Yossi Klein Halevi’s new book (to be published May 15 by HarperCollins) is ostensibly addressed to a Palestinian reader. To that end, in an opening Note, the author mentions that the book is being made available in Arabic translation for free downloading (at a link not yet available in my electronic advance copy). Moreover, he invites Palestinians, and others from the Arab and Muslim worlds, to write to him (at that link) “in response to any issue raised in this book. I will try to respond to every letter, no matter how challenging, that is written in a spirit of engagement. My intention is to initiate a public conversation on our shared future in the Middle East.”
Who knows, yet, where that invitation will lead? Who knows how many Palestinian neighbors the author will reach? I can’t help thinking that there is an expanded audience for this book, and that audience includes anyone who really wishes to try to understand “the Jewish story and the significance of Israel in Jewish identity”—while remaining open to and aware of the “neighbor’s” narrative and beliefs.
In a recent interview, the author explained:
This book isn’t about optimism or pessimism but an attempt to explain the Jewish and Israeli story to our neighbors – why the Jewish people never gave up its claim to this land even from afar, why I left my home in New York City in 1982 to move here. In my previous book [At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land], I tried to listen to my neighbors. In this book I’m asking my neighbors to listen to me.
In all these years of conflict, no Israeli writer has written directly to our Palestinian neighbors, and to the Arab and Muslim worlds generally, explaining who we are and why we’re here. We defend our story to the whole world, but we don’t bother explaining ourselves to our neighbors. We’re rightly outraged by the daily attacks on our history and legitimacy that fill the Palestinian media and the Arab world’s media. But we’ve never tried to tell them our story.
This book combines the two commitments of my life: explaining and defending the Jewish narrative, and seeking partners in the Muslim world. The Jewish people is divided into two camps. One is defending the Israeli narrative, the other is fighting for peace. The argument of this book is that the two are related: Peace won’t happen so long as our narrative is negated by the other side. You can’t make peace with a country that has no right to exist.
Well, he may not think the book is about optimism or pessimism. But in its efforts to articulate and communicate history and belief and suggest some actual strategies for the future—strategies that require choice, compromise, and change for everyone involved—Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor offers a model for future discourse. And that’s enough to make me optimistic.
May this new book reach many, many readers. Among the author’s Palestinian neighbors, yes. But also among Jews around the world.
And, ideally, among journalists, activists, and others who could also benefit from a more complete and nuanced awareness of “the Jewish and Israeli story,” too.