Part II: Reconsidering the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process: Yossi Klein Halevi Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: An Analysis of the Epistolary Style

An analysis of the style of a book may seem to some as extraneous, but a knowledge of the role of style reveals how important it is in comprehending the substance of a book. In Greek, epistolē means “letter.” Halevi delivers his message through a series of letters. Why letters? Why only his letters and why did he not initially invite a Palestinian to respond to each letter in turn? In other words, why a monologic rather and a dialogic use of letters? Evidently, the second edition due in June will include 12 Palestinian responses.

And why letters and not a blog? Precisely because it is a private letter made public, a personal appeal rather than a public platform which is inherently impersonal and disembodied. A physical letter, even though in type in a printed book, somehow retains the tactile quality of a personal letter. There is no screen or technical device that mediates between the writer and the reader. Immediacy and connection are enhanced.

Halevi presents a series of open letters rather than ones tantalizingly placed inside envelopes because: a) he has no individual person at the other end to whom to address his letters; and b) he wants what he writes to be part of the public record while preserving the personable character of the private letter.

In the monologic form he does adopt, he combines direct experience, personal narrative, abbreviations of his understanding of history and analysis. He begins by addressing an anonymous “neighbour,” not his Jewish neighbour on French Hill in Jerusalem, but his unknown neighbour across the “wall,” his Palestinian neighbour, initially characterized as such only in the Introduction.

He no sooner addresses his “neighbour” than he questions the form of address. Why? Not because it misdescribes, but because it “may be too casual.” But then it is not the casualness that follows, but the estrangement between himself and his neighbour both of whom are not only unknown to each other, are not only strangers, but “are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home. We are living incarnations of each other’s worst nightmares.” Thus, strangers and intimates at one and the same time. An assertion of proximity followed by a depiction of impersonality and then a reversal to even much greater intimacy, but not of affection, but of a nightmarish presence. Hence, an inverted argument in favour of “neighbour” referring to those who live proximate to one another and whose lives are intertwined but who nevertheless remain strangers to one another.

Clearly, this is not going to be a series of letters in which Halevi tells his Palestinian neighbour about the difficulties and pains he has suffered because of what the Palestinians have done to him. Nor, in its monologic form, is it about two different perspectives told through different eyes and ears and sensibilities. It will turn out to be a single narrator offering two different perspectives on a common problem. And that may be one problem.

But in setting up the tension between proximity and psychological threat, we not only have a frame, but one that projects forward as suspense. How is Halevi going to try to resolve the tension?

This monological series of letters is not akin to Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl because Anne’s expression of her feelings and thoughts shift rapidly from the mundane to what is existentially and personally most profound. Further, though Halevi captures some sense of immediacy in the use of the form, Halevi’s letters have none of the real and detailed intimacy that open Anne’s writings to a universe of readers. They do, however, offer a genuine facsimile to communicate that combination of inward insight and outward sharing.

Anne’s Diary and Halevi’s letters have a further uniting thread. Both books are tales of hope and dreams. Both offer an historical context which makes the realization of those dreams seem to be impossible, in Anne’s case, more poignantly, because they were already proven to be impossible when the Diary was published. And Anne’s diary entries are made even more painful by her wit and humour, something absent in Halevi’s letters. As Anne wrote in her satirical advertisement for their hiding place:  

Open all year round: Located in beautiful, quiet, wooded surroundings in the heart of Amsterdam. No private residences in the vicinity. Can be reached by streetcar 13 or 17 and also by car and bicycle. For those to whom such transportation has been forbidden by the German authorities, it can also be reached on foot. Furnished and unfurnished rooms and apartments are available at all times, with or without meals. Price: Free. Diet: Low-fat.

I do not offer these comparisons to diminish in anyway Halevi’s accomplishments, but rather to emphasize the rhetorical devices of the epistolary form he does adopt and which ones appear to be outside the scope of his offering to his neighbour, though one could ask why he never makes fun of his own situation or offer it up as satire. Perhaps, in Anne’s case, the humour added to the powerful realism of the form and a direct connection to real events, whereas in Halevi’s case it would most likely appear to be fatuous and detract from those affects.  

The epistolary format is a style that directly contradicts Aristotle’s dictum on the nature and function of rhetoric. For Aristotle, “The argumentative modes of persuasion [as used by Micah Goodman] are the essence of the art of rhetoric.” Why? Because appeals simply to the emotions arguably warp judgement, though pathos was an inherent necessary quality of rhetoric. But Halevi’s precise point is the need for a certain type of emotion, not fear or humiliation, but empathy, sympathetic emotional identification with the other. “For peace to succeed in the Middle East, it must speak in some way to our hearts.”

Most importantly, there is logos. But not for Halevi. While argumentative persuasion relies on demonstration to advance truth and justice, Halevi’s rhetorical method relies on the writer’s power to express and communicate his own personal character that allows what he says to be credible. That is the ethos, not the logos, of rhetoric. Secondly, as stated above, the rhetoric must stir the emotions of the reader. But what Halevi does not do is try to advance an apparent truth by various forms of argument. Instead, in the Jewish tradition, narrative substitutes for argument, a form Aristotle despised because it lacked any sense of the universal.

In Aristotle, of the three kinds of rhetoric, Halevi’s political or deliberative type focuses on one of five sub-types: war and peace. Halevi ignores ways and means. While mentioning security a number of times, he pays only a glancing attention to national defence. He pays no attention to trade policy, including that with the Palestinians, or to legislation and the shifts in the form of governing in Israel. His is a dog and pony show without the dog.

One of the major defining characteristics of Halevi’s short monograph is that it is almost exclusively about what Albert Hirschman dubbed the “passions” versus “interests.” (The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph) Modernity has been characterized by an emphasis on and priority on interests as opposed to passions. Men like Shimon Peres counted on common interests and positive sum games to drive the movement towards peace. That focus did not succeed.

What is the alternative? In the Middle Ages it was called “honour,” the very opposite of humiliation. Halevi would resurrect at least a minimal restoration of honour to Palestinians by, at the very least, recognizing their victimhood. But that can be a reminder of the loss of honour and Halevi never tackles the dilemma of how to reconcile the two. Nor does Halevi deal with the impact of interests on the peace process. Halevi is Peres’ alter-ego.

In stressing a restoration of recognition as honour, at a minimum by recognizing the validity of the narrative of the other, Halevi is in many ways running upstream against the currents of modernity where the heroic ideal was reduced by Thomas Hobbes simply to a quest for self-preservation, by La Rochefoucauld to vanity, as an escape from self-knowledge by Pascal or a demeaning, foolish and demented perspective by other writers who, in trashing honour and recognition, indirectly strengthened the new emphasis on interests. In that sense, Halevi is not only a religious Jew, but his whole approach in emphasizing narrative is post-modern while his stress on respect and battle against humiliation is distinctly a pre-modern throwback.   

However, this is precisely Halevi’s point. There is no objective truth – only competing narratives of parties who live proximate to one another but with opposing narratives that haunt each other’s mind.  In that sense, Halevi is not a modernist objectivist. Hence, the self-description of himself as a non-authoritative narrator, reliable because he is sincere in his self-expression but unreliable in lacking any transcendent perspective. Hence, the paradox of a reader-response format, but with only the hope and not the presence of a responder. Therefore, there remains the lurking question of the real source of the book’s authority and authenticity.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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