Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

Words and letters

Prof. Mohammed Dajani (left) and Yossi Klein Halevi at The Times of Israel's office in Jerusalem, May 2019 (ToI staff)
Main image by ToI staff shows Prof. Mohammed Dajani (left) and Yossi Klein Halevi at The Times of Israel's office in Jerusalem, May 2019

A few years ago, I put together a LinkedIn article called “How to prepare to do anything.” Its first step, I thought, was often overlooked, and I wanted to remedy that; before you can begin to plan anything, you need to first inventory what is already being done. While I advised this in the context of the work world, I also noted its applicability when it comes to volunteer organizations, educational settings and at home.

Since then, though, I’ve realized that there is an even earlier step – definitions. I’ve thought about that often when discussing Zionism and anti-Zionism in that it occurs to me that those who are against it believe Zionism means to have a Jewish homeland free of non-Jews. But that is not what Zionism is. And if people on different sides of the argument are understanding terminology in contradictory ways, if they are framing the essence of it very differently, how can there be hope to reach a resolution?

This week I learned that it isn’t just words that may need definition. In my Public Policy Analysis class, for example, we’ve gone into depth about the steps needed to create policy that solves problems and it begins with actually defining the problem. Where Israel is concerned, VISION Magazine’s excellent piece A Tale of Two Narratives digs into definitions and perceptions more broadly too, “…the conflict continues to rage partially because many of us are so trapped within our narrow paradigms that we refuse to acknowledge how things may look from different perspectives. Advocates on both sides often cite the hard facts to support their positions. And while these facts might be true, they are not the only facts. And how we select, connect, contextualize and understand them is very much determined by the movies we live in.”

To help the “other side” understand the Israelis’ movie, Yossi Klein Halevi, in his book, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, begins with explaining the conflict through his eyes, offering a definition of sorts to convey the connection Jews feel to the land, while also acknowledging theirs.

When the book came out in May, 2018, editions were published in English and in Arabic. He hoped Palestinians would respond, that his letters would open a dialogue. And they did. A new edition in paperback includes a 50-page epilogue. As he wrote in a Facebook post when the book was released earlier this month, “The answers are thoughtful, passionate, angry, empathetic – and willing to engage with the central premise of the book: that this is a tragic conflict between two indigenous peoples, each of which is entitled to its sovereign place in the land we share.”

The book was reviewed fairly widely and was well-received. Very interestingly, two Arab reviews were among those which praised the author’s efforts. Majalla, a London-based Saudi weekly, published in English, Arabic, French and Persian, reviewed the book thoroughly in its piece, In Pursuit of Peace, Yossi Klein Halevi Examines Commonalities Between the Sons of Abraham. Their review also appeared in Arabic. After explaining each of the letters in the book, the reviewer wrote, “In sum, Yossi Klein Halevi has honored his commitment to objectivity. He has aired the manifestations of intolerance and extremism on both sides, and situated them among whirlpools of ignorance, a failure at reciprocity, and, for that matter, piles of maps and historical documents. He pins his hope on spiritual aspects of the commonality between the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac. Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor is a source of reference on the history of Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At a time of turbulence across the Arab region, it paves the way for a future of greater understanding.”

Still, it was reviewed in Arabic in a major daily newspaper in Morocco, Al-Ahdath. Klein Halevi posted a translation. Its closing words are what are most meaningful to me. “Perhaps Yossi’s book constitutes an opening for Palestinians and Israelis to embark on constructive and honest dialogue, one based on greater familiarity with each other’s identity and making full peace with it. As for the region as a whole, this dialogue is a great step towards peace.”

Of particular note, is the response he received from Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, a professor whom I remember reading about a few years ago when he took a group of Palestinian university students to Auschwitz – and later was threatened and had his car torched. Following the inclusion of Dajani’s responses in the new edition, the two men came to Times of Israel’s office in Jerusalem and were interviewed together by publisher David Horovitz. Titled, “When an ex-Fatah Palestinian ‘neighbor’ took up a Zionist author’s challenge,” this is a must read, as is Dajani’s recent post about Wasatia education, the project he is working on with its vision for a better curriculum in Palestinian schools.

Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor will be published in Hebrew later this year.

It is my hope that it will get the country talking and thinking more specifically about the kind of future they envision. Because the status quo is not only not sustainable, the damage it causes to both sides is driving each side further away from ever coming to a resolution. This has been one reason why I want to see the U.S. proposal taken seriously – it could serve as a launching point for getting back to the table in the absence of anything else. But the more I read about how the Palestinians are not only boycotting anything to do with the proposal, but calling for a “popular uprising” to destroy its chances, the less I have hope that anyone can talk them into considering any element of it, let alone using it to re-start talks.

Perhaps instead, this book can serve as a pivot to moving towards a future, helping both Palestinians and Israelis think more about peaceful coexistence. As I wrote in my recent blog, Thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, “I think one can – and should – be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian; again, it is not a zero sum game. There is room to make a place for each side’s pain and for each side’s narrative. The danger is when those with pro-Palestinian views think their only way is to be anti-Israel and when those holding pro-Israel views think it necessitates an anti-Palestinian position.”

The charge for change won’t be taken by political parties or government leadership on either side. We know that. What we need is for Yossi Klein Halevi and Mohammed Dajani to lead the way, to take their message to Israelis and Palestinians alike. To understand the journey each man took to get to where he is now is important. To understand that preconceptions do not define us is equally so. Perhaps in the hands of former extremists-turned-thinkers, the needle can be moved.


Edit: This blog was corrected on June 18, 2019 to include a link to Majalla’s Arabic language review of Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor and to note that it is a Saudi publication. 

About the Author
Wendy Kalman, MPA, MA, serves as Director of Education and Advocacy Resources for Hadassah The Women's Zionist Organization of America, Inc. Previous roles include senior academic researcher for an Israel education nonprofit, knowledge manager at a large multinational as well as roles in marketing and publishing in the US and in Israel. She has presented papers at political science and communications conferences and has participated as a scholar-in-residence at an academic workshop on antisemitism. Wendy lived in Israel for over a decade and is a dual citizen, fluent in Hebrew.
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