Yossi Klein Halevi just wants his Arab neighbors to understand what Israel, Jews and Zionism are all about. That, he says, is the purpose behind his new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” which comes out in about ten days. In previous books, he’s reflected on the stories, ambitions and personal histories that his neighbors have shared with him. Now, he says, it’s his turn. And he’s made sure his neighbors have the opportunity to understand where he’s coming from: the book is available in Arabic, for free, on line.
“This book isn’t about optimism or pessimism,” he says, “but an attempt to explain the Jewish and Israeli story to our neighbors – why the Jewish people never game up its claim to this land even from afar, why I left my home in New York City in 1982 to move 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.”
Klein Halevi says the book is not about optimism or pessimism – but maybe it’s about both. And maybe that’s a good way to explain Israel and Jews and Zionism to the Arab world. An Arab world where, on one hand, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and the PLO continue to refuse to recognize the Jewish nation’s right to self-determination; and on the other, where Israel is finding allies in Sunni nations like Saudi Arabia that fear the power of Iran. Optimism that the shifting landscape throughout the Middle East gives Israel an opening to tell its story; pessimism that, after decades of lies and false narratives in the Arab world, the Jew hatred is entrenched so deeply that our story might not be hold.
And that has never been truer than it is this week, when the current Palestinian powers in both Gaza and the West Bank showed that they truly do not want – and will not seek – peace and recognition of the State of Israel as it approaches its 70th birthday.
In Gaza, Hamas has once again chosen to use the destitute population as a human shield for its attacks – encouraging men, women and children to riot along the border fence with Israel, setting fire to piles of tires to camouflage the terrorists who are trying to shoot and bomb their way across the border. Molotov cocktails have been hurled. Kites are now being set alight and landing with devastating effect in Israel’s tinder-dry wilderness.
Week after week, Israeli troops have pushed back, sometimes with deadly force. Week after week, western media outlets like the New York Times have put the blame squarely on Israel’s shoulders, without an acknowledgement that Hamas – which once promoted itself as a charitable agency – has been sacrificing its own people like this for years, while it wastes the vast resources the West has provided, smuggling weapons and digging tunnels instead building infrastructure and creating a functional civil society.
Hamas faces no dilemma here because it has no desire for peace, no plan for creating civil society. It is a terrorist group committed to the destruction of Israel. When it talks about the “occupation” it is talking about the whole of the State of Israel, which it has vowed to wipe off the face of the earth.
On the other hand, Israel, at 70, does face many of these dilemmas and is struggling to make sense of them.
“My public life,” writes Klein Halevi, “has been devoted to upholding what I consider an essential realism about Israel’s dilemma – that we can’t permanently rule another people but also can’t make peace with a Palestinian national movement that denies our right to exist as a sovereign nation.”
That continuing denial was brought into sharp focus this week when Mahmoud Abbas gave a long speech in Ramallah to the Palestine Liberation Organization – a speech that included just about every anti-semitic trope in the book. The Jews of Europe, he said, brought the Holocaust on themselves. It didn’t happen because of European antisemitism, he insisted, but because of the Jews’ usury, banking, and what he called their “social function.”
He reiterated the old canards that Jews have no place and no history in the Middle East, that Jews are not originally from the Middle East, and that Israel was a World War Two Colonialist project that had nothing to do with Jewish history or aspirations.
He brought up the lie he began perpetrating some 30 years ago – that Zionists had collaborated with the Nazis to move more Jews into what would become Israel. A lie that is clearly contrary to the facts and the record of the partnership between Hitler and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. At their meeting in 1941, Hitler promised the Mufti that, as soon as German forces had broken through from the Caucasus into the Middle East – and this is a quote from the minutes of their meeting – “Germany’s goal will be the extermination of the Jews who reside in Arab territories under British rule.”
Such lies been pervasive in the PLO’s self-promotion for decades. Lies that are, in part, designed to distract from the incompetence, corruption, and avarice of a Palestinian leadership that has walked away from multiple offers of peace from Israel, and that has instead responded to those offers with violent uprisings and calculated, targeted killings.
