A book review of Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor

Ten letters were written and “sent” by the writer and researcher in Jewish and Israeli affairs, Yossi Klein Halevi. He gathered all these letters in a book titled Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor. It is worth noting that Yossi’s religious character has greatly impacted the content of his 100-page book.

The book serves as a spiritual and political bridge through which Yossi tries to deliver his letters. The neighbor he addresses could well be decent and tolerant and might hopefully accept his invitation to read the book. He may utilize this opportunity to find a way to build bridges with his neighbors just as Yossi, irrespective of the wall that separates him, tries to build a bridge to his neighbor on the hill right across from his home. However, I think that the decent and tolerant neighbors on the other side are far and few between; such people are as rare as old currency.

The letters will encounter another type of neighbor: the sort that will tear them apart before even reading their titles. Such neighbors will not bother reading Yossi’s work and they, unfortunately, are the majority.
In spite of that, my friend Yossi did not give up and sent out his letters in the knowledge that his book would find some captive audience on the other side, even if they might be compelled to read his letters in secret.
The book represents Yossi’s courageous attempt to sympathize with his Palestinian neighbor whose land has been taken from him. Yossi expressed his genuine desire to share the land with his neighbor and end the oppression which accompanies the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

Yossi delineates in the first letter, “The Wall between Us”, the differences between his status as an Israeli citizen who enjoys civil liberties and has the ability to live in his own state, and his Palestinian neighbor who is denied such rights. This disparity, he says, pains him.

He appeals to common or similar teachings in Islam and Judaism in order to fill the gap that separates the neighbors. Indeed, religion holds a place of great significance amongst Palestinians and Arabs, meaning that such references can indeed pave the road to dialogue and greater communication between the neighbors.

Yossi dedicates a huge share of his letters to talking about spiritual life and religion but, in my opinion, he should have dedicated less to such matters. While I understand how his religious nature steers his attempt to find mutual religious ground between neighbors, I nonetheless wonder whether the majority of religious Jews share the same views as Yossi’s.

His religious background has also influenced his encounters with religious Muslim figures and this could only further gratify him in the eyes of potential Arab or Palestinian readers.
My only criticism of this letter is that Yossi overly stresses the issue of Palestinian oppression by Israelis, which, in my opinion, detracts the force of his arguments when defending the Israeli narrative.

Yossi adds beauty to the second letter “Need and Longing” by fusing history with religion. He opens the letter by retelling the destruction of the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in the year 587 BC, marking the beginning of the first Jewish exile. He then recounts the second destruction by the Roman emperor Titus in the year 70 AD, who subsequently expelled the Jews and dispersed them all over the world for thousands of years. Thus began a long exile and extended period of suffering for the Jews until God facilitated their return to their homeland.

Despite such monumental effort that Yossi put into explaining Jewish suffering throughout history, I still doubt his Palestinian neighbor would sympathize with what the Jews went through. On the other hand, I think that Yossi may garner more sympathy from Arabs outside of Palestine, who may be more understanding with regards to this matter than their Palestinian counterparts.

The third letter “Fate and Destiny” takes us, the readers, on a journey into Judaism and provides us with a greater understanding of the Jewish people. In so doing, Yossi continuously stresses the commonalities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam as monotheistic religions. On the other hand, Yossi explains how Judaism is different from Christianity and Islam in the sense that Judaism was passed down to a specific people, not to humanity in its entirety. Therefore, Judaism does not seek to convert the rest of mankind to its cause. I consider this to be one of the main secrets behind the strength of the Jewish nation’s unity, which has held strong even in the face of centuries of persecution.

In this same letter, Yossi delves into some stories and topics from the Tanach, such as the beautiful book of Ruth and the notion of the chosen people. This latter point is a matter of particular importance considering the fact that we learned in school as kids to despise the phrase “the chosen people”. It holds deeply negative connotations that are associated with hatred and hostility towards Jews.

