First person: On ‘Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor’

 

Israel and Palestine.

For many in the Jewish community, these two words conjure up a slew of images, memories and feelings.

Knowing those feelings is a good idea for anyone embarking on this year’s Milwaukee Jewish Community Read, Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.”

It will prove helpful in encounters with ideas that provoke, reassure and disturb. All will occur for any thoughtful reader.

What do you think of ‘Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor’?

Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, co-directs its Muslim Leadership Initiative.

“This book,” he writes, “is an attempt to explain the Jewish story and the significance of Israel in Jewish identity to Palestinians who are my next-door neighbors.”

“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” is brave, honest and fatally flawed, an emotional roller coaster ride balanced on a razor blade. Which is not to say that it isn’t a ride worth taking. It is, and not only for the reasons Halevi wrote it.

What he got right takes up a significant portion of the book can be basically summed thusly: We have a whole lot in common. We’ve done serious damage to each other. We’ve both wronged and been wronged. The only way forward is together. We can humble ourselves and figure it out, or continue inflicting damage on one another until we’re both gone.

Attempting personal engagement from the place of occupier/victor is a bold move. It’s also dangerous because it’s easy to get wrong. Which, in a fundamental way, Halevi has.

That has less to do with him and more with the fact that this is a book full of letters to a faceless “Palestinian Neighbor.” An impersonal medium is an ineffective vehicle for attempting intimate discussions. Engagement doesn’t happen without a baseline of trust borne of time, understanding and personal connection.

Toward that end, Halevi has provided a free Arabic-language download of the book and an invitation for anyone in that community to write him in response to issues raised, “no matter how challenging.”

We’ve all been in situations where someone has tried to explain why they’re right. Halevi’s early letters, however well-intentioned, feel that way. He describes his home in East Jerusalem with its view of the border wall and acknowledges the disparity of privilege between himself and his reader. He shares experiences as a religious pilgrim learning about the devotional life of Christiams and Muslims, but whose travels in Palestinian society were also an intentional effort to “force myself open to the Palestinian tragedy: the shattering of a people whose organizing principle is now dislocation and whose most significant anniversaries are humiliating defeats.”

As a reviewer, I tried to put myself into the shoes and mindset of those Palestinian neighbors. Reading about his visits to a refugee camp in Gaza where he’d previously served as an IDF soldier and where, after return visits, he was warmly welcomed by the local imam felt as if he were telling me what it was like to experience something I may understand. But when he references his memories of broken-bottle- and crowbar-throwing teens as a soldier while referencing Amnon Pomerantz (z”l), a reservist who burned alive after being surrounded by a mob after he took a wrong turn into a neighboring camp, it feels alienating.

It was on page 68 that Halevi made me stop feeling being talked at, and, instead, began feeling spoken to.

“Tragically,” he writes, “each side has tried, at different stages of the conflict, to deny the legitimacy of the other’s national identity, to rationalize the other out of existence.”

* * *

Several local agencies and book clubs are partnering to hold a “Milwaukee Jewish Community Read” of a best-selling book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” before the author speaks here in May. To join the Milwaukee Jewish Community Read:

  1. Start reading!
  2. For resources, visit MilwaukeeJewish.org/Read
  3. If you’d like to connect your organization with the Milwaukee Jewish Community Read, contact Allison Hayden at Milwaukee Jewish Federation at 414-390-5724 or AllisonH@MilwaukeeJewish.org
  4. Mark your calendar – Yossi Klein Halevi will give a free talk in Milwaukee on May 30