Writing the Jewish story in Jerusalem
In ‘Letter to My Palestinan Neighbor,’ Yossi Klein Halevi finally has a best-seller
Yossi Klein Halevi first set out to write books in the fourth grade. (He was just Yossi Klein then — he added Halevi after he made aliyah in 1982; he was 29 then.)
“I was writing two books simultaneously,” Mr. Halevi said last week, back in America promoting his fourth published book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighborhood,” which became his first to make the New York Times bestseller list.
“One was a novel about an American foreign correspondent named Taylor, who got caught in Japan after Pearl Harbor,” he continued. “The other book was going to be a history of World War II. I would sit in front of the TV and take notes on Channel 13 series about the war, I would write it up, I would dictate it to my mother, and she would type it up.
“She was very dutiful.”
It was his father, Zoltan Klein, however, whose presence was felt behind these two juvenile manuscripts, which were, as Halevi now understands, “indirectly about the Holocaust.” Zoltan was a native of Transylvania who, when the Nazis came, hid with two other Jews in a four-foot deep, six-by-eight foot hole in the Transylvanian forest. His experiences, and the deaths of his family, overshadowed the experiences of Yossi’s mother, Breindy, who had come to America from Hungary with her family before the war.
It was Zoltan Klein who was the subject of Yossi’s first published piece of journalism.
This was when Yossi, who lived in Borough Park, Brooklyn, was in sixth grade. He interviewed his father about his experiences, wrote them up, and sent them to the Jewish Press.
“One Friday afternoon I opened up the paper, and there’s my article as the center spread, with all these great and gruesome Holocaust pictures,” Mr. Halevi said. “There were typos and spelling mistakes. It didn’t matter. I was a published author. I couldn’t think of anything more exciting to do with my life than try to publish.
“It helped that I wasn’t good at anything else. I was failing at math and science. I was thrown out of Talmud class. I had a teacher in fifth grade, Mrs. Daniel, who told my mother, ‘Your son is never going to be a student, is never going to get math or science right. But it doesn’t matter, because he knows how to write and that’s what he’s going to be.’
“She’s the only teacher I ever had who saw that and encouraged me. She failed me in most of the other subjects. She helped me understand that if you have one thing you’re good at in this world, that can carry you.
“Just do that as well as you can.”
During that sixth-grade year, Mr. Halevi also started his first newspaper. “It was a mimeographed two pages,” he said. “I think it was called Voice of Jewish Youth.”
And he became an activist. He joined Betar, the Zionist youth movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and he began reading the Zionist classics.
“The more I read about early Zionism the more excited I became about becoming a journalist. Zionism was written into existence. The founders of Zionism were journalists and writers: Herzl, Jabotinsky, Bialik — even those who weren’t officially writers all wrote. There was this moment of revelation that I could fulfill these two passions of mine and one would reinforce the other.”
He found a role model in Ben Hecht, whose first assignments working for Chicago newspapers were to steal photos of murder victims from the mourning family’s piano, so his paper could publish the picture before the competition could get it. Mr. Hecht went on to become a Hollywood screenwriter and a Zionist activist who worked with Jabotinsky’s followers to rally American public opinion during the Holocaust.
“I became a passionate reader of ‘A Child of the Century,’” Hecht’s nearly 600 page autobiography, Mr. Halevi said.
Yossi started his second paper when he was in high school. This was called “Achdut,” and the Jewish Agency paid for 15,000 copies of each issue to be distributed to Jewish high schools across New York City. “It was kind of dream that you can actually do this,” he said. “Not only write, but that you could put together a whole newspaper. There’s nothing quite like that thrill,” he said.
“Achdut” means unity.
“I took the title seriously,” he said. He had joined Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League and was taking part in the JDL demonstrations. “The paper was promoting JDL-style activism and a JDL worldview, but it was open. We had contributors from Hashomer Hatzair,” the left-wing, socialist Zionist youth group. (It’s worth noting that Kahane, too, like Herzl and Jabotinsky, was a journalist, a co-founder of the Jewish Press that gave Yossi his first byline.)
