Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

“I think you’re always going to have tension in the Middle East when there are people who want to kill the Jews, and Jews who don’t want to be killed, and neither side is willing to compromise.” Frank Fleming

In 2018, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote a book titled, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.” Yossi actually began writing “Letters” in various articles as early as 2005, but seemingly having received very little in his return mail, he felt a book might do the trick, explaining…

“Dear Raja (Shehade), I want to be your neighbor not your occupier. I first encountered your work shortly after I moved to Israel…your powerful account of life under occupation…profoundly moved me and helped shape my understanding of the conflict.” Yossi Klein Halevi

And in fact Shehade did read Yossi’s book, and responded to Yossi’s plea of brotherly love in an op-ed in the New York Times:

“From the onset you make it clear in your book…that of a New York Jew… who decided in the summer of 1982 (37 years ago) to, as you put it, join the Jewish people…you believe that the greatest challenge facing your generation….is to turn to you,(Raja) my neighbor, because my future is inseparable from yours…you believe it is our(my) ignorance of your history and religion and attachment to the land that you seek to correct here…In reading your letters I couldn’t help feeling condescended to…your letters seem like an intellectual exercise…To make peace possible the Palestinians are not required to become Zionists…that you insist on this point as a prerequisite for peace makes me wonder how serious you are about sharing this land…The purpose of Judaism, as you see it, is to sanctify one people with the goal of sanctifying all people. The Palestinians don’t need to be sanctified by Israel…your letters seem like lectures with a partner who is expected to stay quiet and listen. Sincerely, Raja. (Raja Shehade, A Palestinian Responds to His Israeli Neighbor, New York Times, 8/24/18) Probably not the response that Yossi was hoping for, but maybe Raja isn’t the majority, or, then again, maybe he is!

Raja Shehade is a sixty-eight year old lawyer from Ramallah. He studied law in London. His grandfather, Saleem, was a judge in the courts of the British Mandate of Palestine. His father, Aziz, was also a lawyer. For many years he was a “darling” of the peace camp, and yet oddly enough I came across his name in an unusual article by a “super dove” Meron Benvenisti…”who bemoans the blind mindless hatred for Jews expressed in a book by “a Palestinian intellectual.” The book Benvenisti writes of is titled, The Sealed Room, by none other than, Raja Shehade. ”Shehade has no qualms about repeatedly comparing Israelis to Nazis…even the murder of Shehade’s own father committed by an Arab over a land dispute, is attributed to Israel..Shehade doesn’t mince words. ‘I want to see your cities besieged, your soldiers crushed and your arrogant noses in the mud!” Benvenisti concludes, “From the Arab’s viewpoint, Israel’s crime is not the occupation…it is the crime of existing.” (David Bar-Illan, Eye on The Media, 12/26/92).

Sadly for Yossi, his labor of friendship fell, at least for old Raja, on deaf ears. What my friend Yossi didn’t seem to understand was his book was an “unintended insult” to the Arab mentality on several levels. His words in many ways try to show empathy, but to the Arab empathy is weakness, and Yossi’s weakness, is interpreted as a lack of respect. and a lack of respect to an Arab is an insult. He thinks of himself even in defeat as “the strong horse.” His defeat comes from nothing he did, but something that was out of his control. It’s never his fault. It’s all about preserving honor. Yossi’s weakness, his begging to be understood, is an embarrassment and angers Raja, and his Arab psyche.

I can only imagine how Raja’s bubbes and zaydees felt, “Throughout their wanderings, [knowing] Jews carried with them the Land of Israel…most of all they preserved the land in prayer. Jewish prayer became suffused with a longing for the land.”(p.31) Or, imagine their deeply felt joy when they learned ” Judaism is a love story between G-d and a people…so long as the Jewish people exist, the love story persists.”(p.53) Or, “As the prophet Amos proclaimed, ‘…they shall rebuild the ruined cities…I will plant them on their land, nevermore to be uprooted from the land I am giving them, says the Lord…” (p.104).

Raja only has contempt for poor Yossi. Perceived respect in an Arab society is the very foundation of their “honor versus shame” paradigm. Even when Yossi uses the word empathy, for Raja it is an insult. It shows weakness. “Don’t lecture me!” states Raja. But the greatest insult that Raja also understands is that the book is a fraud from its very title. The book was not written for “My Palestinian Neighbor.” It was written for my North American Jew, who will pay almost thirty dollars, or over one hundred shekels to purchase it.