In the fourth letter, “Narrative and Presence”, Yossi presents and discusses some significant topics regarding the State of Israel’s modern history. He recounts the wars between Israel and the Palestinians in the 20th century, the consequences of these wars: the huge loss to lives and property on both sides. This letter reveals the absurdity of such conflict which has been spurred on by both sides’ stubbornness, but in particular that of the Palestinians who have missed many a valuable opportunity to forge a better future for themselves. The author then returns to the fact that the Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors are so close to one another, more than anybody can even imagine. They can almost hear the other’s breath. There is, therefore, no choice other than seeking an end to this conflict and sharing the land. I wonder whether, this time, the Palestinian neighbor will respond to the call for peace.

As much as the fifth letter “Six Days and Fifty Years” may be joyful for the Israeli, it is painful and heart-breaking for the Palestinian. Nothing could be harder for the Palestinians than being reminded of the Six-Day War and the Israelis’ continuous celebrations on Jerusalem Day rubs salt in the wound. It would be fair to say that the Six-Day war constituted a wake-up call for the Arabs; a hard slap in the face. It brought to focus their failures and the impotence of all the slogans with which they tried to indoctrinate us as children; the slogans we repeatedly learned at home and in school, rallying Arabs to “throw the Israelis into the sea”. I remember how the map of Palestine used to hang on the wall, in school, right next to our own country’s map. Geography and history teachers used to compare the huge area of Arab League countries to the area of that petty Israeli state. We were submerged in fantasies and distorted facts until one day we were forced to wake up and emerge from such delusions. The fantasies would transform into our nightmares.

“The Partition of Justice” is the title of Halevi’s sixth letter to his Palestinian neighbor. In the beginning, Yossi wonders whether the neighbors will ever be able to stop the never-ending cycle of denying each other’s rights. Yossi dedicates great effort into convincing his neighbor about the necessity of the two-state solution, even though this solution is bound to curb the fulfillment of both sides’ dreams. This division not only means the partition of land, but also means the partition of justice between both sides who claim the right to the land in its entirety. I can already imagine the Palestinian response to your proposed solution; firm and absolute rejection. I think that Yossi needs nothing short of a miracle if he wants to convince Palestinians to compromise. They, as always, keep missing one opportunity after the other.

The seventh letter “Isaac and Ishmael” focuses mostly on religious matters. Evidently, Yossi’s religious background prompted him to share his emotions and good intentions with his Palestinian neighbor. I consider the references to religious commonalities in Islam and Judaism in addressing the Palestinian neighbor to be a wise and intelligent strategy.

Often when reading his letters, but in particular when reading this letter, I kept having to remind myself that Yossi was not in fact a Muslim, but rather an observant Jew. Through his writing, he manages to deliver a feeling of unity between Muslims and Jews. This letter made me feel such a closeness when Yossi spoke about Ishmael and Isaac, the two brothers, who demonstrated a strong bond of brotherhood in burying their father, Ibrahim, together. I wholeheartedly hope that this letter will find receptive ears among Palestinians so that they can understand the nobleness and beauty of the message in this letter.

Moving again from religion to politics, Yossi addresses his neighbors in the eighth letter by discussing “The Israeli Paradox”. I don’t think that the Palestinian neighbor really cares much about the questions raised in this letter, nor does he care to what extent Israel is considered a secular or a religious state. Yossi dedicates much time and effort here to convince the Palestinian reader about his views on religion, history and the common features he sees in Judaism and Islam. However, I hope that you, Yossi, do not feel disappointed by the fact that your efforts may very well be in vain. In fact, the core problem here is that you are addressing the Arab dogmatic mentality in a Western manner. Even though you are Israeli now and have been living in Israel for a great number of years, you still follow the same Western approach and I doubt such a method will prove successful or persuasive.

The letter also constitutes an attempt to show the Palestinian neighbor how Israel’s Jewish majority tends towards issuing secular rather than religious laws. It also sheds light on internal Israeli contradictions and the Israeli-Jewish identity itself. However, none of this will have much of an impact on your neighbor who seeks any and every opportunity to swoop down on you the minute he senses your weakness.

