Reading and commenting on the book Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor

Soumia, holds a master’s degree in history and sociology.


Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor is a book that is modest in length and whose cover page is simply designed. At first glance, the eye is relaxed by the design’s simplicity. At its centre lies a green olive branch which not only symbolizes peace, but also the Holy Land and its blessed olive trees. The title, written in blue, reflects purity and clarity. My expectations regarding the book’s content were very much guided by my first impressions of its design; I expected straightforwardness, respectfulness towards the other side, and an acknowledgement of what is mutually important to both sides. I consider the olive tree to be one of these mutually sacred items. 

The title of the book struck me. “Letters”, several letters. I realized that the writer must have much to say; a great number of things which had been accumulating for a while. Presumably the right opportunity to say such things had, until this moment, not yet arisen and that only now he decides to put pen to paper to do so. Using this word, “letters”, demonstrates the author’s good faith in addressing his Palestinian neighbour, in finally breaking the ice between them.

Once I’d started exploring the book, I encountered a short introduction under the title, “A note to the reader”, in which Yossi briefly discusses his purpose in writing the book since he expects that some readers may harbor prejudicial judgements ahead of reading its contents. He thus wrote this short note to testify to his genuine intentions which may be mockingly called into question by incredulous readers who doubt the sincerity of his outreach efforts.

Yossi, by way of this introduction, wants to emphasize that his stated aim of the book is not a flippant endeavor, nor a commercial scheme, but rather than a project that is firmly grounded in his commitment to outreach, exemplified by his five-year involvement in the “Muslim Leadership Initiative” and his past journeys into Palestinian society. As he himself explains, the MLI aims to educate a new generation of young American Muslim leaders about Judaism and the State of Israel. This successful initiative was supervised by Yossi in partnership with Imam Abdullah Antepli.

I think Yossi wanted his Muslim readers to know that he is not ignorant about Islam and Muslims. He wanted them to understand this message:”I’m close to you. I have Muslim friends and I hope that you become one of them, too”.

Calmly and eloquently, Yossi outlines the motivation behind writing this book, stating: “This book is an attempt to explain the Jewish story and the significance of Israel in Jewish identity to Palestinians…. and so I am writing to you, a Palestinian neighbor...with the hope that we undertake a journey of listening to each other” (from “A Note to the Reader)

Furthermore, Yossi insists on the importance of creating a channel of communication between him and his neighbors. He doesn’t want his letters to be ignored, but rather encourages responses from his readers. Yossi also stresses the importance of creating a respectful role model for this dialogue. All in all, this note encouraged me to continue reading the book.

The first letter wetted my appetite for the rest, yet I found that two letters, in particular, impressed me greatly and I read them both thoroughly; the first letter, entitled “The wall between us”, and the seventh one, “Isaac and Ishmael”. I found their content to be rich with communicative motifs that touch on the political, cultural, religious and social. On the other hand, the letter I considered most objectionable and with which I was not pleased was the ninth letter, “Victims and survivors”, about which I shall elaborate later on in my response.

However, none of this is to say that the rest of the book lacks importance. On the contrary, it brims with valuable information, about much of which I was totally ignorant. But the first, seventh and ninth letters were the chapters which grabbed my attention the most.

I would now like to turn to more specific aspects of the book which shall be addressed under specific themes inspired by the content of the letters. While these themes certainly do not include all the subject matters of the book, they nonetheless relate to the topics which I felt compelled to shed light on. My themes of discussion are as follows:

1-The knot of the wall
2-Two narratives in one
3-The agreed separation – a compromise for peace
4-A painful memory.

1 – The knot of the wall

The wall that separates the State of Israel and the Palestinian state constitutes a physical barrier between the two different societies as well as a real obstacle to their respective  aspirations. In my opinion, it is a symbol of rejectionism, of rejecting the other side. This concrete wall ruins the landscape and the harmony of this land whilst keeping the Israeli side safe from the threat of violent attacks.

As Yossi explains in this letter, the fact that this wall has brought him a sense of security doesn’t mean to say that he feels entirely comfortable with its existence. Its consequences for the Palestinian side bring him no joy. This contradiction of sentiments must be understood by the Palestinian side. This wall is a reminder to Yossi that he cannot feel safe without it. It makes him feel as if his state lacks the legitimacy to exist and is always under threat.

However, I consider the real wall scarring Muslim, Arab and Palestinian society to be embodied in their denial of the Jews’ right to have their own independent state. It seems that some elements of the Christian sector have also adopted a similar attitude.   

On the Israeli side, Israel responds to this denial by reciprocating denial, which in turn causes more and more escalation of this conflict on all fronts. 

