Telling the Israeli narrative to the world’s toughest audience
Yossi Klein Halevi is an American-Israeli journalist and notably, the author of both Like Dreamers and Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist. His latest book, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. We sat down for a conversation about his new book, his work, and Israeli and Palestinian identity. Below is a transcript, edited for clarity and length.
Adam Rubenstein: What do you think is the unifying element in your work? It’s wide-ranging, but seems to me to have a common theme: An education in moderation.
Yossi Klein Halevi: Yes, but a specific form of moderation: a search for balance between maintaining a deep connection with my Jewish story and a dangerous curiosity of the other.
Curiosity is a dangerous trait. Fundamentalists of every religion are right from their perspective to fear it and try to suppress it. Curiosity is the first step toward empathy. As soon as you’re curious about the other, you’re stepping out of your own self-referential universe. For me the question has always been, “How do you go on that journey of curiosity and take that step toward empathy without losing the core of your own being, your own specific loyalties?” My books are about this tension between being true to yourself and trying to understand the truths of others, even when those truths are in conflict with your own.
That’s certainly the project of your book, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.
Garden of Eden is the clearest expression of how, for me, curiosity led to empathy. Like Dreamers is also an attempt to understand the other- the book explores the inner worlds of two opposing narratives, the Israeli right and left.
I would also describe my life’s work as the struggle to understand Jewish identity after the Holocaust and the creation of Israel, to understand how this moment in Jewish history has impacted me personally as the son of a Holocaust survivor, as an American Jew who moved to Israel, and how it’s impacted on us as a people. And a crucial part of this new Jewish reality is our complicated relationship with the non-Jewish world.
In my first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, I told the story of growing up in a Brooklyn community of Orthodox Holocaust survivors, who wanted nothing more than to be left alone by the rest of the world. For the community in which I was raised, “the world” was a hostile place. “The world” created Auschwitz. And so the response of the Orthodox survivors was to withdraw into themselves, almost draw a moat around the Neighborhood and our Jewish being. For me, it was a natural progression to go from that upbringing to the Jewish right and keep moving farther and farther right until there was nowhere to go. I started in Betar, the nationalist youth movement of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, and then I graduated to the Jewish Defence League of Meir Kahane. As a teenager I was searching for the most potent way of responding to the Holocaust. It’s astonishing to think back to the 1960s, when I was coming of age, and to realise that only two decades separated my generation then from the Holocaust.
And so the most urgent question of my life was, ‘What’s the most vital way of responding to growing up in the generation immediately after the Shoah and the creation of Israel?’ In those years I found my answer in movements that basically divided the world into us and them, Jews and everyone else. Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist traces my break with that mindset, a process that included falling in love with and marrying one of them. My wife converted to Judaism and moved with me to Israel. For someone of my background, to step out of that extreme insularity, and create an extended family that brought together my Orthodox family with Sarah’s Connecticut Yankees – that was America’s personal gift to me.
What obsesses me in my own Jewish identity, and in the dilemmas that Israel and the Jewish people face today, is the role of paradox. The founding paradox of my life is that my father belonged to the most cursed generation of Jews in history, while I belong to the most blessed. I live in a time when Jews have actualised two of their greatest dreams. The first was to regain our national sovereignty – an improbable fantasy for 2,000 years. And the second was that we would find some genuinely safe refuge in the diaspora.
Either of those events – the creation of a Jewish state, the emergence of the most successful diaspora in Jewish history – would have been enough to change Jewish life for generations. But they were fulfilled almost simultaneously. I was born into that dual blessing. As the child of a survivor, I am not the son of destruction but of rebirth. And so, my starting point is the extraordinary ability of the Jewish people to move from the lowest point in our history to arguably our most successful.
Your newest book, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, begins with geography. You’re writing to your neighbors, while you’re sitting in French Hill in east Jerusalem on your balcony which overlooks, on the other side of the security barrier, the Arab Neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. And you’ve lived there for three decades, well before this barrier had been constructed to quell the second intifada. When you’re sitting on that balcony, what are you thinking? What’s your greatest hope for what this collection of letters might achieve?
Letters is an attempt to tell an Israeli narrative to the toughest audience for that story – my Palestinian Neighbors. I wrote Letters because I believe that there will be no chance for reconciliation if the Arab world continues to deny and distort Jewish history, if the Arab world, and Palestinian society in particular, continues to erase our legitimacy, our indigenousness. Throughout the Middle East it’s normative to believe that the Jews invented their history, that Israel is nothing more than a colonialist intrusion. You don’t make peace with colonialism; you destroy it.
The book has been translated into Arabic, and it’s been offered for free downloading online. I’ve begun getting responses. They range from the predictable – “We will drive you out of Palestine, you’re nothing but thieves, Zio-nazis” – to curiosity, even gratitude. I’m hoping to find some people on the other side of the wall who are ready to have a conversation with me as an Israeli that’s different from the pathological discourse we’ve been having for 70 years. I’m hoping to start a conversation about Israel’s place in the Middle East, about our rootedness here, about our shared future. I don’t have any grand illusions; I’m just a writer, not a politician. A writer’s job is to tell a story; I’m telling a story to my Neighbors that I believe they need to hear.
Letters is an attempt to try to formulate a 21st century Israeli and Jewish narrative. Jews are telling a 20th century story of Israel. That Euro-centric story begins with pogroms in Europe, with Bialik’s great poem, City of Slaughter, and culminates in the Holocaust.
