Aristotle argued that, although the style is important, the structure and organization of the way the persuasion is presented is even more so. Halevi offers 10 letters ranging in length from 15 to 25 pages each. There does not seem to be any apparent order to the letters. Nevertheless, there is an underlying order.
The first letter contrasts the divide between Israelis and Palestinians while recounting Halevi’s personal odyssey in attempting to understand the devotional life of a Muslim to comprehend how the members of each religion share in God’s presence, share an intimacy with God, share a conviction that “the unseen is ultimately more real than the material,” that passions trump interests.
He notes in Islam how important bodies moving in unison – bowing, stepping back, prostrating – as well as the concepts of surrender and the “fearless heart,” all characterize Muslim religious practice. Halevi makes no comment on the differences with Jewish religious practices. Where he emphasizes difference is in the Palestinian narrative, the story of a nation within the Arab family with its own history and collective experience, the experience of humiliation and defeat at the hands of those characterized as invaders, expellers and occupiers.
In contrast, Halevi then offers the Palestinian parallel to the Israeli narrative:
- Rejection of Jewish return
- Rejection of partition
- Rejection of trading land for peace
- Rejection of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state
- Rejection of a comprehensive offer of peace when the Second Intifada began in September 2000
- The resulting loss of faith of Israelis in peace, reinforced with the rejection of President Bill Clinton’s peace offer in December 2000 and nailing the peace process dead with the rejection of Ehud Olmert’s peace offer in 2008
- The result – the withering of the left and the percentage of Israelis who believed in the possibility of peace – all confirmed by the Palestinian media that insists the Jews do not have rights to a state or a right to return to their land.
Yet in spite of it all, Halevi retains a belief that God wants peace, that God wants justice, that God wants fairness, even as the wall that protects Israelis purportedly humiliates Palestinians even further.
The second letter, “Need and Longing,” continues with the religious theme by focusing on Tisha b’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the first and second temples and the expulsion of the Jews from Roman-governed Palestine following the second destruction. Then redemption, or, part thereof, with the return and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, a religious experience even felt by Israeli secularists. Acceptance of exile as fact had always been accompanied by rejection of it as permanent.
Jewish prayer was suffused with the longing for return that gave even secular Zionism its spiritual substance while the need for security and survival provided the urgency. That is, for Halevi, the essence of Zionism, the combined forces that gave legitimation to repatriation and the restoration of a people to their homeland. “Judaism isn’t only a set of rituals and rules but a vision linked to a place.” There is no Judaism without Zionism, without the Jewish attachment to the land of Israel and the dream of renewing Jewish sovereignty in the place of origin of the Jewish people.
And thus Yossi Klein Halevi’s own personal odyssey of return.
The first letter tells a story about the division between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, at the same time as Halevi claims that there exists an underlying possible religious unity. The second letter tells the story about Jewish unity in the effort to bring that rebirth of Israel into realization. Halevi was part of that effort and made aliyah to Israel. Letter three discusses “Fate and Destiny” as Jewish tropes. For Halevi, the core of Judaism since Abraham has been family, the sense of each Jew belonging to a community of fate.
That suddenly got my back up. Fate, as I understand it, refers to chance, to fortune, to adverse, predetermined and inescapable causes. Though often used interchangeably with “destiny,” I remembered and re-read an essay by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called, “On Destiny and Chance.” Rabbi Sacks differentiated between destiny, which depended upon Jewish choices, and fate that did not. Fate was a matter of mere fortune, of chance. Fate and Destiny were both contrasted with untrammeled free will.
Fortune (vayikar) appears; destiny (vayikra) calls. God warns: If you “do not listen to Me, but continue to be hostile [keri] towards Me, then in My anger I will be hostile towards you, and I myself will punish you seven times for your sins.” A community of destiny blames itself for impending disasters; in contrast, the Jews who fled Egypt and were crowded against the shores of the Reed Sea, cried out, not to God, but screamed, “Oy, gewalt!” They blamed Moses for the bad idea of escaping slavery. They even expressed a hope of return while others engaged in fatalistic morbid Jewish humour and cracked jokes – “Don’t the Egyptians have enough graves?”
God was forgiving. The Israelites were still fully infused with a slave mentality. Choice and destiny were not in their hands. Nor possibly in God’s. Most of the Israelites believed that they were fated, doomed to die at the hands of the Egyptian charioteers bearing down upon them. But when Jews became a community responsible for their own destiny and for asking for God’s help, if they then blame fate and fortune, God will simply add to their troubles. “If, when I bring trouble upon you in order to cause you to repent, you say that the trouble is purely accidental, then I will add to your trouble the anger of being-left-to-chance.” God will abandon the Jews and leave their fate to others. Divine providence will not align with the acceptance of individual and collective responsibility.
In the words of Rabbi Sachs, if Jews “see history as mere chance—what Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, called ‘a trashbag of random coincidences blown open by the wind’—then indeed they will be left to chance. Being a small, vulnerable nation, chance will not be kind to them.” The difference is between mikra, God’s call, and mikreh, history as a series of random events, as fortune and fate without meaning. The aleph on “mikra” is small, is microscopic, but it is critical and crucial. It is also both visible and audible to those who look and listen. “To be a Jew is to believe that what happens to us as a people is G‑d’s call to us—to become ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’”
That is why I was so taken aback by Halevi referring to Jews as a “community of fate.” Further, Halevi believes that it is the “dark side of the Jewish family” when Jews turn on one another when things go wrong. But that is not family at all. It is deregistering from family. It is resigning and giving up in resignation rather than insisting that together, with God’s help, we can make it. For Jews, “to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” requires that they trust themselves, trust one another and trust God. That is what it is to be and become a community of destiny rather than a community of fate.
