Reaching out to Israel’s newly friendly neighbors

Reaching out to Israel’s newly friendly neighbors

Yossi Klein Halevi has joined a think tank in Abu Dhabi - and will speak for Wyckoff shul

Yossi Klein Halevi
Yossi Klein Halevi

On March 7, Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff will hear from a fellow of an Abu Dhabi-based think tank, Trends Research and Advisory. (See below.)

Beth Rishon members may not know that he has an Abu Dhabi connection; that fellow is an American-born Israeli Jew, Yossi Klein Halevi, and he was invited to Wyckoff in his capacity as the author of “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” which was a New York Times best seller.

Mr. Klein was appointed a non-resident fellow at the think tank in the United Arab Emirates in the wake of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

“If you had told me that half a year ago, I would have said, ‘Maybe when mashiach comes,’” Mr. Halevi said of his appointment as a fellow at Trends, for whom he recently wrote a policy paper, “Dealing with Democrats: Guidelines for Israel and the Gulf countries.”

“The Abraham Accords are one of the most significant events that have happened in the Middle East in the last 70 years, certainly for Israel,” he said. “These are the first peace agreements that are not just formal treaties but actual expressions of normalization. That gives us an opening to parts of the Arab world that really was inconceivable half a year ago.”

Mr. Halevi sees this as a big step forward in the “civilizational dialogue” between Judaism and Islam.

Twenty years ago, Mr. Halevi wrote a book on one aspect of that dialogue. In “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land,” he wrote about being a religious Jew who found spiritual inspiration from Muslim neighbors. Unfortunately for sales, the book had the misfortune to published on September 4, 2001. A week later, the discussion of Islam took a different turn.

He has had better luck working on another piece of that dialogue. For a decade now, he been co-director of the Muslim Leadership Institute of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

“We’ve brought over 130 young, emerging Muslim American leaders to the Institute to study Judaism and Zionism,” he said. Among them was Teaneck’s former mayor, Mohammed Hameeduddin.

MIL is in part an attempt to create a Muslim-Jewish civilizational dialogue, one that now has potential to grow further.

“To some extent, Judaism and Islam did engage in a civilizational dialogue in the past,” he continued. “Anti-Zionists tend to exaggerate the depth or the extent of that dialogue, and the anti-Muslim voices in the Jewish community tend to dismiss the significance of the dialogue altogether. The truth is that we did have a civilizational dialogue with Islam that for the most part we did not have with Christianity until our time.”

“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” which is a defense of Israel and Zionism, grew in part from Mr. Halevi’s experience teaching about Israel and Zionism and Judaism to the American Muslim leaders in his Hartman program, “most of whom are not sympathetic to Israel by any means.

“Seeing what the conflict looks like through Muslim eyes, learning what the Muslim world does not understand about Jewish identity and our connection to peoplehood and Israel, how they see us only as a religion and not the full complexity of Jewish identity — all of this helped me to develop a language I then applied to the ‘Letters’ book.

“The book is an attempt to explain the Jewish and Israeli story to the most difficult possible audience for the story, which is my Palestinian neighbors.”

The book was published with a simultaneous Arabic translation, which was put online for free downloading. Mr. Halevi invited responses from Palestinians and anyone in the region. He has a team of people — young Palestinians and Israelis, as well as an Iraqi, a Jordanian, an Egyptian, and a Moroccan — to “scour the Arabic social media and invite people to read the book. At this point it’s more a project than a book.

“It’s an attempt to model a respectful conversation about irreconcilable differences. It’s not an approach of ‘Why can’t we all get along?’ It’s recognizing that my narrative is the opposite of my neighbor’s. It’s also recognizing that just as neither my side nor my neighbor’s side are going to disappear, neither will our narratives. Both of these narratives are here to stay.”

Mr. Halevi described himself as “a veteran of the Israeli-Palestinian narratives war. For many years I wrote on the op-ed pages of American newspapers defending Israel. It got to the point where I couldn’t bear writing another op-ed. I knew all the arguments inside and out. You could wake me up at two in the morning and I could not only give you a long lecture on the Israeli narrative, I could do it on the Palestinian narrative.

“I felt as a writer that I was boring myself.”

And then one night, he started to write in a different format. “Dear neighbor,” he wrote, imagining a resident of the Palestinian village visible out Mr. Halevi’s window in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood.

“As I wrote, I realized the way I was speaking about our narrative was different when I was speaking directly to my neighbor rather than to a third-party audience. I had to speak to my neighbor being mindful of my neighbor’s circumstance, mindful of my side’s role in my neighbor’s suffering. I have to take responsibility for the fact that our homecoming to Israel resulted, however unintentionally, in the shattering of the Palestinian people.

Yossi Klein Halevi and Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University. The two jointly lead the Muslim Leadership Institute.

“I’m not guilty for surviving. I don’t feel guilty for having won the wars intended to destroy us. I believe it could have been different had there been a different Palestinian leadership.

“When I started writing to my neighbor, I developed a new language, a new way of speaking about this. It was so liberating. It freed me as a writer.

“I’m usually a very slow, very painstaking writer. I work on every word over and over again. ‘Dreamers’” — that’s “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation” which retold recent Israeli history through the lens of the paratroopers who liberated the Western Wall, and which was named Book of the Year by the National Jewish Book Awards in 2014 — “took me 11 years to write, full time. This book flew out of me.”

His neighbor on the other side of the separation barrier wasn’t his only audience. “Another motive for the book was to try to give young American Jews a useful way of understanding the conflict,” Mr. Halevi said.

