honestly feel ashamed when I recall those periods of history in which terror was justified and excused as ”jihad” even though it was merely a matter of attacking other peoples’ land, conquering them and holding them in captivity.

We Muslims had conquered Spain, known as the Iberian Peninsula, under the name of “Muslim Conquests (futuHaat)”. We occupied that land for more than six centuries. We gave the people who were living there only two options; either convert to Islam or pay Jiziah. This situation lasted for more than 600 years but eventually the land returned to its native inhabitants. The irony is that we Arabs, teach our children that Arabs and Muslims have a history on and ties to the Iberian Peninsula. We encourage our children to fantasize about returning to that land someday as if we were the indigenous people of that land.

I feel ashamed as a Yemenite Arab man whose ancestors had participated in conquering Spain and other countries in Asia, Africa and Europe. My ancestors killed innocent people. They deprived them of their freedom to practice their religions. I personally apologize for each and every terrible thing that my ancestors committed towards others in that dark era of our history.

I believe that we, Arabs and Muslims, live and practice the victimhood mentality more than anybody else. However, the reality that the separation wall has created in the West Bank and on Israeli land saddened me and I would like to explain the way I perceive this wall:

I don’t believe that there is only a concrete wall that separates the two peoples; there are others “walls” as well; intellectual and cultural barriers that are deepening hostility, hatred and incitement. There are many Arab and Muslim intellectuals and religious figures who keep spreading their poisonous hatred and incitement.

I believe that these barriers are entrenched even more so by some governments in the Middle East which support terrorist groups. At the same time, these countries enjoy good relations with Israel. These countries are led by hypocrites who claim that they hate Israel and incite against it but at the same time they foster good relations with it behind the scenes.

The separation wall was actually built by Palestinian bricks of hatred and hostility towards the Israelis and it was painted by some Islamic ideologies that prohibit peaceful coexistence with others.

I was saddened by what the Israeli left-wing went through and their current situation. They were calling and working for peace and negotiation with the Palestinians, but everything turned upside down and the Israeli right-wing took charge and gained more popularity.

There is a similar barrier/wall in my country, Yemen. It is a very deep and long-lasting barrier. It represents the constant fights between the different sects in Yemen. It is the same wall that existed long ago and stood as an obstacle between the Yemenite Muslims and the Yemenite Jews. The Jews, back then, were deprived of basic rights, be it enrolling in schools or getting jobs. They were even deprived of being granted identity cards like any other Yemenite citizen. I felt in each and every word that Yossi wrote in the second letter the pain and suffering of his people in exile. I believe that Yossi did a very good job and succeeded in delivering this feeling to the reader.

I am really hoping that each and every Yemenite youngster could read this book, especially my generation – the generation that was born in the nineties. We grew up carrying a lot of hostility and hatred inside of us. We were brain-washed with so much delusional and biased information when it came to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

I believe that the Muslim Brothers with their influence and activity all over the Arab World succeeded in brainwashing our minds. They surely influenced the way we perceive this conflict. They incited us and made us antisemitic.

Yossi spoke about the Jewish suffering in general, but he did not focus on the suffering of the Yemenite Jews. Those people were there a long time ago, since the Himyarite kingdom. They managed to transform the religious identity of Yemen to a Jewish Himyarite identity. Yemen was a great country back then, just like Israel is now.  

But, unfortunately, things changed dramatically for the worse. They were the elite and then they became the lowest classes in Yemen. They were deprived of their very basic rights; the right to receive education and the right to carry official and personal documents. They did not have birth certificates, nor did they have passports back then.

They were deprived of entering courts. They were essentially deprived of the very basic rights that every Yemenite enjoyed back then. Even in their jobs they faced discrimination: Jews were forced to mark themselves with a specific sign called Zinar that differentiated them from the Muslim workers. Their job opportunities were limited, for instance: they were allowed to work in the shoe industry, but they were prohibited from the gold and silver industries; the fields which they mastered. At the same time, Muslims were allowed to work in these fields even though they were not skilled. During some periods, Jews were only allowed to work as cleaners and collectors of animals’ faeces (for agriculture), unfortunately.

I believe that the Yemenite Jews contributed a lot to the Yemenite heritage in all aspects. Jews were intellectuals, businessmen and professional workers. Not to mention the beautiful Yemenite Jewish music that some people tried to bury.

The Yemenite Jews were forced to leave Yemen even though they were part of the Jewish Yemenite civilization 2000 years ago.

Yossi managed to make me understand the real obstacles that stand in the way of peace in this region. He wanted to tell his readers that in the past wars and migrating from one place to another in fact characterised relations between nations but we must put an end to this by knowing how to reconcile and live together in peace. We should learn how to share the land, respect and embrace the differences between us; be they religious, social or ethnic in nature. This is how we can create a positive history for the next generations.

Yossi attempts to find a common ground for peace and dialogue with his neighbors. Both neighbors should negotiate, compromise and hold dialogue in order to reconcile.

I believe that Yossi had successfully created a good role-model of a rational and respectful dialogue between two opposing sides. He wasn’t only attempting to reach out to his Palestinian neighbor but rather to his Arab, Muslim, Kurdish and Turkish neighbor. He was attempting to reach out to all his neighbors in this region.

Finally, I am really hoping that a miracle happens, a miracle that would convince the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular that peace will benefit everybody in this region. I am also hoping that my generation is able to read this book with an objective lens in order to create a better understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hameed al Hadery from Yemen