Dear Abdelgawad Sayed, 

Thanks so much for your warm and supportive – and challenging – letter, for all of which I am grateful. You are right: Though I wrote my letters to a Palestinian neighbour, this is a conversation that all of us in this region must have together. Thank you for joining and enriching this conversation.

I have enormous respect for your courage and integrity as a public secularist in the Arab world. Even though, as you know, my own orientation is religious rather than secular, I am actually grateful for the large secular presence in Israel and would never vote for a religious party.

I want official Israel to be as democratic – as secular – as possible. I say “as possible” because I don’t believe that any country in the Middle East, Jewish or Arab, can ever completely separate the public sphere from religious identity, because in both Islam and Judaism (unlike Christianity), no such separation of identities exists.

Still, we can aspire for far greater separation than currently exists – and at least in Israel’s case, my hope is that whatever religious identity the state will retain it will be largely ceremonial, rather than intrusive in people’s lives (as is the case today in marriage and divorce).

As for the substance of your letter: I deeply believe in the possibility of Islam and Judaism – or parts of each faith –enriching our language of peace-making. I fear that, without some religious legitimation for a future peace process, it will be doomed before it begins. In the Middle East, we must have religious input. Your critique of the failure of the Palestinian left to meet the Israeli left’s commitment to peace is an important insight, but it doesn’t go far enough. Even if there were a Palestinian left as committed to peace as the Israeli left, it wouldn’t really matter. In both societies, the secular left is peripheral. If we were to look toward the left for hope, we will be waiting a very long time.

While I share the humanistic values of the Israeli left, and especially its commitment to defending and strengthening Israeli democracy, I am still angry at its naivete during the Oslo peace process, and its almost messianic belief in peace with Yasser Arafat – a false peace that led to thousands of deaths and injuries on both sides during the Second Intifada, which Arafat instigated. Like most Israelis, I cannot trust the left with Israeli security – which is why the left has been marginalized in Israeli politics, as the current elections prove.

The real debate in Israeli politics today is not between the Israeli right and left but between the Israeli right and center. It is the center that has taken the place of the left as the main opposition to the right, and that is the camp with which I identify with. In my book I tried to explain something of the centrist Israeli perspective – which, on the Palestinian issue, combines the willingness of the left to make peace with the wariness of the right toward the intentions of the Palestinian leadership.

You write that I identify with the Israeli right. My first instinct when I read that was to protest: I’m not a right winger! Or at least, not anymore. I grew up on the right, I imbibed its sense of Jewish pride and its fighting spirit, but I don’t vote right wing (I vote centrist) and I haven’t identified politically with the right for many years.

And yet – on second thought, you may be right, at least in the sense of my emotional if not political identification. Perhaps I will always feel in some way rightwing… And yet the longer our conflict with the Palestinians continues, and the more morally compromised Israel becomes under rightwing governments, the less I feel rightwing, even emotionally.

The substantive argument between us is not only over religion but Western civilization. I don’t fully trust Western civilization – even though I certainly prefer to live in a Western-style country than a non-Western system of governance. The mass migrations of our time are happening in only one direction – toward the West.

And yet I am also wary of Western civilization. The Holocaust was a product of what was once regarded as the most enlightened Western country, Germany. And as for your claim that religion is responsible for most of the massacres in history, the greatest mass murders of all time were committed by secular regimes – Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China. Together those three demonic forces were responsible for many tens of millions of innocent deaths.

In the end I sense that the argument between us is really tactical. If religion could be a positive force for peace, surely you would support that. And if Western-style humanism could become deeply rooted in the Middle East, I would support that too.

Given our reality, though, we have no choice but to work to strengthen those forces within both Judaism and Islam that believe it is possible to merge humanism with faith. That is my position. I am looking for partners in the Arab world who share that vision.

Thank you for your thoughtful response to my book. I couldn’t have hoped for more.

Warm regards,

Yossi