Therefore, the real wall is the rigid superiority complex each side possesses over the other coupled with a denial of historical facts, encouraging a vicious cycle of conflict between the warring sides.
I was so pleased to read Yossi’s perspective. He lives at the heart of this conflict and is firmly on the Israeli side. Yet, his identification with his side of the conflict hasn’t prevented him from being open-minded or being able to recognize the Palestinian narrative too. Nor did it prove to be an obstacle for him to instigate a respectful and grounded dialogue with the Palestinians, all the more impressive considering the fact that such dialogue has long been plagued by denial and rejectionism.

I couldn’t agree more with Yossi in this letter when he said: “I don’t believe that peace without at least some attempt at mutual understanding can endure. Whatever official document may be signed by our leaders in the future will be undermined on the ground, on your hill and mine”.


2 – Two narratives in one

A narrative is a true expression of the beliefs of the narrator. It is the story that each generation passes on to the next, and bestows legitimacy upon the people who tell that story. It often carries contradictions and disagreements with other narratives, thus setting up barriers to coexistence and peace in any conflict. While there are many aspects to a narrative, I would like to focus on one particular aspect, namely the religious one.

As a Muslim, I base my discussion regarding religion on what I consider to be the most reliable point of reference, the Holy Qur’an, which is, in my eyes, an absolute and proven truth.

The history of Bani Israel started in the Holy Land. As it is said in the Holy Qur’an, the sons (descendants) of Israel – Jacob – are the descendants of Isaac, the son of our ancestor Abraham and his wife Sarah, peace be upon them all .Jacob, peace be upon him, used to reside with the Bedouin tribes of Palestine before immigrating to Egypt, according to surat Yousef: “Enter Egypt with God’s guidance and be safe ..”. Jews lived under Yousef’s protection, but after his death, the Pharaoh of Egypt enslaved them. This enslavement continued until God decreed that they should leave Egypt with Prophet Moses, peace be upon him, in what is commonly known as the Exodus. As God says in surat Albaqarah: “And we saved you from the family of Pharaoh who tortured you“. Another verse which appears in surat Al Qasas reads: “those who were persecuted all over the land, shall we make them imams (leaders)” .

When Bani Israel accompanied Prophet Moses, peace be upon him, on their way out of Egypt, he received the second message from God, which represents the religious laws for Bani Israel. Moses received that message from God on the At-Tur Mountain in Wadi Araba (the Arava valley) . 

Then Jews settled on the east bank of Jordan River, specifically on the hills where they could see Palestine, living in a village called Median, where a minority of the people of the Prophet Shuayb, peace be upon him, lived, according to the Quranic verse (Albaqara 61):  “And recall what time ye said: O Musa! We shall by no means bear patiently with one food, wherefore supplicate for us unto thy Lord that He bring forth for us of that which the earth groweth, of its vegetables, and its cucumbers, and its Wheat, and its lentils, and its onions. He Said: would ye take in exchange that which is mean for that which is better! Get ye down into a City, as verily therein is for you that which ye ask for. And stuck upon them were abjection and poverty. And they drew on themselves indignation from Allah. This, because they were ever disbelieving in the signs of Allah and slaying the prophets without justice. This, because they disobeyed and were ever trespassing. ” 

Here, in the original Arabic, the word “Masr” is the plural of “Amsar”, meaning a city or town that had included everything the Jews requested from God. This is the city or town of Median that prophet Moses had previously known. It might be another area nearby Median, as verse 58 in surat Albaqarah reads:” And (remember) when We said: “Go into this town and eat bountifully from it (from its blessings) wherever you wish, and enter the gate in prostration and say: “Hıtta” (we wish that our sins may be forgiven) and We shall forgive your sins (We shall change your sins into merits) and shall increase (the blessings) for the good-doers” .

At this stage, Bani Israel were not yet in the Holy Land, so Moses commanded his people to enter it, as surat Al Maida verse 21 reads: “O my people! Enter the Holy Land which Allah has destined for you ˹to enter˺. And do not turn back or else you will become losers.” 

The next verse of the same surah shows Bani Israel’s response: “O Moses! There is an enormously powerful people there, so we will never ˹be able to˺ enter it until they leave. If they do, then we will enter”. Verse 24 in the same surah reveals more of their response to Moses: “Yet˺ they said, “O Moses! ˹Still˺ we will never enter as long as they remain there. So go—both you and your Lord—and fight; we are staying right here!” 

Then God said to Moses (the same surah, verse 26): “Then this land is forbidden to them for forty years, during which they will wander through the land. So do not grieve for the rebellious people.  

