Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

The book you need to read right now

Yossi Klein-Halevi and Imam Abdullah Antepli. Credit: Arizona Post

Forget, please, that the author is a good friend.

Forget, as well, that its publication follows quickly on the heels of another “must read” about Israel — The Zionist Ideas, by Gil Troy.

This is all that you need to know: Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, by Yossi Klein Halevi, is the book that you need to read.

There has rarely been a book, for a general audience, that so clearly and poignantly spells out the case for Israel — and in a way that upholds, sanctifies, and ennobles the Palestinian “side” of the story as well.

Yossi Klein Halevi is an American-born Israeli journalist, and a cherished teacher at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he co-heads the Muslim Leadership Initiative with his friend, Imam Abdullah Antepli.

Yossi imagines a Palestinian neighbor, living across the divide between French Hill in Jerusalem — the last Jewish neighborhood in the north of the city, where Yossi lives on the last street — in a neighboring Palestinian village. Yossi opens his heart to his neighbor — with one simple and elegant mission: that they might understand each other’s hearts and stories, and in some way, to create peace between them.

The result is not only phenomenal, but also a phenomenon. It is now on the New York Times Bestseller List. (It also exists in Arabic as a free download).

For, when was the last time that a “Jewish” book made it onto that list?

Perhaps in homage to another Jewish best seller, the book could have born the title: When Bad Things Happen to Good Peoples.

Or, even, A Whole Lot More Than Fifty Shades of Gray.

Like me, Yossi is a centrist. On the one hand, he cares deeply about Israel and its security needs. Whatever messianic dreams of a quick peace were dashed to pieces during the intifaddas and the ongoing inability of Palestinian leaders to come to an agreement that would give them most of what they want — a Palestinian state.

Because, for far too many Palestinians, the issue is not the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War; it is 1948 itself — that this is a revolt not against occupation, but against Israel’s creation itself — what Palestinians call the nakhba, the catastrophe

Not only Israel’s right to exist; the Jews as a people with its roots in the land. The libels:

There was no ancient Jewish presence here—that is a Zionist lie. No Temple stood on the Mount. The Holocaust, too, is a Zionist hoax, invented to ensure Western support for Israel. According to the prevailing narrative on your side, I am a pathological liar without any history, a thief without rights to any part of this land, an alien who doesn’t belong here…I see my presence here as part of the return of an indigenous, uprooted people, and a reborn Jewish state as an act of historic justice, of reparation. For me, being a Jew in Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty is a source of uplift, of religious inspiration.

But, on the other hand, he extends compassion to his Palestinian neighbor:

 As we Israelis celebrated our reclaimed sovereignty and achieved one success after another, your people exchanged homes and olive orchards for the scorched earth of refugee camps, where you raised children without hope, the unwanted outcasts of the Arab world. I mourn the lives wasted in the bitterness of exile, your despair against my joy.

With the result:

For many years we in Israel ignored you, treated you as invisible, transparent. Just as the Arab world denied the right of the Jews to define themselves as a people deserving national sovereignty, so we denied the Palestinians the right to define themselves as a distinct people within the Arab nation, and likewise deserving national sovereignty. To solve our conflict, we must recognize not only each other’s right to self-determination but also each side’s right to self-definition.

What is Yossi’s solution? It is breathtakingly pure.

  • Both Jews and Palestinians must hear and honor each others’ stories. Along with a desired two-state solution (so that Israel will be free of the moral burden of occupation, and that the Palestinians will realize their national ambitions), there is a two-narrative problem.

This is not to say that we must engage in an act of self-erasing relativism. It means that both Jews and Palestinians must hear and honor each others’ pain, and hear and honor both others’ dreams.

  • Both Jews and Palestinains must surrender a piece of their dreams – not their national dreams, but their land-based dreams. However much they might long for it, neither side can have sovereignty in the entire land.

This is not only one of the best books that you will ever read about what Israelis euphemistically call ha-matzav (the situation).

It is also one of the finest, quick overviews of the history of Israel that you will read.

It is also one of the finest, quick overviews of the meaning of Zionism that you will read.

So that there will be a state where the public space is defined by Jewish culture and values and needs, where Jews from East and West can reunite and together create a new era of Jewish civilization. One corner of the planet where the holiday cycle begins on the Jewish new year and the radio sings in modern Hebrew and the history taught in schools is framed by the Jewish experience. Israel is a safe refuge for Judaism, for our four-thousand-year civilization. This is the only country where Jews are not concerned about disappearing into a non-Jewish majority culture.

It is also one of the finest, quick overviews of Judaism itself: not its holidays and life cycle celebrations, but much deeper than that.

And so I address you, one person of faith to another. However differently we express it, that faith shares an essential worldview: that the unseen is ultimately more real than the material, that this world is not a random construct but an expression, however veiled, of a purposeful creation. That we are not primarily bodies but souls, rooted in oneness. For me, the only notion more ludicrous than the existence of a Divine being that created and sustains us is the notion that this miracle of life, of consciousness, is coincidence.

Drop whatever you are doing — and read this book.