“I really believed then, and it’s always been a basic commitment to me, to try to keep the Jewish people minimally together,” Mr. Halevi continued. “To keep us from our worst instincts and devouring each other and disintegrating as a people. That’s our yetzer hara,” our temptation.
If Zionist history had him turning pages, it was the immediate challenge of saving Soviet Jews that kept him in the streets and out of school. He was involved with the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, which began holding protests and rallies in 1964, when Yossi was 11. By the end of the decade, as Yossi became a teenager, the road to Kahane’s more militant Soviet Jewry activism wasn’t far. It was a path that paralleled the one taken by the activists of the Students for a Democratic Society, who were drafting manifestos in 1962 but by the end of the decade were inspiring bombings by the Weather Underground.
“My high school years were the peak years of JDL,” Mr. Halevi said. “1969, ‘70, ‘71. The turning point of the Soviet Jewry movement was the Leningrad trial of 1970,” when 16 young refuseniks were on trial for planning to hijack a plane out of the Soviet Union to get to Israel. The trial focused world attention on the plight of Jews seeking to leave Russia. The two ringleaders were sentenced to death. But the protests worked: On appeal, a Soviet court commuted the capital sentences to 15 years in prison.
“I basically dropped out of school,” Mr. Halevi said. “I was at the Soviet mission in Manhattan all the time. We used to harass the diplomats with round-the-clock demonstrations. I didn’t quite graduate, and I didn’t care.”
One day, his principal at the Brooklyn Talmudical Academy called him into the office.
“Are you happy here?” he asked.
“Sure,” Yossi said.
“I hope that school isn’t interfering with your extracurricular activities,” the principal said.
“No worries,” Yossi replied.
The principal told Yossi that he would be expelled.
“I said, ‘What’s the point of that? Do you really want me to end up in public school?’ That was always the big fear of the rabbis in yeshiva — that one of their kids would end up in public school. So he kept me, as an act of kindness.
“I had a Talmud teacher who said, ‘I pity your poor parents.’ For him, I was this Jewish boy who didn’t seem to be able to read Talmud. Like I was slightly mentally incapacitated. That’s how I was treated by my teachers, and that was fine by me. It meant they would leave me alone. I was writing and demonstrating.”
After high school, he went to Brooklyn College. There too he was “a pretty apathetic student,” involved with JDL more than with homework.
In 1972, the summer of his 19th birthday, Mr. Halevi again began to write a book. “I heard somewhere that writers get up very early to write,” he said. “I would get up at five in the morning and write. I found that I could sit at a desk and write for hours. It was my first experience of total immersion as a writer.
“The book I thought I was writing was a defense of Jewish militancy. I was writing to explain who we were, to defend the use of violence on behalf of Soviet Jewry,” he said.
To help with the book, he started taking notes of all his JDL experiences. “I would go to demonstrations with a notepad, and write down funny incidents, snippets of dialogue that I liked between a demonstrator and a cop,” Mr. Halevi said. “I understood enough about writing to know that the book needed to be funny. An activist should be humorous.
“One of the exhilarating aspects of the JDL was just how funny the people were, starting with Meir Kahane, by the way, who had a great sense of humor, at least in his early years.
“I wanted to not only defend and explain and harangue. I wanted to record the culture, the experience.”
The peak of Yossi’s experience as a JDL activist was his arrest at a sit-in for Soviet Jews that he organized — in Moscow.
“In 1973, on Pesach, a group of eight of us — mostly, not all, from the JDL — went to Moscow and sat in OVIR — the immigration office — and were arrested,” he said. “We were not deported, as it turned out, because unbeknownst to us there was, at the same time, a group of American senators visiting Moscow. They had come to negotiate with the Kremlin about the Jackson amendment,” which linked American trade with the Soviet Union to its allowing Jews and others to emigrate. “They apparently got us out of jail.”
Yossi and his friends had arranged for the press to be notified about their sit-in. The calls were made, “but by the time the journalists showed up, we had already been arrested,” he said. “We thought we would hold out much longer. We were thinking a sit-in can go on for an hour or two. That’s in American terms. In the Soviet Union, it didn’t work that way.”
But while there was no coverage of the event itself, Yossi and his friends held a press conference at their hotel. That got coverage. Other friends held a press conference in New York, which got coverage there.
The next day was the seventh day of Passover, a holiday. The group went to Moscow’s only synagogue. “It was packed,” Mr. Halevi said. “The old Jews were inside. Hundreds of young Jews were outside in the streets.
“Someone comes over to us and says, ‘OVIR?’
“We said ‘Da.’”
The word spread through the crowd that the demonstrators from the sit-in at the immigration office now were in the shul. Apparently everyone knew about it. It had been reported on Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America. There also had been some Jews in the office, and word got around.
“This was a thrilling moment for us,” Mr. Halevi said. “Two of us were whisked away to an apartment of one of the leading refuseniks. The leaders were there, waiting for us. It was a fantastic experience of reunion.”
The demonstration had two goals, he continued. “One was to convince the Soviet regime that American Jews were serious about this campaign and ready to go all the way, to put ourselves in the position of Soviet Jews.” The other was to get a similar message to the Soviet Jews: “We’re in this to the end. Hold on, stay strong, and we’re going to win.”
At that meeting, Mr. Halevi had no doubt he would see all those people again in Israel.
And he did. “Eventually, they all came,” he said.
After being arrested in Moscow, what comes next? For Mr. Halevi, the answer was activist burnout. “I felt I had given my youth to this cause,” he said. “I needed to figure out who I was. What was I going to do in the world besides being a professional demonstrator? What was I going to do in the world?”
That fall was his junior year of college. He spent it in Israel. And his second month there, in October 1973, the Yom Kippur war broke out.
“Being an American student in Israel during the war was a traumatic experience,” he said. “My Israeli friends were all at the front, and I was picking tomatoes on a moshav as a volunteer. That was a really humbling moment for a professional activist who always saw himself as part of the avant garde of the Jewish people. “I always knew I wanted to live in Israel. That was the moment when I became conscious that it was just a matter of time.
“It took me nine years. Meanwhile I went to journalism school in Northwestern. It was the first real education I had. It taught me how to do it professionally. How to be disciplined, how to structure stories, how to interview people. It was exactly the education I needed.”
In 1980, Mr. Halevi started writing for the Village Voice. It was the beginning of a career as a professional journalist. His first piece, “Nice Jewish Boys,” was about a group of friends in the JDL. The next year, the Voice and Moment magazine sent him to Israel. He covered the World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors for Moment. The Voice wanted him to cover Menachem Begin’s re-election. “When I was there I realized I wanted to write a much more ambitious piece than just the election,” Mr. Halevi said. “I ended up spending a full year writing what ended up being a two- part piece in the Voice. I did a lot of things like that, spending too much time on pieces.”
He spent a year working on a piece about Kiryat Arba, the Jewish settlement outside Hebron. This was for Moment, whose editor, Leonard Fein, was sending him a monthly stipend of $200, “whether or not I wrote for him. He was very delicate with me. Very respectful of the writer’s process.
“Finally, like 10 months in, I get a letter from him. This was the era of letters. He writes, ‘I’m sure what you’re working on is great, but when do you think it will be ready?’ I remember feeling very put upon. Why was he rushing me?
“I put my soul into that piece,” which was published as a special section in Moment, Mr. Halevi continued. “I thought it was going to be a book. In the end, I realized I actually did not want to write a book about Hebron because it was just too painful.”
He had broken with the Jewish far right. In Hebron, he saw a version of Jewish pride that couldn’t see anyone else, that was painfully, oppressively, blind to its neighbors.