This verse shows how Bani Israel were deprived of the land for 40 years. They wandered for so long that Allah left them without any guidance or leadership through prophets. He also deprived them of the divine care that they had previously enjoyed. After the 40 years of wandering had passed, and after being subjected to distress by the surrounding kingdoms, they requested from a person who is nameless in the Quran to guide them to the Holy land, as verse 246 in surat Albaqara reads: “Have you not seen those chiefs of the Children of Israel after Moses? They said to one of their prophets, “Appoint for us a king, ˹and˺ we will fight in the cause of Allah.” He said, “Are you not going to cower if ordered to fight?” They replied, “How could we refuse to fight in the cause of Allah, while we were driven out of our homes and ˹separated from˺ our children?” But when they were ordered to fight, they fled, except for a few of them. And Allah has ˹perfect˺ knowledge of the wrongdoers.“ 

God sent them Taloot (King Shaul) to prepare them for a war to confront the Canaanites, and soon after God sent them King David who established the first Jewish kingdom on the Holy Land. Then King Solomon came after him to lead the kingdom which stretched from the river in the east to the sea in the west.

King Solomon built the Holy City, bayt Almaqdis. Today’s Al-Aqsa Mosque was built in the same place where Solomon built the temple, as attested to in the Qur’an.  The Dome of the Rock is the Qibla (the direction of prayers) for Jews, while Muslims pray in the mosque as Prophet Muhamad once did. All this is to show that this is a holy place to both Muslims and Jews. 

God fulfilled his promises to Jews in the times of King David and Solomon who were victorious in battle until the death of the latter. However, soon after a part of Bani Israel returned to oppression, tyranny and the killing of prophets.  They also killed everyone who opposed their desires or their corruption, as shown in verse 85 in surat Albaqara says:”But here you are, killing each other and expelling some of your people from their homes, aiding one another in sin and aggression; and when those ˹expelled˺ come to you as captives, you still ransom them—though expelling them was unlawful for you.1 Do you believe in some of the Scripture and reject the rest? Is there any reward for those who do so among you other than disgrace in this worldly life and being subjected to the harshest punishment on the Day of Judgment? For Allah is never unaware of what you do “.

The verse states clearly that the rulers after King Solomon were corrupt oppressors of the weak who killed and exiled their opponents. They broke their covenant with God and denied the truth of Prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him, as verse 187 of surat  Al Imran states: “Remember, O  Prophet,˺ when Allah took the covenant of those who were given the Scripture to make it known to people and not hide it, yet they cast it behind their backs and traded it for a fleeting gain. What a miserable profit“.

 God punished Bani Israel for their sins, as the verse 167 and 168 of surat Alaraf states: “And ˹remember, O Prophet,˺ when your Lord declared that He would send against them others who would make them suffer terribly until the Day of Judgment. Indeed, your Lord is swift in punishment, but He is certainly All-Forgiving, Most Merciful. We dispersed them through the land in groups—some were righteous, others were less so. We tested them with prosperity and adversity, so perhaps they would return ˹to the Right Path ..”.

The verses also show, however, that God not only punishes but also forgives. God did not destine such punishment to last forever. On the contrary, they would gain His forgiveness if they repented. His punishment is reserved for those who persist in their sins.

God’s destiny for Jews was to disperse them all over the earth and divide them into different communities living among the nations. However, it is important to note that the Qur’an does not claim that the Holy Land is forbidden for the Jews. Verses 4-8 in Surat Al-Israa read: “And We warned the Children of Israel in the Scripture, ‘You will certainly cause corruption in the land twice, and you will become extremely arrogant. When the first of the two warnings would come to pass, We would send against you some of Our servants of great might, who would ravage your homes. This would be a warning fulfilled. Then ˹after your repentance˺ We would give you the upper hand over them and aid you with wealth and offspring, causing you to outnumber them. If you act rightly, it is for your own good, but if you do wrong, it is to your own loss. And when the second warning would come to pass, your enemies would ˹be left to˺ totally disgrace you and enter the Temple ˹of Jerusalem˺ as they entered it the first time, and utterly destroy whatever would fall into their hands. “

The previous verses clearly illustrate that God punished Bani Israel for their corruption by depriving them of divine care for 40 years. His punishment was also represented by their first defeat by Goliath and his army.

Bani Israel’s second era of corruption is marked by the divinely ordained destruction of their kingdom by the Babylonians. Here, too, God made it clear that this punishment wasn’t to be permanent, and again promised mercy and forgiveness for when they repent. Several verses in the Qu’ran stress how God recognizes the Jews as a distinguished nation that consists of both good and bad elements, and thus tested their faith in order to distinguish between the true believers and those who falsified their dedication.   

In summary, the history of religions on this piece of land proves that it has been shared by both Arabs and Jews and that it must continue to be shared by both Palestinians and Israelis. The question remains: how can we convince people to share the land that they have been calling Palestine for many years? They believe that Jerusalem is theirs, and only theirs.