Abbas’ language was roundly condemned even by organizations that have not been friendly to Israel. The United Nations special coordinator for peace in the Middle East called it “unacceptable, deeply disturbing.” And even the New York Times, whose coverage of the violence at the Gaza border has been stridently anti-Israel, apparently has enough. “Even in this gloomy climate,” wrote the Times Editorial board on Wednesday, “Mr. Abbas’ vile speech was a new low. . . . Palestinians need a leader with energy, integrity and vision, one who might have a better chance of achieving Palestinian independence and enabling both peoples to live in peace.”
I have said before that I do not agree with many of the policies of various Israeli governments, including this one. I do think there have been missed opportunities in Jerusalem. But the Times is absolutely correct that the Palestinian leadership has failed – failed to unify the West Bank and Gaza, failed to alleviate the desperate circumstances of its people.
Even Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has reached the limit of his. He has publicly scolded the Palestinian leadership, told them to shut up, stop complaining, and stop rejecting Israeli offers for peace.
So, yes, maybe Klein Halevi’s book is coming at the right time to be heard in the Arab world. But there’s another important opportunity here – not just for his Palestinian neighbors but for all of us. Because it’s not just the Arab Palestinian national narrative that has flaws in it. Some aspects of the modern Zionist story, too, are problematic. Because if it only starts from 1948, if we are only celebrating 70 years, then we are doing ourselves and our cause a disservice.
Just focusing on the founding of the modern state of Israel plays into the lie that Jews were plunked down in the middle of the Arab world to assuage European guilt over the Holocaust. It’s a lie that is promoted deliberately by people like Abbas and by the anti-Semitic leadership of the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement, who rely on the sheer ignorance of most of the population of the world about the origins and history of the Jewish people in their land.
As Liel Leibovitz wrote just today in Tablet magazine:
“When everyone from Mahmoud Abbas to Natalie Portman speaks of Israel as a direct outcome of the Holocaust – one with malice, the other out of ignorance – it may be refreshing for the passionate and the progressive to hear about the millennia that preceded Auschwitz, about the Temples and the exiles, about the deep and immovable roots that bind us to the land and from which Jewish self-determination had bloomed for thousands of years.”
If we are going to try get others to see us as something beyond colonialists and interlopers, we need to make sure that our own narrative is clear and strong. Not just 70 years but thousands of years. Not just refugees but rightful heirs. Not just particularists but universalists.
This is, I think, what Klein Halevi is striving for here, when he asks his Arab neighbors not just to hear with an open ear, but with an open mind and a willing heart. He writes:
“Dear Neighbor . . .
“. . . We are trapped, you and I, in a seemingly hopeless cycle. Not a “cycle of violence” — a lazy formulation that tells us nothing about why our conflict exists, let alone how to end it. Instead, we’re trapped in what may be called a ‘cycle of denial.’ Your side denies my people’s legitimacy, my right to self-determination, and my side prevents your people from achieving national sovereignty. The cycle of denial defines our shared existence, an impossible intimacy of violence, suppression, rage, despair.
“That is the cycle we can only break together.”
I do not know if either side has the courage, or the leadership, or the willingness right now to break this cycle of denial. But I know that, like a good 12-step program, the first step is acknowledging the problem. And here, both sides have to do that. If not, we cannot move forward, step by step, to the future of peaceful coexistence many of us envision.
At the end of his book, Klein Halevi reflects on the celebration of Sukkot in Israel, and building and living in his sukkah. This is, he writes, “an expression of defiance against despair. This open and vulnerable structure is the antithesis of the fortified concrete room in my basement, which every Israeli family is required by law to build, against possible missile attacks. We live with that threat as a constant reality. But the sukkah is our spiritual air raid shelter, promise of a world without fear.”
As we prepare to celebrate the modern state of Israel’s 70th birthday, we must remind ourselves not only of the thousands of years of our history on the land, but also of the important and sacred times that cycle around each and every year, which have sustained our people for these thousands of years, in Israel and outside of it. Feast days and fast days; days when we recite Psalms of rejoicing and of remembering; days coming up soon, like Shavuot, when we celebrate the creation of our people in ancient times, bound by the covenant made at Sinai; days we farther along in the calendar, like Sukkot, when a temporary hut can be turned into a symbol of permanence and peace.
Let us look back on our history as stepping stones that take us, not just to how far we have come today, but where we want and need to be tomorrow. And let us say together: Amen.
©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin