Join a 21st-century conversation.
The vehicle for that conversation is a short, powerful book by Yossi Klein Halevi, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: With an Extensive Epilogue of Palestinian Responses. 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.
Says Klein Halevi: “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.”
Klein Halevi’s open-hearted willingness to listen yielded responses from Palestinians around the world. A selection of those responses is published in the epilogue; more appear on the book’s website.
The Letters Project: Conversing Across Narratives is designed to get this book into the hands of teens and young adults and jumpstart that dive into complexity. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) is launching the project on September 1, with the support of an Anonymous Fund of the Minneapolis Foundation.
Just as Klein Halevi wrote letters to his Palestinian neighbor, and Palestinians wrote letters to him in return, The Letters Project is a letter-writing contest. We are asking participants to write a letter in response to the ideas they encounter in the book. They are welcome to write from their own perspective as Jewish Americans, but they can also try to put themselves in the shoes of an Israeli or Palestinian and write from that vantage point. Here are a few questions to guide the letter-writing process:
- What did you learn from the book?
- What do you understand in a new way after reading the book?
- What surprised you?
- What ideas were challenging to you?
- What are the most important things you will remember from this book?
The fall round of contests launches September 1; letters are due by December 1.
There will be separate contests for high school age (14-18 years old), post-high school (18-22 years old), and young adults (22-42 years old). We are reaching out to teens and young adults in Minnesota and the Dakotas, but their peers who live elsewhere are also welcome to participate.
JCRC will supply the books and the prizes for each age group: $360 for best letter overall, $180 for most creative, $180 for most insightful.
JCRC conducted a trial run of the project this spring, awarding prizes to teen winners from Beth El, Mt. Zion, and the Israel Center of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. Here’s what a teen winner and parent had to say:
“The letter I wrote for this contest was the accumulation of seventeen years of thoughts and teachings, all put into one response to a book that validated all of the contradictions in my brain. Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, to me, is a beacon of hope. I found myself believing in peace plans that at one point had felt incredibly idealistic and I found myself advocating these plans to others. I was so moved after finishing this book that I believed, and I continue to believe, that Palestinians and Israelis can coexist in a land that is so immensely holy to both. After all, we are all human.”
“Thank you, JCRC, for making lemonade out of Covid-19 lemons and engaging with the teenage community through your creative letter-writing contest. This contest encourages teens to introspect, make their voices heard, and practice key skills such as analytical thinking and writing. What an incredible opportunity!”
At the conclusion of the pilot contest, the three teen winners and their youth directors joined Holly Brod Farber and Sally Abrams for a Zoom conversation…which included a surprise guest, the author himself! Yossi’s framework for the ‘21st century Israel conversation’ is a mindset the teens can return to again and again.
As well, Herzl Camp organized ‘Letters’ book groups for teen and adult staff as part of their summer distance learning. Justin Held, Herzl’s Director of Jewish Education, believes that “The Letters Project” is a worthwhile and authentic way to learn about the Israel/Palestine issue:
“The book is about much more than the conflict. It is a book about narrative. It is a book about learning to listen to someone you disagree with, to honor a point a view that is not your own,” he said. “This experience has equipped me for future Israel conversations by enabling me to hear from Palestinian perspectives I otherwise wouldn’t. I am comfortable with my narrative, but this has allowed me to become aware of other narratives that push on my own. If nothing else, it has forced me to sharpen my thoughts and opinions for my narrative alone, let alone a variety of others.”
Are you ready to challenge yourself? Are you ready to take that deep dive into complexity? Whether you are part of a group or on your own, please join our Letters Project!
Click here to participate in ‘The Letters Project.”