Israeli popular culture is where biblical texts find new expression.
One of my favorite examples is the hit song, “Mime’Amakim” (From Out of the Depths) recorded by Idan Raichel a dozen years ago. The song is the heartbroken cry of a jilted lover, pleading with his beloved to return: “From out of the depths I call out to you…”
Those words- ‘from out of the depths I call out to you‘– originated in Psalm 130 as a plaintive call to God.
Psalm 130 echoed as I read Yossi Klein Halevi’s forthcoming book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor (Harper Collins).
Like the musician calling out to his lover, like the psalmist calling out to God, Halevi calls out from the depths of his soul in search of Palestinians who will listen to him.
He implores them to hear the Jewish narrative of attachment to and yearning for the land of Israel. “Israel exists because it never stopped existing, even if only in prayer. Israel was restored by the cumulative power of Jewish longing,” he writes.
Halevi, an American born son of Holocaust survivors, made aliyah decades ago, becoming a respected journalist and critically acclaimed author.
Over the years Halevi underwent a metamorphosis. The teen who joined the militant Jewish Defense League became a seeker of spiritual and political connections with Arab Muslims. Halevi co-directs (along with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University) the Muslim Leadership Initiative. Together they created an educational program for young American Muslims to learn about Zionism, Judaism and American Jews’ connection to both. The program, sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute based in Jerusalem and New York, is now in its tenth year.
“My life over the last 20 years has been defined by two commitments: defending the Israeli narrative and reaching out to the Muslim world,” Halevi wrote in an email exchange. “This book combines those two commitments.”
The slim volume is a series of ten letters Halevi has penned to an imaginary Palestinian neighbor on the other side of the security barrier that divides the landscape between Halevi’s Jerusalem neighborhood and the Palestinian village of Anata.
“The book tells my Jewish story, and I’m inviting Palestinians to tell me their story. Just as my narrative is not easy for Palestinians to read – I am a passionate Zionist and believe in the justness of Israel’s case – so theirs isn’t easy for me to read. But I believe that a prerequisite for peace is to listen to and respect the rival story.”
He continues: “In the Jewish community today we are divided between two commitments. One camp is committed to defending the integrity of Israel’s narrative. The other camp is committed to actively seeking peace with the Palestinians.”
“I am making a third argument – which is that by explaining our narrative to Palestinians – something we’ve actually never tried to do before – we are contributing to the long-term possibility for peace. Because if the Palestinian national movement, and the Arab world generally, continue to deny our most basic legitimacy, there will never be peace.”
The book will be available as a free download in Arabic to help jumpstart the conversations Halevi believes we must undertake if there will ever be reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
He is sober about the prospects of reconciliation in the near term and candid about the excruciating compromises each side will have to make. “The moral argument of partition, then, is simply this: For the sake of allowing the other side to achieve some measure of justice, each side needs to impose on itself some measure of injustice.” He even offers a religious framework for approaching the concept of partitioning the land.
While the book is intended for Palestinians and Muslims around the world, I think there is a second audience that must read this book.
Jews of all ages and backgrounds.
Halevi manages the most difficult juggle of all: He embodies an unshakable attachment to Israel, a commitment to Jewish peoplehood, and a deep empathy for his Palestinian neighbors.
Halevi says: “What I’ve tried to model for Jews with this book is how to balance empathy for the Palestinians without compromising the integrity of the Jewish narrative. Jews tend to speak to and about Palestinians in one of two ways: Rightwing Jews get angry at them, leftwing Jews get apologetic. I’ve tried to avoid anger and apology and opt for a different kind of conversation: deep empathy for Palestinian suffering, and deep affirmation of the justness of the Israel’s case.”
Along with trying to help nurture a conversation between Israelis and Palestinians, he hopes this book will be useful for the American Jewish conversation about Israel.
And finally, there is this. Much of his lyric telling of the Jewish narrative verges on poetry.
If you have forgotten (or never knew) that “…need gave Zionism its urgency but longing gave Zionism its spiritual substance”, Halevi is calling out from the depths to you too.