I think that the Israelis’ means of returning to their homeland through violence deepened the perception of Jews as occupiers among Palestinians. At the same time, however, I don’t know whether Jews had any other alternative options available to them to establish their own state at that time. In this sense, I deem the confrontation between Arabs and Jews to have been inevitable.

As descendants of the Canaanites, the Palestinians have legitimate rights to this land. As I have said before, the Canaanites were attacked by Bani Israel who, led by King Shaul, established the Kingdom of Israel on that land. Later, both the Canaanites and the Jews would become subject to the Babylonian invasion. History proves that both peoples have the legitimacy to be on this land. So how long will the conflict over legitimacy last?     

3 – The mutual separation – a compromise for peace.

We know that some of the major causes of this conflict are ignorance and the denial of the other side’s legitimacy. The political chasm between the two sides can be traced back to the Jewish betrayal of the Muslims during Prophet Mohamad’s days; a betrayal that has borne a legacy of Islamic denial of Jewish history despite the fact that Jews have constituted core social, political, and economic components  Arab and Islamic societies. The Jews in Morocco, for example, played a particularly significant role in wider Moroccan society and, consequently, Jewish culture is an integral component of the Moroccan culture.

However, Jewish culture is not yet sufficiently represented in the Moroccan education system, except when it is cited in academic research regarding Amazigh Jewish culture.

By ignoring and denying the Jews’ long history in Arab and Muslim lands, supporting the Palestinians in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,  and labelling the Jewish return to the land of Israel as an occupation of Palestinian land, Muslims are taking their revenge on the Jews’ betrayal.

However, I personally don’t believe that Islam demands from us to antagonize the Jews. I contend that the aforementioned discussions about the Jews in the Qur’an serve to tell their story so that we may learn lessons from it.  I believe that contemporary hostility and denial has no place in our religion. It is, rather, a political issue. 

The intellectual and psychological barrier between Israel and the Arab world should be dismantled along with all its historic, cultural, religious and political baggage for the sake of achieving a negotiated solution based on separation. Both sides should recognize each other’s legitimacy. Violence should be considered terror, and not Jihad as is portrayed on the Arab and Muslim side, and not as defense as is portrayed on the Israeli side. All acts of violence must be condemned and rejected.

Furthermore, solving this issue means that both sides should cease pursuing superiority and revenge at the expense of building trust. They should also relinquish religious coercion and embrace the values of self-reconciliation and openness. 

It seems clear to me that the two conflicting parties here – Palestinians and Israelis – both share the same suspicions and fears of the other side, and I think that Yossi focused too much on these fears at the expense of other sentiments.

 4 – A painful memory

As stated above, the letter that caused me the most discomfort was the ninth letter as its subject matter is the Holocaust and its deep wound on collective Jewish memory. It should be noted that I have limited knowledge about the Holocaust – courtesy of our lacking education curriculum in this regard. This inadequacy begs the question: why might this be? 

Unfortunately, our education systems encourages us to deny facts from a young age, especially those which contradict the ideology of Arab and Muslim society, and this contributes to the endless denial of Jewish history and their culture; their victories and even their defeats. 

The Holocaust is not constrained just to Jewish history; in my eyes it is a dark chapter in the book of human beings’ history.  It breaks my heart to know that there are Muslims today who express support for the crimes committed against the Jews for the sake of promoting their rejectionist political agenda vis-à-vis Israel. As a practicing Muslim, I do not find anything in my holy book that incites against Jews or any other region or race, nor anything to prohibit them from having their own entity.

Final notes

I was incredibly pleased to read this book and be part of this dialogue. Most importantly, I learned many new things about my neighbors. I salute the spirit of openness which Yossi has expressed through his letters and his initiative.

There is a fascinating part in the book that reads:” For many years we in Israel ignored you, treated you as invisible, transparent. Just as the Arab world denied the right of the Jews to define themselves as a people deserving national sovereignty…to solve our conflict, we must recognize not only each other’s right to self determination but also each side’s right to self definition “ 

I think we should pause and think deeply about this for it represents the desire to engage with the Palestinians on both a social and diplomatic level.

I was also gladdened by the recent peace initiatives with and the current openness towards the State of Israel by some Arab and Islamic countries. This, I believe, stems from the fact that Muslims are finally coming to acknowledge that Jews have the right to identify themselves as they wish, as a people, a nation, or any way they deem fit.

This book should not be left to gather dust on shelves like so many books are. It should be read by a great many Arabs and Muslims, lighting the path of peace and reconciliation in this region in its eloquent explanation of how two legitimate peoples may fight over the same piece of land.   

I hope that peace will prevail in the region between the two peoples, and that the conflict, with all its cultural, social and political baggage, will give way to mutual recognition, bringing to fruition of the two-state solution and respect for both peoples’ rights.


With my regards

Soumia from Morocco