Review of “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor”

Dear Yossi, from someone who is not your neighbor.

Tomorrow is October 19th. Not a particularly note worthy date. But tomorrow it will be exactly 2 years and 3 months since I landed in Canada, one refugee on a plane carrying 20 others. To me, the 19th day of any month is an auspicious date, one I cherish.

And I understand from your book that dates are equally important to the Israeli people. You begin many of your chapters by acknowledging important dates. The fast of Tisha b’Av. Israel’s Independence Day. Jerusalem Day. Even the Islamic festival of Eid. Holocaust Memorial Day. And, what I find most astonishing, the holiday of Sukkot.

Imagine my amazement, to learn that the Jewish people commemorate the years when their ancestors wandered the desert of Sinai with Moses, until they entered the promised land.

And herein lies the massive gulf in how the Arab-Israeli conflict is perceived by both sides. As a Syrian, I was taught that Israel was established by some European Jews who supplanted the native Arabs. This is how 99% of Arabs perceive Israel.

Never had it occurred to me to understand Israel as seen through the eyes of the Jewish people; the re-establishment of an ancient homeland, long occupied by foreign empires, and your people exiled by the Romans to all over the world. It would not be the last revelation I would learn from reading your letters. The very existence of the holiday of Sukkot is just one validation of the Jewish people’s ties and history with the land, but few Arabs would have even heard of this holiday.

Early in your book, you say “I don’t believe that peace without at least some attempt at mutual understanding can endure”. You are correct, and your letters demonstrate a person who understands and to some degree sympathizes with the pain and aspirations of his Palestinian neighbors, while also expressing the determination of a people never again to willingly put their safety and existence in the hands of others.

I am not a Palestinian. I read with the uncommitted interest of someone who considers himself long removed from the conflict, the details of proposed peace plans of years gone by, and of the extremely difficult compromises that would have to be made for any future peace plan. For example, and I quote, you write to your Palestinian neighbors; “I understand, from your perspective Haifa does belong to you. But the problem is that, from my perspective, Hebron belongs to me”.

I apologize, my friend, to admit my previous ignorance as to the significance Hebron held for the Jewish people. Nor, until I read your book, was I aware that Jews were, for centuries, confined to the seventh step in the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. It is an ignorance I am sure is shared by the vast majority of Arabs. Your book is filled with such revelations, important for Arabs to know if we wish to understand your perspective. There is no doubt that Israelis understand the Arab point of view much better than vice versa.

But I did not read your book with thoughts of finding a solution to the conflict between yourselves and the Palestinians. As a Syrian, my interest lay elsewhere.

For some time now, I have been keenly reading the history of the Jewish people, hoping to find an answer to a question that has become very relevant to me ever since I was forced to abandon my own homeland.

How did you do it? Your people were dispersed to hostile, strange lands for untold generations. You endured pogrom after pogrom, the most persecuted people in history. It should have crushed your spirit. To find the hope and resolve to come back to the Middle East, and to re-establish your own country after centuries of exile. In your book, you ask yourself the same question, “How did our ancestors in exile manage to retain hope…One reason I am a believing Jew is because of their faith”. Your book is filled with such thoughts, looking back into the past for understanding and purpose, while trying to confront the seemingly intractable issues of today.

Your letters also contain references to events and places that are central to Israelis, but few Arabs will have heard of. For example, before reading your book I had never heard of Kfar Etzion, whose defenders in 1948 had surrendered to the Arabs and were killed the day before the declaration of Israel’s independence. You call it “one of the open wounds of the Israeli psyche”. It is events such as these that must be confronted and talked about if there is ever to be peace between Palestinians and Israelis, and your book does a great service by ensuring that your Arab readers do not remain in ignorance of this and other events. Your letters are the words of a man who does not apologize for the survival of his people, and one who will not, for the sake of dialogue, hesitate to firmly remind the other side of uncomfortable facts when defending his country.

But they are also the sentiments of a person who wishes for genuine peace with his neighbors. Not of the type of “peace” that a victor imposes on a vanquished enemy, but a peace that you quite evidently hope will last generations. You express the hope that perhaps the thoughts and musings in your letters could be the basis of a future peace plan. I wish you and your Palestinian neighbors the sincerest hope that you will be able to forge such a peace.

As a former Syrian refugee, I will look for continued hope and inspiration where I can find it. Canada has been very good to me. Your people dreamt for 2000 years to re-establish your own homeland, free from occupation. My dreams of moving to Canada only needed me to wait 19 months, the duration to process my resettlement application. You willingly choose to move from the United States to one of the most turbulent regions in the world. I would be happy to never set foot in that part of the world ever again.

But we both wish for the same thing; acceptance by those amongst whom we live. You say in your book that in order to make the frightening security compromises that may be necessary for peace, Israelis have to hear from their neighbors that “the unbearable denial of our right to exist is finally over. We need to hear from our neighbors that Israel is here to stay.” As great an achievement as the establishment of your country was, being accepted by the wider Arab world would be a greater accomplishment still.

Aboud Dandachi

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Aboud Dandachi, a Syrian refugee who resettled and was integrated in Canada two years ago, 
A writer whose previous blog posts regarding Syria and other matters can be found here:  http://adandachi.com/istanbul/
Aboud’s twitter: @abouddandachi