Along the way, he realized that he was following the path of the protagonist of his fourth-grade novel by becoming a foreign correspondent. In the years to come, he would write for American Jewish newspapers, for the Jerusalem Report, and for the New Republic.
The book he finally wrote, a dozen years after his visits to Hebron, drew heavily on the notes he had taken when he was 19. It was his story, the story of growing up as a child of a Holocaust survivor, of gravitating to the Jewish hard right, and finally of being disillusioned. “I don’t know why I kept those incredible notes,” he said. “I transported them across the ocean. I’m very reluctant to throw out old material because of that experience. You never know when you might need to look at something you wrote years earlier.
“The book told of how and why I left that world, but I had enough of that material from the activist period to make the book alive. A lot of the dialogue in the memoir is simply notes I had taken. It wasn’t reconstructed from memory.”
“Memoir of a Jewish Extremist” was published in the fall of 1995 — two days after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
It was not a good week to sell books with “Jewish extremist” in their title.
Mr. Halevi’s next book, “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land,” reflected the euphoria of the post-Oslo era. Israel and the PLO had signed a peace accord, and Mr. Halevy ventured into Palestinian areas to explore Palestinians’ religious life. How did they worship? What did they believe?
But this was not a reference book. This was the record of a very intimate encounter, one that opened Mr. Halevi up to other religious experiences. It was a first-person yet profoundly humble effort to create a new vision of religion and spirituality, one that aimed to unify, not divide; one that remained deeply traditional.
The book was published on September 11, 2001.
That was not a good week to launch a book — particularly one with a positive, hopeful depiction of Islam.
It was somewhat to Mr. Halevi’s surprise, then, when October 1, 2013, turned out to be a perfectly fine week to launch a book. That’s when “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation” was released. At 600 pages, it was bigger than his first two books put together — it was the size of Ben Hecht’s mammoth autobiography. It won the National Jewish Book Awards Book of the Year award. It told the story of the State of Israel through the life of a half dozen Israelis just a few years older than Yossi Klein Halevy — the paratroopers who liberated the Western Wall in 1967. He had run across a short news story about them, and realized that the disparate course of their lives — one was a leader of the West Bank settlement movement, another went to jail for spying for Syria out of Communist convictions, to take the two extremes — became a way to tell the story of the changes Israel underwent from the years immediately after the founding of the state, when the soldiers were children, up into the 21st century, when they, like the state, were pushing 60.
It was compelling reading. But “it was an excruciating book to write,” Mr. Halevi said. “It took eleven years. For most of those years it was not going well. It was the dark night of the writer’s soul.”
Mr. Halevi lives in Jerusalem, in the neighborhood called French Hill. His is the last building in the neighborhood. Look out his window and you see a Palestinian village; since the Second Intifada in the early 2000s it’s been separated from Jerusalem — and from Yossi — by a concrete wall. Beyond the village lies the desert, and beyond that you can make out the hills of Jordan. If you crane your neck in the right direction, you can see the shimmering Dead Sea.
Mr. Halevi’s new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” is addressed to an imagined resident of that village. It is a defense of Zionism. It is a defense of everything Mr. Halevi believes in, written to the people whom Mr. Halevi sees outside his window but from whom he is separated from by a concrete wall and so much more.
Even as he was painfully putting together the story of the Israelis in “Like Dreamers,” he was thinking of the Palestinians outside his window. “Every time I would reach a dead end in my writing, I would start writing a letter to my imaginary neighbor,” he said. “The letters were just flying out of me. They were my deeply satisfying writing. I would have to stop and drag myself back to ‘Dreamers.’”
Then, when “Like Dreamers” was published and catastrophe didn’t strike and the book tour was over, he returned to the letters, this time with a clear awareness that he was not just writing letters of self-defense to an imaginary correspondent. Instead, he actually was writing a book.
“It seemed to write itself,” he said. “I never had a writing experience quite like this.”