Obviously that’s a major part of the Israeli story. But if that’s the only story we tell, we distort Israeli reality. A majority of Israeli Jews are not of European descent but come from families who left one part of the Middle East and came to another part, who left or fled or were expelled from countries where Jews had lived for centuries, millennia. A majority of Israelis come from families that weren’t touched directly by the Holocaust. It’s understandable why American Jews, who are overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, continue to tell a European Jewish story about Israel. But that’s not the Israel I live in.
A Holocaust-centred Israeli narrative leaves us vulnerable to accusations that the Palestinians have paid the price for what Europe did to the Jews. That version of the conflict also ignores the centrality of the land of Israel to Judaism and the Jewish people. We didn’t only return home because of the need for a safe refuge; we returned because it is home. In the book I define Zionism as the meeting point between need and longing. We have told the story of Zionism of need, but not of the Zionism of longing. We’ve forgotten how to tell that story, even to ourselves – an unbelievable story of how Jews maintained a kind of vicarious indigenousness with the homeland we lost but never ceded. And that’s a story that we need to start telling again – to the Arab world, and also to ourselves.
You write in Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor that, for you, it’s not the “West Bank,” it’s Judea and Samaria. “Jews in Judea are not aliens, but like many Israelis, I’m ready to partition the land if convinced the trade-off will be peace and not greater terror.” To many Israelis, certainly many settlers, this partition would be a failure of Zionism.
As a politically mainstream Israeli, I am deeply patriotic – a lover of the state of Israel and the land of Israel – all of it, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time, I believe we need to pursue alternatives to the current impasse with the Palestinians, for our own sake as well as theirs.
The settlers have some very strong arguments, which resonate with me. We are not “occupiers” in any part of the land of Israel. But we are occupying another people that shares the land with us.
My father’s great lesson from the Holocaust was that Jews need to face reality without wishful thinking. My father’s critique of how the Holocaust happened, how Jews were so completely unprepared, was that they deluded themselves and couldn’t face where that gradual process of what we now call the Final Solution was leading.
My takeaway today from my father’s emphasis on the need for facing reality, is that, when applied to the Palestinian dilemma, both the left and the right are failing that test.
Left-wingers tend to minimise the security threat that Israel faces, the level of hostility and denial of our right to exist that is widespread throughout Palestinian society and the Middle East. And right-wingers tend to deny the political, demographic and moral consequences of permanently ruling over another people. Right-wing Jews will often say that there is no such thing as the occupation because Palestinians have some form of self-rule; many go so far as to say that Palestinians aren’t a people at all. That’s a right-wing form of denial of reality.
I served as a soldier in Gaza; I know that the occupation and Palestinian national identity are real. Israel’s dilemma is so excruciating precisely because the left is correct about the dangers of occupation and the right is correct about the dangers of a delusional peace process with a Palestinian national movement that denies our right to exist. Like many Israelis I see us as being simultaneously Goliath and David. We’re Goliath to the Palestinians but David to the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Put another way, I have two nightmares about a Palestinian state. One nightmare is that there won’t be a Palestinian state and the status quo will go on indefinitely, and the other nightmare is that there will be a Palestinian state and it will be taken over by Hamas and Israel might not be able to adequately defend itself in a disintegrating Middle East.
I know of no other country that faces that kind of wrenching dilemma. The hardcore ideologues of right and left trivialise our dilemma by pretending the argument of the rival camp has no substance.
There’s an important case you make in the book that Israel makes peace from a position of strength. You support it with the example of Menachem Begin achieving peace with Egypt. What’s left, obviously, are the Palestinians. The case is sound, it seems, when it comes to peace between nations. But when it comes to the Palestinians, well, Jaffa wasn’t part of the Egyptian identity. It wasn’t necessarily exclusive of Israel. How might this case of peace through strength apply to peace with the Palestinians?
You’re right: The conflict is at the heart of Palestinian identity in a way that’s not true for our other Neighbors. The Palestinian national movement, in all its factions, tends to see compromise as a betrayal of justice. What we’ve just seen on the Gaza border in these last weeks is an expression of what’s wrong with Palestinian national identity. Why are Palestinians who live in Palestine demanding the “right of return” to a country that is no longer Palestine? Return to where from where? Leave Gaza – Palestine – and go to Israel? Why, for that matter, are there refugee camps in Gaza – in Palestine? Aren’t they already home? Or does the Palestinian right of return only play out literally, to the actual ancestral homes that were lost in war 70 years ago? Those homes are never going to be retrieved; in most cases they no longer even exist. No Israeli government will agree to national suicide by allowing the descendants of refugees to move to the Jewish state. The Palestinian demand for right of return to the state of Israel is an expression of the rejection of Israel’s right to exist.
So part of this is also that you’re not content with, or resigned to, the status quo, with the Palestinians not accepting your legitimacy.
I believe that that rejection is the source of the conflict. If there was an indication that even part of the Palestinian people was publicly challenging the official narrative about Israel and the Jewish people that we are thieves and colonialists and liars who have invented our own history; if there was only some indication on the other side that this is now being debated in Palestinian society, that would be a moment when many of us in Israel would say, “well, maybe we really do have a partner.” In the absence of any debate within Palestinian society over Israel’s legitimacy, it’s hard to argue with the Israeli consensus that there is no partner for peace among the Palestinian leadership. I don’t see the current Israeli Government as a partner for a two-state solution, but we have had governments in the past that were partners for an agreement that would end the occupation, and they were spurned by the Palestinian leadership.
My book is a challenge to the rejection of the Jewish narrative in Palestinian public space. I didn’t write this with any grand hopes of transforming the reality between Israelis and Palestinians. But I do hope to model a different kind of conversation.
Adam Rubenstein is assistant opinion editor at the Weekly Standard. © Weekly Standard (www.weeklystandard.com), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.