But perhaps this is only a quibble over words. Perhaps by fate, Halevi means destiny rather than fortune. For the moment, I give him the benefit of doubt, though the skeptical hairs on the back of my neck have been raised. After all, Halevi insists that the “foundation of Jewishness is peoplehood,” and a people is not a race but a community of destiny which others are free to join. But joining means that, “My people are your people and your people are my people.” And, “Loyalty to the Jewish people is, for Judaism, a religious act,” an act of assuming individual and collective responsibility.
Thus, the first three letters are all about unity, the unity underlying all three monotheistic and other spiritual faiths, secondly the political unity of the Jewish people in the collective dedication to the land and to self-determination on that land, and, thirdly, the religious unity demanded of any Jew, the unity between humans and God and among those chosen to be God’s people.
With letter 4, there is a shift from the theme of unity to history, to narrative, moving from a community of great equality but equally great austerity, to a community with enormous income disparities and a significant devotion to material indulgence. Nevertheless, in spite of these radical changes in “interests,” the passion remains communal, the passion for mourning the fallen soldiers on Memorial Day and for celebrating Israeli independence on the following day. Mourning and celebration remain intimate bedfellows. In contrast, the Palestinians only have a day of mourning, Nakba Day, and the celebration of self-determination remains a promise rather than a realization.
But the devil is also in the details of each respective group’s history. Jews returned to their own land primarily as labour Zionists, as rediscovering themselves as labourers on the land only to find that the non-labour returnees who preceded them employed Arab workers as cheap labour. To create a Jewish proletariat meant excluding the use of Arab labour. Thus, interests divided the Zionists even as passion united them. But, whatever their ideological bent, they bought their land; they did not steal it. Unfortunately, it was often purchased at exorbitant prices from absentee Arab landlords at the expense of the displacement of Arab or Palestinian serfs. This is the beginning of the narrative of return.
The return was, however, rejected by local Arabs, not primarily because of the effects of these contradictory instrumental values of the returnees – but because of the Arab passion for their own exclusive self-determination. Jews were neither invited to join in nor to engage in a joint effort. Further, the desire for exclusion was accompanied by pogroms – the worst initially in Hebron in 1929. The first step in the Jewish loss of faith in the other began with the loss of faith in coexistence and the preparation for protracted conflict to avert the prospect, even promise, of extermination.
The surrender of a belief in coexistence by Jews 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. To date, not one Palestinian leader has recognized the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in Eretz Israel.
The result of that success has been 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 that history forward to the Six Day War in 1967 preceded by the existential fear and trembling felt worldwide by Jews around the world, whether Zionist, non-Zionist or even anti-Zionist. Almost all Jews experienced the prospect of the imminent destruction of the Jewish community in Israel. In spite of Israel’s appeal to Jordan to stay out of the war, Israel was attacked from three sides, from Egypt on the south, form Jordan on the east and from Syria on the north-east. The miracle happened. In only six days, Israel defeated three Arab armies, reunited Jerusalem, captured the West Bank – Judea and Samaria – the Sinai and the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, the results of all these captures leaving a legacy until the present over fifty years later.
The legacy was acted out in debates over settlements. In the Sinai, settlements were planted and then uprooted in a peace with Egypt in return for a total exchange of land and a peace agreement in 1979. In Gaza, settlements were planted and then uprooted in a unilateral withdrawal of the Israeli army from Gaza and the dismantling of the settlements there in 2005. This year, in 2019, the Golan Heights were recognized as part of Israel by the U.S. What remains uncertain is the fate of the settlements in Greater Jerusalem and in the West Bank – Judea and Samaria.
What started as an effort of reinforcing security gradually evolved into a religious settler movement to reoccupy the heartland of the Jewish people. By 1975, the Labour Government lost control of the settler movement, propelled by continuing Palestinian intransigence and by the international community passing a UN General Assembly resolution on 10 November 1975 equating Zionism with racism. The hard right won, propelled by Palestinian rejectionism and the scurrilous behaviour of the world’s highest international body. The Jews were on their own and to hell with everyone else.
But the parallel consequence was further humiliation for Palestinians now subject to military occupation and its inherent corruption based as it was and remains on continuing Palestinian humiliation. Then Oslo. Then the turn away from mutual non-recognition to mutual recognition and diplomacy. But it was a shift not based on trust, but on a gamble, particularly since Arafat reassured his people in Arabic than any peace agreement would just be a temporary bus stop on the road towards the goal of complete Zionist expulsion. For Arafat, that was inevitable and just a matter of time as the very small Jewish minority in the Middle East lost its relative power.
As it turned out, the relative discrepancy in power increased rather than decreased. Not by reliance on that power alone, but by relying on the new strategic east-west depth and the capture of the Judean Hills in the Six Day War.
This is Yossi Klein Halevi’s narrative of the Jewish people in which he personally played a part.
With the help of Alex Zisman