This week, Issie Levin provides her response to the book Letters to My Palestinian Neighbour by Yossi Klein Halevi. She uses the book as a route to discuss the value of literature in helping people with opposing opinions to understand the other.
Literature has always acted as an effective form of escapism for me. Books that are not somewhat rooted in fiction have never had much overall appeal. However, when conflict and division is so deeply entrenched in brutal reality, it seemed necessary to hear authentic voices.
Yossi Klein Halevi’s title is grounded in its practicality, underlining the epistolary form in which he chooses to address his unidentified Palestinian “neighbour”. While the title ostensibly lacks the poeticism of Halevi’s other titles such as Like Dreamers, or even the lyricism of his reflections within the book, it’s the cutting simplicity of this title which breaks through boundaries, instantly developing an open dialogue.
Halevi’s introduction is an active encouragement for response and criticism. Practically, he enables this by pointing out that his work has been distributed for free online for Palestinians to read in Arabic. The Author tracks the division to deep-rooted misunderstanding of religious and historical practice; he aims to unravel the narrative connecting the Jews to their homeland. Initially, this was a turn off. As a secular modern-orthodox Jew, I often find the religious rhetoric frustrating. I struggle, and feel somewhat unwilling, to hear religious attachment as justification for continuous conflict and casualties. Luckily, this was not the simple outline I had originally perceived.
Halevi, as expected, willingly outpours his frustration towards Hebron’s territorial separation from Israel. Yet, he is able to balance this with his awareness of the frustrations that Palestinians must feel when Jaffa is not considered part of their territory. The poignant metaphor of an “amputation” is used to explore the sense of loss and injustice which comes with division. He counters with a willingness to surrender - or to put it more positively, compromise - in order to allow both sides the much-needed right to self-determination. Ultimately, it is accepted that “the enemy of justice is the absolute justice for one”.
“The enemy of justice is the absolute justice for one”.
Halevi’s tale consistently remains one which tries to retain balance. This applies not only to his open dialogue towards a two-state solution, but also in his approach to compensation. It is accepted that Israel should compensate Palestinian refugees for their displacement. In addition, he insists that this must be matched with equal reparations for the 50% of Israelis who had been previously exiled from their homes elsewhere in the Middle East. This does not mean Halevi is not obstinate in his defence of Israel. He repeatedly and bitterly condemns the systemic lying and hate which the Palestinian media preaches. He legitimises this though a historical analysis whereby myths of Israel being a colony are dispelled; Jews did not perform an aggressive takeover, but rather pushed for an overdue return. It is Halevi’s differentiation of the modern-day “State of Israel”, from the historic and biblical “Land of Israel” which personally remains most striking. Previously, I’d heard the terms used interchangeably, now, having examined them individually with care, I can consider whether this lack of distinction is destructive.
When reading a book, I often find it difficult to approach the story with a full sense of autonomy. The temptation to allow the views of others to influence your own can be toxic. Yet, Halevi himself acknowledges that his voice is merely one part of the story. Palestinian writer and activist Raja Shehadeh published his response to Halevi in The New York Times. I had not considered the Israeli author’s writing to be particularly patronising. However, Shehadeh contended that the ultimate purpose was not to spread awareness, but to preach conversion to Zionism. In his view, Halevi’s work acts as a mere intellectual exercise, while the Palestinian people cannot afford this same luxury.
These neighbours “can almost hear each other breathing”.
My concluding thoughts towards Letters to My Palestinian Neighbour are muddled. I admire Halevi’s efforts, yet I still struggle to find myself so optimistic in supporting a simple solution. Flicking back through the book I found it difficult to properly empathise with Shehadeh’s point of view. Perhaps this is because I autonomously thought his opinions were invalid, or perhaps inevitably my upbringing and core beliefs had subconsciously grounded my reading. Maybe I was almost pre-programmed to dispute him. This forced me to question whether we’re ever fully in control of the process of reading.
If a reader is unable to consciously construct their reading experience, we must question whether books like this are an effective method of opening up the minds of its readers. As Shehadeh points out, they are merely intellectual exercises on behalf of the reader; their opinions already dictated by the environment they inhabit. Nevertheless, we have a responsibility to open our minds to alternative perspectives. Perhaps it is this pre-programming which Halevi preaches to be so dangerous?
Yes, it is unrealistic to expect a highly emotive conflict to be resolved in 200 pages. However, to preach organic and individual respect for one’s neighbour can be deemed no bad thing, especially when we remember that Israelis and Palestinians “live in such intimacy.” At the end of the day, these neighbours “can almost hear each other breathing”.