“I’ve spent years traveling to American campuses, speaking about Israel. I became increasingly worried about the absence of a usable 21st-century narrative for young American Jews. If I had written a book called ‘Letters to a Young American Jew,’ I don’t think anyone would have read it, but ‘Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor’ works. I was writing simultaneously for two audience who are very different from each other.” Still, the primary audience was the Palestinians. “The book had to be a real attempt to speak to my neighbors, with the hope young American Jews would be eavesdropping on that conversation.”

Now, with the normalization of Israel’s relations with Arab states, the book is gaining a new audience. “I spoke the other day to one of the leading political figures in the Emirates, who just downloaded the book,” Mr. Halevi said.

“One of the leading newsweeklies in Saudi Arabia gave the book a terrific two page spread. I got a much better review in the Saudi media than I did in the New York Times book review. I think that should tell us something about where Israel is finding its comfort zone these days. It’s a useful metaphor for the increasing dilemma where we find that we have greater commonality with many of our Arab neighbors than we do with some progressive American Jews. Certainly on our strategic interests.

“That worries me a lot, as someone who believes deeply in clal Yisrael, Jewish peoplehood. My primary significant other is my fellow Jew, regardless of their politics. So if we’re in a moment where I actually feel that my most basic security needs are understood more readily in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states than they are in part of the American Jewish community, that causes me great anxiety.”

Mr. Halevi spelled out the shared strategic concerns in an article he published in the Atlantic on the day after President Biden was inaugurated in January. Written with former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, it was titled “The Case Against the Iran Deal.”

“It’s not just Israel dealing with Biden on Iran; it’s Israel and the Emirates,” Mr. Halevi said. “It’s an extraordinary transformation.” In his paper for the Trends think tank, “I emphasize the need for a joint strategy of the Abrahamic alliance in confronting Iran. We agree strategically almost completely, certainly about the dangers of the Iran deal. You’ll find as much horror in the Emirates and Saudi Arabia as you will find in Israel — maybe more. After all, we have nuclear capability and they don’t.”

For his next book, Mr. Halevi is sharpening his argument for Jewish peoplehood with a different audience in mind: “It’s kind of an extended letter to my hometown of Boro Park. Part of the book is about the deep ideological argument that I as a Zionist and Israeli have with the charedi world.

“That’s an increasingly important argument to rearticulate. A hundred years ago, that argument was made very clearly by the early Zionists. We need an upgrade about why we were right — we the Zionists, we the Jewish pluralists, we the Jews who think of the well-being of the whole of the Jewish people rather than only my community.

“The argument of this book is that to say that survivalism and Jewish values are separate is to totally miss the point. Our survival tells us who we are as a people and our values are embedded in our survival. Rabbi Soloveitchik had this dichotomy between ‘people of fate’ and ‘people of destiny’ in his essay ‘Kol Dodi Dofek.’ I’m taking him up on that.”

The book is structured “as a memoir of growing up in the 20th century, of being a 20th-century Jew stranded in the 21st century. It’s a memoir of traveling the Jewish world for 50 years and writing about it. It’s about a lot of things.”

It’s also about how in the 21st century, the pre-Zionist era of Jewish history “is in counterattack mode. The second era is trying to destroy the third era,” he said, referring to the distinctions described by Rabbi Irving Greenberg between the first era of Judaism, which ended with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the first century, the second era that followed it, and what he has described as the present third era of renewed Jewish sovereignty in Israel.

That attack, he said, is happening “internally through the charedim and their resurrection of ghetto Judaism, and externally through anti-Zionism that is trying to undermine Jewish power, the achievements of the post-Holocaust era, and return us to the pre-Holocaust era, the era of Jewish powerlessness.”

As Israel again approaches another election this month, Mr. Halevi said that “my greatest fear is for the current Netanyahu coalition to win. That coalition will be a government of the charedim and the Kahanists, presided over by a prime minister on trial for corruption. To me, that is a mortal threat to Israel and a modern functioning society.

“If you look at corona this past year and examine how Israeli society has performed, you’ll see two extreme models. On the one hand, we are the champion of the world, we are going to win the marathon on vaccinations. On the other hand, we are among the worst performers in terms of infection rates. There’s a very simple reason for that: We have a prime minister who is politically beholden to the charedim. There is no community that has been more infected by corona than the charedim, and no community that has systematically disregarded the rules more than the charedim. And Netanyahu has covered for them.

“The initial impulse of the professionals in the health ministry was to impose a selective lockdown, but that would have disproportionately singled out the charedim, so their politicians cried gevalt and Netanyahu gave in and imposed a general lockdown even though it wasn’t necessary for large parts of the country. The community that isn’t following the rules, that is most infected, gets to impose on us the results of its rules-breaking because it doesn’t want to be singled out.”

Mr. Halevi describes himself as “a passionate centrist.

“I’ve been a centrist voter almost from the moment I landed here in 1982,” he said. “I became a centrist because I felt that’s the place where the complexities of Israel’s dilemmas and the complexities more broadly of Israel’s identity can be worked out, where insights from across the Jewish spectrum can be given a place.”

Who: Yossi Klein Halevi

What: Will discuss “Why I Wrote ‘Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor’ and What I’ve Learned Since About the Israeli-Palestinian Divide”

Where: On Zoom, courtesy of Temple Beth Rishon’s 13th annual Food for Thought Distinguished Speaker Series

When: Sunday, March 7, 10:30 a.m.

How to register: At

How much: A donation of $10 for members and $18 for non-members is appreciated.

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