Yossi’s book is a sensitive and thoughtfully written self- examination of a personal struggle trying to meld his Western idealism with the realities of the Middle East. It was Hillel Halkin who wrote,”…Israel represents the future, America for Jews represents the past…American Jewish institutions strike me as being pathetically an empty shell. Where in the history of Diaspora, has there ever been another Jewish community so well organized with so little Jewish substance to its life? And so Yossi, I don’t think Raja is too eager to be your neighbor, and with 500,000 Jews now living in Judea/Samaria…

But now it is time for me and “two- stater” Yossi, to take a trip down memory lane, and reflect on how Yossi got to where he is today.

“My first editorial for the Betar newsletter was an attack on Vatican II…the editorial reserved its special contempt for ‘liberal- minded Jews’…exemplars of what we in Betar called the ‘ghetto mentality’ or what my father called a ‘stupid Jew.’ Stupid Jews were people who pretended they lived in a benign world and who blinded themselves to the danger or insult, who assumed they were being complimented when Gentiles told them that they didn’t look Jewish or that they were ‘good Jews’ different from the others. The old mode of Jewish survival—servile accommodation– (Yossi Klein-Halevi, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, p. 40) “I know Jews who can’t sleep at night because of their concern for humanity…I know Jews who go to jail for blacks…I know rabbis who went to Selma to get arrested. But I don’t know of a single rabbi who broke the law when the crematoria were being fed with twelve thousand Jews every day…the fighting Jew drives the respectables, the nice Irvings, up their wood paneled offices. ‘Violence is unJewish!’ The Bible says so!’ In the Bible we find the story of a man named Moses who saw an Egyptian beating a Jew. and what did Moses do? Set up a committee to investigate the root causes of Egyptian anti- Semitism? The Bible says he smote the Egyptian. (Ibid. p.95).

“He (my father) became a believer. He saw in Jewish survival, in his own persistence, the expression of a power that penetrated and transcended him...I once asked him, with teenage irony, whether he actually believed that G-d handed the Torah to the Jews on a desert mountain, and he replied, ‘What do I know…I only know one thing: that there is some great mystery with this little Jewish people that no power in the world can destroy. My father most closely approximated the person I hoped to become. Like him I wanted to stop fearing the body’s death, know that the soul endures and can’t be violated except by one’s own weakness. (Ibid. p.197). It’s all about faith and courage Yossi.

And when I think about faith and courage I think of a another time when a Jew with courage and self-respect stood alone…the room was hushed as Louis Brandeis came forward. It was a dramatic moment, the first time that the exclusive Harvard Honor Society had ever accepted a Jew. For Brandeis it had not been an easy road. For the past three years, other students – uninvited – had sat next to him as he had his lunch, saying things to him like – “Brandeis, you’re brilliant, you could end up on the Supreme Court – except that you are a Jew. Why don’t you convert? [become assimilated] Then all your problems will be solved.” Brandeis had listened, but had not responded.

Finally, in his senior year of law school, his preeminence could not be denied. Jewish or not, he was invited to join the “exclusive honor society”. On the evening of the official induction, tension filled the auditorium. All eyes were on him as he walked to the lectern. Slowly he looked around the room and softly began – “I am sorry I was born a Jew,” he said, and with that, the room erupted in applause, in an explosion of shouting and cheers. They had convinced him. They had prevailed upon him at last.

Brandeis waited until the silence was regained and he began again. “I am sorry I was born a Jew, but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own.” This time there was no shouting, no cheers, this time there was respectful silence. The members of the society listened attentively, awed by his conviction and strength of character, by his unequivocal choice, and by his single-minded faith for who he was. When he finished everyone in the hall rose and gave him a standing ovation. (As retold by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove)

Being a Jew is a privilege. There is nothing our people have to apologize for. Our people have been, and continue to be, “a light unto the nations.” G-d has blessed those who bless us, and cursed those who curse us, and the greatest gift you can give your children is the gift of teaching them self-respect for having been given the privilege of being a Jew. It hasn’t always been easy, and there have been times that it will take some courage, but it will be worth it, and it will last a lifetime.

Shabbat Shalom 4/05/19 Jack “Yehoshua” Berger

About the Author
Educated as an architect with a Masters in Architectural History, Jack Yehoshua Berger became a practicing architect and real estate developer. In his late 30's he met a Rabbi who turned him on to the miracle of Israel and he began learning how the amazing country, against all odds, came to be the miracle of the modern world.