In the ninth letter, “Victims and Survivors”, you speak about the Holocaust whilst dismantling Palestinian-Arab denial of this tragedy with your delightful words and respectful manner. I’m not lying to you, Yossi, when I say that I feel deep pain for what the Jews suffered back then. I have read about it thoroughly and I have no doubt that it really happened. This horrible act of denial, accompanied by the misunderstanding of the expression “God’s chosen people”, form big obstacles in establishing the respectful dialogue you wish to undertake with your next door neighbor. This neighbor believes that his conflict with you is similar to the conflict between David and Goliath (and he perceives himself as David). This apparent power dynamic further aggravates Palestinians when the Holocaust is brought to their attention. As you know, many Palestinians are not particularly open-minded, and there is a tendency among them to feel that the matter has been raised so often, rendering such references provocative and thus counter-productive to the goal of reaching across to your neighbors. My recommendation to you, Yossi, would be to do your best to touch on the subject as minimally and lightly as possible. 

Finally, in your last and tenth letter, “A Booth at the Edge of the Desert”, you, once again, turn back to religion. Your language is beautifully poetic, especially in the way you speak about the holiday of Sukkot and how your people passed through the desert of Sinai on their way to the Promised Land.

I believe, dear Yossi, that you have honest and noble intentions in approaching Palestinians. You utilize every possible method in order to explain a 4000 year-old history to your neighbor. Nonetheless, even now, I continue to doubt that there is any hope of receiving similar letters from your Palestinian neighbors. The only mental image I can currently see is that of your neighbors tearing apart and then discarding your letters before even reading their titles.

I honestly don’t want to discourage you. You have passionately expressed your honesty and dedication, but I believe that perhaps one out many thousands of the neighbors you’re addressing will eventually respond.

I appreciate your great efforts and this personal initiative that you are undertaking. I also hope to see the fruits of your work soon; the fruits of one tree that will be watered by Palestinians and Israelis alike.

A side note:

After reading this wonderful book and seeing the amount of effort you’ve put into it, I would love to share some of my own thoughts about Jews from an Iraqi Arab Christian’s perspective.
The first time I ever heard about Jews was in my early childhood. I could never understand what this word meant even though it was often used at home. My family bought furniture from persecuted Iraqi Jews who were receiving death threats and were, therefore, forced to flee the country, leaving everything behind in order to survive. We also had some particularly ornate furniture at home that we never used. My mother told me that it belonged to some Jews who had left it with us until they could return and take it back. Unfortunately, they were never to return, and I don’t know what happened to the furniture in the years that followed.

I can still recall potent memories from my childhood. I haven’t forgotten the incident when my grandmother registered me with a Christian primary school in which a lady wanted to register her little girl as well. The nasty nun refused, telling the sobbing lady that she and her people, the Jews, had crucified Jesus.

The second memory I have is from second grade, in another school. My classmate and I used to share the same bench. Her name was JeHla Saleh. We used to share the meal that my mom prepared for me for school because JeHla was poor and asked if I could give her some food. She used to cry a lot, but I never understood why until one day I saw her being bullied by other kids who were insulting her just because she was Jewish. The pain I felt for her was inconsolable.

One of the most painful and brutal things I’ve ever witnessed was in 1969, when I was in high school. Back then, many Jewish students and businessmen were falsely accused of, and often executed for, spying. I knew some of them personally; they were friends and colleagues of my father. One of them, Azra Naji Zalkha, was a utensils seller. Others were my father’s employees, Fouad Kabay and Yaaqoub Karaji Namerdi. They all lost their lives simply for being Jewish.

These short flashbacks from the distant past came back to haunt me whilst reading Yossi’s book. How I wish we could find more Palestinians and Arabs who might actually dare not only read these letters but also respond to them, thoughtfully and sincerely.

I reckon that the rapprochement taking place these days between Israel and some Arab countries will greatly contribute to normalization and peace-making in the near future. It may also, perhaps, raise Palestinian awareness to the importance of these letters.
My best wishes for you, Mr. Yossi Halevi,

It would be my pleasure to read your other books as well.

Ramzi Nari