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Dear Raja, I want to be your neighbor not your occupier

I don't need you to adopt my narrative, I need you to know that peace won't be possible unless we recognize each other's right to exist
The security barrier near the settlement of Beit Horon on Route 443 (Kobi Gideon/ Flash 90)
The security barrier near the settlement of Beit Horon on Route 443 (Kobi Gideon/ Flash 90)

The following is a response to a review of my book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” by the Palestinian writer, Raja Shehadeh, which appeared, written in the form of a letter, in the New York Times Book Review on August 26.

Dear Raja,
I first encountered your work shortly after I moved to Israel in the 1980s. Your powerful account of life under occupation, “Samed: Journal of a West Bank Palestinian,” profoundly moved me and helped shape my understanding of the conflict.

Precisely because your work has been so important to me, I was especially disappointed by your unequivocal dismissal of my attempt to explain to Palestinians how my side experiences and understands our hundred-year conflict. I wrote “Letters” because I know, from personal experience, how transformative a book coming from the “other side” can be in helping one develop the capacity for empathy – a quality I believe is essential if our two peoples will ever reconcile.

Empathy, or understanding, doesn’t mean agreement. My intention was not, as you write, to turn Palestinians into “Zionists, to embrace the narrative of Jewish suffering and redemption… as a prerequisite to peace.” In my book I repeatedly write that neither side can or should abandon its narrative, that we are peoples that define themselves by their stories. Your book didn’t lead me to replace my people’s narrative with yours. But you helped me step out of my relentless self-referential narrative and open myself to another perspective.

A prerequisite for peace is that we stop denying the right of the other to exist – to define itself as a people with rights to sovereignty in this land.

I don’t expect Palestinians to accept my narrative of what happened in 1948 or 1967. But neither do I see how peace is possible if the Palestinian national movement continues to tell a story about the Jews that denies our very identity as a people with a four-thousand-year connection to this land.

You write that you have Israeli friends and have made “serious attempts…to appreciate their worldviews.” But most Palestinians have not had that opportunity. Instead, what they hear in their media is a relentless denial of any legitimacy of Jewish history. What Palestinians “know” about the Jews is that we invented our ancient presence here, distorted the archeological evidence, lied about the existence of a temple on the Temple Mount/Haram el Sharif. That is the normative and unchallenged account of my people’s story in your people’s public space.

I have received some moving responses to my book from Palestinians who, along with their deep criticisms of Israel, write that the time has come for Palestinians to come to terms with the legitimacy of the Jewish presence. But almost all of them have asked that I not publicize their names because of fear of retribution. Can one publicly say, in Palestinian society today, that this land belongs to two peoples, that this is a conflict between two legitimate narratives, that the Jews are uprooted natives who returned home?

“It is our ignorance of your history and religion and attachment to the land that you seek to correct here,” you note sarcastically. At the same time, you write, with evident approval, that your books have been translated into Hebrew. I regard publishing Palestinian authors in Israel as essential. But should that process be only one way? I have had my book translated (and self-published) into Arabic for the same reason you have had your books translated into Hebrew: to offer the other side a glimpse into one’s reality. That, it seems to me, is an elementary responsibility of a writer.

The systematic campaign of the Palestinian national movement, across the political spectrum, to deny my people the legitimacy of its story has had a devastating impact on the Israeli public. How, Israelis ask, can we make peace with a national movement that so totally rejects our right to exist, even our right to our history? In addressing the question of what Palestinians don’t know about their Jewish neighbors, I am trying to get to the heart of why the occupation persists: Israeli fears of Palestinian intentions.

“All most of us wish for,” you write of Palestinian aspirations, “is for Israel to withdraw from the territories it has occupied and leave us to go on with our lives.” The problem, Raja, is that most Israelis don’t believe that. So long as the Palestinian national movement equates the occupation with Israel’s very existence, so long as the Palestinian media refers to Tel Aviv as a “settlement,” Israelis are unlikely to trust the peaceful intentions of a West Bank state.

I am keenly mindful of the power imbalance between us, and that is the starting point of my book. But to move toward a solution requires understanding why most Israelis regard that power imbalance not as the cause of the conflict between us but as its result.

I want to be your neighbor, Raja, not your occupier. I wrote my book intending it as a modest contribution toward that goal – with the hope of drawing out voices among the Palestinians who will affirm a two-state vision based on genuine mutual recognition – in part to prove to an increasingly skeptical and despairing Israeli public that there are voices on the other side prepared to accept our legitimacy in the 1967 borders. Continuing to deny any legitimacy to Israelis’ identity only deepens the conflict and prolongs the occupation.

Security fears among Israelis don’t absolve us of the responsibility to frankly confront the moral consequences of the occupation. But neither does the occupation absolve Palestinian intellectuals of the responsibility to help break the psychological impediments to peace.

I am prepared to stand with you, Raja, on any platform, before any audience, and affirm the basic principles of mutual respect and recognition that would lead to an end to the occupation and the acceptance of Israel.

You write that my letters “don’t read as if they are seeking an answer… but instead seem like lectures, half a conversation with a partner who is expected to stay quiet and listen.”

I certainly wrote with the hope that I would find Palestinians who would listen – but no less, with the hope of finding Palestinians who would respond. Which is why I choose to take your response as a potential opening.

Finally, I wrote with this hope: that my book may do for a young Palestinian what your book did for me, helping him hear his neighbor’s voice even as he remains faithful to his own.



About the Author
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is co-director, together Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), and a member of the Institute's iEngage Project. His latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. His previous book, Like Dreamers, was named the 2013 National Jewish Book Council Book of the Year.