An Israeli has written a series of open letters to his Palestinian neighbours. Will anyone respond?

Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency/Getty ImagesIsraeli forces intervene to Palestinian demonstrators using tear gas during a protest.
  • Conversations about the Israeli Palestinian conflict are often stale and unproductive.
  • Interlocutors talk in circles and rarely say anything new or productive.
  • A new book from Yossi Klein Halevi might change that.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most of the “dialogue” consists of people talking in circles, to themselves, and to like minded individuals.

The peace processors talk about the peace process: No, it’s not dead, it can be saved, here’s how we can revive it.

Those who have given up blame either Israelis or Palestinians for everything that’s gone wrong and are uninterested in hearing any other perspective.

But every so often some piece of literature or political discourse comes around that seems to draw water from a different well. That’s the case with Yossi Klein Halevi’s new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbour.

His book, a collection of letters addressed to his Palestinian counterparts, functions as a new attempt at discourse that starts on a grassroots level. His language is beautiful. So is the idea behind the book: radical, unceasing empathy for the other – combined with an unadulterated, unmitigated dedication to one’s own people and one’s own land.

If that sounds complicated, it is.

Halevi’s newfangled idea is that there might be some progress, some movement at all, if only people could communicate directly to each other and not through their leaders – or the leaders of other countries. What isn’t certain, though, is that the people to whom he addressed these letters will actually read them.

Even more uncertain: Will there be any kind of response?

There should be. But just as there are doubtlessly those within Israeli society who feel that Halevi was too honest in his disclosures of the uncomfortable, unsanitized realities of the conflict, there would be those within Palestinian society who would frown on any response that acknowledges even the slightest legitimacy of the Israeli side.

In a particularly poignant paragraph, Halevi writes: “This is the curse of our relationship: My protection is your vulnerability, my celebration your defeat.” But, he notes, “the inverse can also be true. … Sometimes my misfortune evokes joy among some of my Palestinian neighbours. … When missiles are launched by Hezbollah on Israel towns in the north, or by Hamas on towns in the south, celebratory fireworks light up on your hill.”

These are the disappointing realities of the conflict – the ones that are rarely discussed frankly by the people who most need to acknowledge them. But Halevi, unlike so many interlocutors in this conflict, is not afraid to discuss the uncomfortable.

That goes in both directions. The author is willing to honestly confront the Israeli policies that he wishes were gentler. He is also quick to point out the ways in which the Palestinians, and the world at large, often forget the situation in which the Jews find themselves. “Israel’s Jews,” he writes, “are a curious majority….We are a majority in our own country but are acutely aware of being a minority in a hostile region – a region to which Arab Israelis belong, by culture and sentiment. … That means that both the Jews and Arabs of Israel often feel at once like a majority and a minority.”

Halevi writes that he has “a split screen in my head.” That “on one side there’s Israel versus the Palestinians, and I am Goliath and you are David; on the other side of the screen there’s Israel versus the Arab and Muslim worlds, and I am David.”

The author’s solution to the problems of narrative and identity that he so accurately diagnoses are the communications he hopes he can initiate: “And so dear neighbour, I end these letters as I began: with the prayer that we will meet.”

Peace in the region will not come from Israelis denying the Palestinian narrative. It will not come from Palestinians denying the Israeli narrative. It can only come from the kind of work Halevi has done in this book: outreach that seeks not to preach or persuade, but to educate and to share. Halevi has extended an olive branch of information and identity. If he’s lucky, someone will send it back.

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