• • •
“Dear Neighbor,” Halevi’s new book begins. “I call you ‘neighbor’ because I don’t know your name or anything personal about you. Given our circumstances, ‘neighbor’ may be too casual a word to describe our relationship. We are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home. We are living incarnations of each other’s worst historical nightmares. Neighbors?”
• • •
Mr. Halevi admits that “in a way, everything I’ve written is a variation of the same article or the same book: Who are the Jews in the post-Holocaust State-of-Israel era? What does it mean to be a Jew after our greatest dream and our greatest nightmare all came true? How do we not only pick up the pieces physically — that was really the job of my father’s generation — but how do we put the pieces back together and recreate a coherent Jewish story?
“What I’ve been writing my whole life are Jewish stories in an attempt to understand the one Jewish story,” he said.
In “Letters,” Halevi set out to defend Zionism and the Israeli story. The ostensible audience is his Palestinian neighbor, the ultimate hostile audience, but he had the rest of us in mind as well. “‘Letters’ is an attempt to reclaim our narrative,” he said. “I fear we’re losing our ability to tell the story not only to the world, but even to ourselves.
“We’re getting hit from so many directions all the time that our story on Israel has become a collection of talking points to deflect the latest assaults. I respect talking points. I have used talking points in my defense of Israel. But we need to go deeper and point out what is the story that we’re carrying. What does it mean to be a Jew in a time of power and sovereignty, and an ongoing assault on our legitimacy all at once?
“I look at how the Jewish community speaks about these issues, and I have this sinking feeling that we’ve settled into a kind of predictable conversation or shouting match. Everybody knows all the arguments on both sides by heart. There’s no surprise there. If that becomes the way we tell our story, than our story is going to die of boredom.
“The job of a Jewish writer is to try to tell our story in an alive way, to make our story vital. This book is an attempt to renew the Israeli story, the Jewish story, to explain how we managed the extraordinary feat of maintaining a vicarious indigenous connection that we never lost even when we lost our land, and then managed the more incredible feat of returning there and re-establishing our sovereignty.”
He also thinks it’s time to change the story the Jewish people tells about itself. “I grew up, understandably, on a Holocaust-centered Israel narrative,” he said. “That made sense for my generation. That no longer makes sense. A majority of Israelis are not descended from European Jews. They come from families that moved from one part of the Middle East to another and came to Israel for reasons that have nothing to do with the Holocaust.
“We also do ourselves a disservice by continuing to tell European-centered Holocaust narratives about Israel. It leaves us open to the criticisms of our enemies. Why should the Palestinians pay the price for what the Europeans did to the Jews? When we tell a story about Jewish need rather than Jewish longing, we step right into the trap of the anti-Zionists. We reinforce the accusation of Israel as a European colonialist project.”
His new book, he said, “might be useful, especially for young American Jews trying to figure out their relationship to Israel. I hope this book will give Jews, whether on the left or the right, a way of speaking about the conflict that allows for empathy with the Palestinians without compromising the integrity of our own narrative. I’m trying to hold the tension between those two approaches.
“Jews today tend to speak about the Palestinians in one of two ways, either with anger or with apology. I’ve tried to avoid both of these dead-end conversations and present a book that tells our story with the intention of beginning the conversation with people in the Middle East about Israeli legitimacy and our shared future with the Palestinians.”
Part of the genesis of “Letter” was Mr. Halevi’s earlier “Garden” — his exploration of his neighbors’ faith. “Garden” was the product of a journey and an openness to his Palestinian neighbors “that really came to an end for me with the Second Intifada, the suicide bombings, Arafat’s rejection of Barak’s peace offer in 2000,” he said. “My capacity for reaching out was exhausted. Like most Israelis, I shut down, shut the Palestinians out of my consciousness, and pretty much tried to forget about that book. It seemed irrelevant.”
But it did not seem irrelevant to everyone. A couple of years after it was published, Mr. Halevi received an email from a Turkish-born imam, Abdullah Antepli, who was a chaplain at Wesleyan University.
