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.

This story is available for republication.

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.

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