Reconsidering the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process:

P

Yossi Klein Halevi Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, HarperCollins, 2018

Micah Goodman Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War, Yale University Press, 2018

Part I: A Comparative Analysis and Overview of Halevi’s book

by

Howard Adelman

This initial blog in this new series will also serve as an introduction to the seminar on the subject of “Reconsidering the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process,” being held in Toronto over the next three weeks. (Email if you wish to participate.) The first blog offers notes rather than a prose analysis.

The progressive Left, the peace camp in both Israel and the diaspora, is at a dead end. The movement has become irrelevant. It is a sideshow left behind in the dustbin of history as communism once was. Progressive Zionists have come together in Toronto to review this plight. They are doing so by organizing a seminar around two books that both point to this dead end and offer very different routes out of the cul-de-sac.

The two books are indicated above. The opening section in this blog, after initial introductions and a reaffirmation that the books are not the central focus but points of take-off to consider the matter at hand, will be followed by more detailed analysis of the style and substance of Halevi’s letters. I will publish a series of blogs as elaborations of my own reflections and discussions in that seminar to allow the participants to probe even deeper and those on the sidelines to participate vicariously. I provide the seminar with a comparative overview of the two books outlining first ten common assumptions of both books and then eight differences in each author’s approach as follows:

Nine Common Assumptions:

  1. The peace process, if not dead, is at a dead end;

2. Arguments are repeated and innovation has evaporated;

3. The problem is not primarily over the issues, but a failure to listen to the other side;

4. There is a disconnect between complexity of problem and simplification of approaches;

5. There are different emotions at the core of each side: Fear (Israelis) vs Humiliation (Palestinians);

6. Right of self-determination of both sides; therefore, two-state solution;

7. Most Israelis have lost their sense of political conviction;

8. Importance of bringing religion to bear on the problem;

9. Desire to initiate a dialogue.

          Eight Different Approaches:

                                                 Halevi                                Goodman

Focus Israeli-Palestinian dialogue   Left-Right Israeli dialogue
Absence Empathy Reasonableness
Explanation Narrative explanation Dispassionate argument
Emotions Empathetic re-enactment Avoid emotional distortion
Trade Offs Surrender Palestinian refugee return for Jewish settlements                Delimit borders – change character of conflict to one between state & neighbours
Possibility Intimacy Security versus Honour
Thinking Narrative self-definition In degrees vs dichotomies
Precedent Islam + Judaism Hillel vs Shammai

I introduce Yossi Klein Halevi’s book by first referencing two important past publications:

  • At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land, 2001
  • Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, 2013

I introduce Halevi himself as the co-director of the Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute, which teaches Muslim American leaders about Judaism and Israel. There is an incidental Toronto connection in that Halevi credited Emeritus Rabbi John Moscowitz of Holy Blossom Temple for instigating the idea of the book. The introduction to the book can best be supplemented by reference to a youtube conversation between Yossi Halevi and Yehudah Kurtzer on 11 July 2018 at the annual Bronfman Family Foundation lecture at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Israel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UriPu_H7ijk 

Reviews of the book have been unanimously positive, even laudatory, but there really have not been many of them. Some reviewers made the following comments:

  • The book contains the most insightful description of this deep-rooted conflict — from the Israeli perspective — which I have ever read.
  • The author’s reasoned if sometimes too hopeful suggestions for peaceful reconciliation are surely worth hearing.
  • A profound and original book, the work of a gifted thinker.
  • I hope the book reaches its intended audiences both in the Middle East and around the world. For Halevi, in the end, is still optimistic that there could be peace.
  • This modestly-sized volume is a blessing, and may serve as a vehicle for dialogue and peace.
  • In its efforts to articulate and communicate history and belief and suggest some actual strategies for the future—strategies that require choice, compromise, and change for everyone involved—Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor offers a model for future discourse. And that’s enough to make me optimistic.
  • This book, utilizing the powerful vehicle of empathy, has great potential to help heal that trauma. With the hope for two states for two peoples receding, I intend to purchase multiple copies as gifts not only for my Palestinian friends, but with no less urgency, for my Jewish friends as well.
  • There’s no better introduction to the heart of the Israeli people than this powerful book.

