A Letter to My Israeli Neighbor, Yossi

In a few weeks we’ll be marking the 49th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival. Why is this significant? I believe Americans growing up in the Woodstock era have been deeply and intimately affected by the “Peace, Love, and Happiness” slogan and magical feeling in the air. It’s become ingrained in our psyche. That’s a good thing as long as it doesn’t get in the way of reality.

During my gap year learning program in Jerusalem 1972 my Israeli Rabbis believed that the Messiah was close by. After all, the world’s new credo was “Make Love, Not War.” We were ushering in a new era. Hundreds of thousands were rallying against war. The tragic horrors of the Holocaust were behind us. In Israel we were still exulting in the euphoria of the Six Day War. We were building Jewish settlements in ancient Biblical Israel.

While peace with our neighbors was a distant dream, it really didn’t matter all that much in the scheme of things. We were peacocks flaunting our feathers and strutting our stuff. Invincible. Unbeatable. Firmly rooted in our beliefs. A strong and mighty army; No one could threaten us ever again. An unshakable belief system. Perhaps the dream of some devout Zionists would become reality in the form of Greater Israel.

Fast forward and we begin making peace overtures to our neighbors, the Palestinians. We sit around the negotiating table – just the two of us or in conjunction with our American friends. It doesn’t really matter who the Prime Minister is or who the American President is the process isn’t working. We’re not getting anywhere. We’re being turned down left and right. No matter how much we offer. The second intifada results in over a thousand Israelis dead due to Palestinian Authority sanctioned terrorism. In Gaza we abandon our settlements unilaterally.

Fast forward to “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.” Your book attempts to explain to the Palestinians what we, the Israelis, the Jewish People are doing on this piece of land. Why we have a right to be here.

Yossi, we both grew up in Brooklyn, sons of Holocaust survivors. We attended the same yeshiva high school. We both ended up living in Israel. (You beat me by 20 years.) Working in Israel over the past 20 years not a day has gone by where I don’t interact with Palestinians, Arab-Israelis, Jordanians or Egyptians. Beginning in late 1999 if I wasn’t in Jordan I was in Jenin or Tul Karm. This Orthodox Jewish kid from Brooklyn was meeting Arabs for the first time in his life. And you know what? They were human just like me. Step on their toes and they say, “Ouch.” I was invited into their homes, met their families, etc etc just like normal people. “Hey,” I said to myself, “maybe peace is possible.” Then came the second intifada. No more traveling to Arab areas. Security took precedence over all else.

Yossi, you have too much “Woodstock” in you. You want peace so very much that you forget the Palestinians weren’t at Yasgur’s Farm and have absolutely no “Peace, Love, and Happiness” in them. Their make-up is Middle Eastern, not American culture / Western civilization. Sitting around a table, talking, giving up precious negotiating points is a sign of weakness. You believe we’ll both have to offer away what we hold dear and precious in order for both sides to come to an accommodation. That may be true, but if after you convince the Israelis, you’ll have a damn hard time with the Palestinians.

I so very much appreciate and laud your efforts. All sane men would. But in our neighborhood they’re downright dangerous. I want nothing more than for my grandchildren to grow up and not worry about threats from Arabs. But I’m not optimistic about the future. History has taught me not to be. And while I’d love to change the face of the future I simply think between Arabs and Israelis it’s just not going to happen.

Don’t stop what you’re doing. It’s vitally important work. I obviously don’t have the same optimism you have. I have much faith in you that when the time comes you won’t be giving away the store. But if we ever reach a time where the Palestinians understand us and are willing to come to an accommodation, I’ll be first in line to sign away what the Jewish people hold dear. Because I believe that peace and harmony, human dignity and self-respect are more important than pieces of land. And I believe that Israelis on the whole agree with me. But we are so very suspicious and weary.

So, let’s continue celebrating Woodstock. Let’s pray that pieces of it still exist. Persevere in your important work and don’t let people like me dissuade you or get you down. Civilization has always required people on the edges to move things forward. You’re a dreamer and dreamers are the most important segment of society.

-Stuart Pilichowski