And arm yourself with a yellow highlighter.

You must remember it all.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

10 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • I hope the book suggests more of a practical way forward than this review. OF COURSE Israeli Jews and Palestinians should try to be compassionate to each other’s situations, views and needs. And Yossi and his Imam friend may be exemplary in their quest to this end.

    But the Netanyahu approach is in charge, now bolstered by Trumpism in America (which, in turn, was elected in the USA by Evangelicals who mostly see Israel as a necessary cog for hastening “end times” events).

    As for the last quotation appearing above from the book (especially that last sentence), uh, am I the only one who would describe it as gobbledegook? The “existence of a Divine being who created and sustains us” is not almost equally ludicrous with “that this miracle of life, of consciousness, is coincidence”. It’s one or the other in reality, One is ludicrous, the other not ludicrous AT ALL. Only ancient writings create the controversy over which might be ludicrous and which might not be.

  • Don’t those Palestinians whose biggest issue is 1948 know how well the ethnic take over of a land can benefit them as it has others. After all, don’t they know all of the benefits that the implementation of Manifest Destiny had on America’s Native American population?

    Then again, I think it is difficult to separate the effect that 1948 has on the Palestinians when the results of 1967 seemed to have continued many of the same themes.

    This line of each side giving up part of their dreams of the land but not surrendering any of their national dreams is seen as a plus from the perspective of the privileged. But since the Palestinians cannot be called the privileged, how can such a line have any meaning for them? Jewish survival via a Jewish state has placed the present and future existence of the Palestinian people at tremendous risk. And tragically ironic is that in their effort to keep the conditions that guarantee their own survival, too many Israeli Jews can’t see how their history relates more to today’s Palestinian experiences than to the experiences of their own ancestors. But that’s what happens when one pursues a nation first dream.

    The main problem for both Israeli Jews and Palestinians is the visiting of inequality on those who are different. And who says that with all of the inequality that has been practiced over the years within Israel and the Occupied Territories, that equality could be obtained by separating the two peoples into two different nations? But that is my fault for asking such an answerable question. For look at what has happened to Native Americans here in America. I guess the future for Palestinians is rosy and bright.

  • Personally, I think the ONLY solution is to have neither a Jewish State, OR a Palestinian State, OR BOTH a Jewish State and Palestinian State (2 state solution).

    Perhaps the Middle East should be a World Heritage State–open to all, equal rights for all, mixed neighborhoods (not restricted enclaves for Jews, or Palestinians, or Christians)? You know kind of like the US and other western countries.

  • Mr. Day, one of the biggest benefits “the ethnic (Jewish) takeover has had over the land” has been that Palestinians have been blessed to live in a stable democracy and thriving economy, whereas few of the nearby Arab states can boast of the same. It should be considered a PRIVILEGE for peace-loving Palestinians to live within the borders of Israel!

  • Sabelotodo2,
    First, Palestinians are living next to an ethnocracy that is heading toward fascism.

    Second, the ends do not extend past the means. This is one of the lessons taught by Martin Luther King Jr. And if you want to disagree and say that the ends justify the means, you end up joining a not so good crowd.

    Third, Arab citizens of Israel, whom you referred to as Palestinians, are not treated as equals in Israel. And they experience Arab anti-Semitism, which is the hatred of Arabs, from not an insignificant number of Israeli Jews.

    Fourth, your note provides the epitome of an example of exploitation: Be satisfied with the table scraps we give you because you would have it far worse in other countries. I believe that some people had that same attitude toward slaves when slavery was legal here. BTW, your example of exploitation blinds the oppressors from their sins.

    Finally, defining Israel as a Jewish state would be akin to defining America as a White Protestant state. Ethnocracies are not democracies regardless of democratic processes that are available. We should note that democratic processes exist in many nations such as Putin’s Russia and Iran.

  • Tell that to the Palestinians in the camps! You are totally ignorant of or choose to ignore the economic conditions of the Palestinians.

  • Again, Mr. Day, I stand by my original statement here: “Palestinians (are) blessed to live in a stable democracy and a thriving economy,”

    Whatever ills the Palestinians suffer at the hands of an Israeli “ethnocracy” they’re no worse that those dealt by fellow Arabs of a different country and culture, say Shiite Muslims’ treatment of their Sunni cousins.

  • “one of the finest, quick overviews of the meaning of Zionism.”
    There are no doubt many, many worthy ideas in the book.
    Does the overview include the King David Hotel, Folke Bernadotte, the USS Liberty, Sabra and Shatila?

  • Sabelotodo2,
    You can stand by your statement all you want, it is your way of living in denial as to how Arab citizens of Israel experience life and view things. Your statement is your way of asserting superiority and ignoring the inequality that is forced on them. Your line thought seems to be that Israel can treat its Arab citizens any way it wants as long as it treats them better than its neighbors do. Again, that is the epitome of exploitation. It is the same kind of thinking that some Americans used to help justify slavery.

    And what you forget is that some of those Arabs who live in their own ethnocracies might appreciate the decisions made by those ethnocracies.

ADVERTISEMENTs