Yossi Klein Halevi

Yossi Klein Halevi


Brooklyn-born Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi wants to create a model for a new conversation between Israelis and Palestinians so they can better understand each other’s historical narrative. He has begun this process with his book “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.” Halevi spoke about his work at the JCC on Tuesday, Oct. 29.

In Halevi’s view, the heart of the conflict is the question of legitimacy for both sides. He said Israelis and Palestinians disagree on almost everything and that their differences are irreconcilable. But neither side is going to disappear and both peoples are indigenous to the area that each claims as its own. 

Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He also co-directs Duke University’s Muslim Leadership Initiative. His appearance in Cincinnati was part of a speaker series entitled “Is Peace Possible? Conversations About a Shared Future in the Middle East.”

In their public discourse, Palestinians say Jews are a religion and not a real people. The Israeli right wing counters that there is no such thing as a Palestinian national identity. But Halevi argues that “… to point out that that there was no coherent Palestinian national identity a century ago is to do spiritual violence to the right of the people to emerge whenever they did emerge and to define themselves as a legitimate people.”

Halevi told his Cincinnati audience that the purpose for addressing his neighbors was to explain to the Palestinians who the Jews really are. He argued that nobody in Israel has ever thought of doing this before. Halevi said the most authentic way of telling the story of the Jews and effectively making the case for the legitimacy of Israel was through a religious perspective. That is because Halevi is religious and he assumes that his Palestinian neighbor is a religious Muslim. Halevi also emphasized that “there must be a religious legitimacy for the painful concessions that each side is going to have to make.”

He said the real target of the assault on Israel is “on the legitimacy of the story that we tell (to) ourselves.”

Halevi said the denial of Israel’s right to exist is the deepest wound for Jews, who embrace a time frame that stretches back through millennia. He assumes that the Muslim world has a similar long narrative. “And the tragedy from the Israeli point of view of our homecoming is that when we finally came home, we weren’t allowed to actually feel like we were fully home. And we would have to defend the right to exist from day one.”

Halevi said the Jews had no choice but to return home and re-establish a Jewish commonwealth, but the Palestinians regard the Zionist enterprise as just another conquest by “supervisor colonialists.” 

He said there was a need to retell the story of Zionism in a new, 21st century way which is not driven by the Holocaust and is not largely Euro-centered. That is because Israel has dramatically changed since its founding in 1948. Today’s Israel is inhabited by a majority of Jews who came from the Arab world.

After meeting with young Palestinians over the past few months, the author said he has learned that the entire conflict can be reduced: who started it? Who is guilty of the original sin? Palestinians say the Jews started the conflict by arriving in a place where Palestinians were living peacefully and by insisting that Jews had the right to return to a land where they had lived thousands of years ago and reclaim it for themselves. Jews say they made many compromises along the way as they built a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland to which they had maintained a deep connection through a long exile. Jews also say that Palestinians have rejected every opportunity for a compromise solution. Halevi believes that neither side had a choice in acting and responding as it did. 

Halevi said he thinks that in trying to explain the Jewish narrative to their neighbors, Israelis are actually working for peace. “Because it’s the denial of our legitimacy that is largely or partly responsible for pushing so many Israelis into the hard line position. And so, the more that we hear voices on the Palestinian side and in the Arab and Muslim worlds generally saying we disagree with you on everything, but we’re not going to challenge your basic legitimacy, your indigenousness, the more we can begin, I believe, having a better conversation not only between Palestinians and Israelis but also among Israelis and the Jewish community.”

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