In introducing the epistolary style of the book, I  ask why a monologic rather than a dialogic approach was used. I learned that the second edition appearing in June 2019 will include 12 letters as responses from Palestinians. The epistolary style offered the following advantages upon which I will elaborate in the next blog:

  • A private, personable and personal appeal made public avoids the impersonal;
  • It is unmediated and direct;
  • There is a singular focus on only war and peace;
  • The style combines direct experience, personal narrative, abbreviations of Halevi’s understanding of history and analysis to enhance credibility;
  • Halevi is fully aware of the paradox of an anonymous non-Jewish non-Israeli neighbour but an intimate other that haunts his nightmares;
  • The focus is on the profound and complex and without any self-deprecating humour lest the letters appear fatuous;
  • A facsimile of intimacy is used to communicate inward insight & outward sharing;
  • The book is a narrative of hopes and dreams rather than a focus on traumas;
  • The historical context suggests both the improbability of resolution but a commitment of effort to reach out in spite of pessimistic signals;
  • The elevation of empathetic re-enactment is used as the prime mode to advance understanding;
  • Halevi has a goal of replacing humiliation of the other with recognition and respect, even honour;
  • He hopes to do so by giving equal status to competing narratives.

In the following, I provided summaries of the contents of four groups of letters, 1-3, 4&5, 6&7 and 8-10, summaries upon which I will elaborate in subsequent blogs.

The first letter is about religious unity claimed by Halevi in spite of differences in practices and conceptions of Islam versus Judaism, but a unity which stands in stark contrast with the political differences consisting of the four Palestinian rejections – Jewish return, partition, trading land for peace and Israel’s right to exist at all. Thus, the Palestinian narrative stands in stark contrast to the Jewish one. The result – loss of faith in the peace process and the withering away of the Left among Israelis.

The second letter focuses on Tisha b’Av, mourning for the loss of the temples and Jewish expulsion and, then, miraculously, the return and declaration of an Israeli state in 1948. For Jews, return provided the spiritual core while security responded to the urgent material needs of survival.

The third letter on fate and destiny is more puzzling because it is questionable whether Jews constitute a community of fate if fate normally connotes happenstance beyond one’s control. This culminates a triad of letters about unity and difference, overall religious unity in spite of differences, deep political differences between Palestinian and the Israeli narrative and the need for Jews to maintain their unity.

The fourth letter offers a more detailed story of the two different narratives.  The Jewish surrender of a belief in coexistence became a political statement with the acceptance of partition in 1947 while Arab rejection of coexistence was confirmed by a rejection of even partition. That self-determination was not a product of the then UN white man’s club, only its international legitimacy. The self-determination was determined by Jewish history and Jewish resolve to avoid the alternative – expulsion once again or even mass slaughter. The result – Arab defeat, Arab humiliation, the expansion of the Jewish control of land and the expulsion/flight of just over 700,000 Palestinian refugees. The result was also the ingathering of the Jews from Arab lands, largely a product of Arab anger at the victory of the Jews and a turn against and persecution of their own centuries-old Jewish communities. Thus, while the Arabs suffered from a catastrophe, the Jews through realism and faith salvaged their people and initiated a new phase in their over three millennial-old history.

Letter 5 carries the history forward to the existential fears leading up to and following the after-effects of the Six Day War. Absolute victory on one side. Absolute humiliation on the other side. Settlements as a key issue are developed, first for security and then for ideology. But Halevi contends that there never was an absolute commitment. Settlements were dismantled for peace with Egypt. Settlements were unilaterally dismantled in Gaza in the hopes of a final stage in the peace process. The result, however, of the latter led to further and escalating conflict. This was but a reflection of earlier offers of some, even almost all, land for peace, offers which were rejected.

  1. Letters 6-7

Letter 6 turns towards prospects of peace in the present. That depends, Halevi argues, not on lines on the map, but on reducing each nation’s deepest anxieties by recognizing the right of each nation to self-determination based once again on partition, on the right of each nation to its own narrative and on the right of each narrative to have maximalist hopes while acceding to more limited realities.

Letter 7 turns to the disposition of religious sites. Share them based on common religious values rather than political differences.

  • Letters 8-10

The prospects, however, crash against reality with the growth of rage and frustration on each side both from tensions between and within each community – religious versus secular, differences in ideology within each camp, and ominous trends on each side. One paradox succeeds another. Letter 9 follows with a focus on the Holocaust and Halevi’s insistence that the role of the Holocaust in the creation of Israel was greatly exaggerated. (I argue, the Holocaust played virtually no role.)  But the Holocaust hangs over Israel like a haunting shadow and a fear and determination never to be victims again. Letter 10 discusses the paradox of transience remembered in the Jewish religion in contrast to the determination not to have history repeat itself.  

The analysis of the epistolary style and a more detailed analysis of the content of each of the letters will follow in three subsequent blogs. I will then offer a critical analysis of Halevi’s book.

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