“Abdullah wrote that he had read the book and was deeply touched by the outreach, and he wanted to take a reciprocal journey into Judaism,” Mr. Halevi said. “We became friends and kept in touch.”
In 2012, Mr. Halevi was working at the Shalom Hartman Institute when Imam Antepli came to the institute for a theological conference. Imam Antepli suggested that Hartman set up a program for young Muslim leaders in America that would explain Judaism, Jewish identity, and the meaning of the land and the state of Israel.
“I was certain nothing would come from it,” Mr. Halevi said. “Credible Muslim leaders wouldn’t come to a Zionist institution.” But he turned out to be wrong. The credible leaders did come, and he and Imam Antepli became co-directors of Hartman’s Muslim Leadership Institute, which has now taught more than a hundred people — among them Teaneck’s Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin.
This engagement with American Muslims shaped Mr. Halevi’s book in two ways.
“First, it forced me to re-engage with Palestinian issues in a way that I didn’t want to,” he said. “To start seeing my neighbors again.
“I had forced myself not to see them. I didn’t want anything to do with them. Many Israelis, perhaps most Israelis, are still at that point, and I completely understand. But being engaged actively with Muslim American leaders who are pro-Palestinians forced me into a relationship again with Palestinians. I would accompany the MLI group to the West Bank — until it became too dangerous — to Jenin, to Hebron. I began to see this conflict through their eyes, in the way they were seeing the conflict through my eyes.
“That’s the meaning of a dialogical relationship. You actually have a kind of a transplant of vision, of how you see the world. The fundamentalists are right to oppose dialogue, because it can lead to unpredictable places. Deep dialogue leads to curiosity, which leads to empathy.
“For me, it led me back to a longing for a relationship again with the Palestinians.
“The second thing MLI did for me is that it helped me understand what Muslims generally don’t understand about Jews. For Muslims — and I think this is normative in the Muslim world — the Jews are a religion and only a religion. They don’t understand the significance of peoplehood, of land, of longing for national sovereignty, of all these things that have nothing to do with religion. MLI taught me the elements of Jewish identity we need to emphasize. For Muslims, the notion of a Jewish atheist is inconceivable, because in Islam if you’re an atheist, you’re not a Muslim. That means they can’t understand peoplehood, they can’t understand the significance of the Land of Israel, and they can’t understand the State of Israel. One of the reasons the State of Israel lacks legitimacy for the Arab and Muslim world is because they don’t understand the connection between peoplehood and land and faith.”
His experience explaining these issues to MLI participants showed Mr. Halevi that “when you explain these ideas in a religious context, Muslims tend to respond, they tend to respect you. It doesn’t mean they’ll agree with us about Gaza, but the denial of Israel’s legitimacy becomes increasingly difficult for Muslims who are exposed to the Jewish self-understanding of peoplehood.”
Of course, a letter written in English and published in a book by Harper Collins is not really going to reach the Palestinians whom Mr. Halevi sees beyond his porch. So the book is being translated into Arabic and published on the Times of Israel’s Arabic website. So far, the first chapter, the first letter, has been posted, and Mr. Halevi has begun receiving replies.
“Much of it is to be expected. ‘You Jews don’t belong here and we’re going to throw you out.’ Some of it is curious. And some of it is grateful and moving,” he reported.
“I’ve been invited for coffee across the West Bank. I got a very moving letter from a young woman in Gaza, a journalist writing in Hebrew. “I have people who are writing me letters in response. They’re not easy letters for a Jew to read, but they’re respectful, and not only conveying their positions but also listening to what I’m trying to say.
“As far as I know, this is the first public conversation between and Israeli writer and Palestinians about the Jewish story and Jewish identity and Israel,” Yossi Klein Halevi said.
Who: Yossi Klein Halevi and Imam Abdullah Antepli, directors of the Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
What: Book launch for “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor”
When: 7 p.m., Monday, June 4
Where: Beth El Synagogue Center, 1324 North Ave., New Rochelle, N.Y.
How much: $20 in advance, $25 at the door; free for students with valid ID.