Yossi Klein Halevi
Two Narratives, Reflections on the Israeli-Palestinian Present (part 1)
Yossi Klein Halevi is a correspondent for The New Republic, senior fellow of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Two Narratives: Reflections on the Israeli Palestinian Present.” My guests this week and next present views of life in one land that cannot, at present, be reconciled, but their accounts of what is at stake provide substance for our understanding, as Hamas forms a Palestinian Cabinet and Israel prepares for a critical election. Religion is a primary source of conflict in their region, my guests say, and it cannot be bracketed out of politics and peace negotiations.
MR. YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI : I think we need to start taking religion seriously. It’s terrifying, especially when you confront this tsunami of fundamentalism, but we’re not going to be able to deal with reality unless we get rid of our wishful thinking.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
I’m Krista Tippett. For the next two weeks, we’ll explore the intersection of the spiritual and the political entrenched in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
We will not seek to reconcile what cannot be reconciled at present. We’ll listen to understand the difficulty of reaching peace in a land that its inhabitants, on both sides of conflict, consider holy.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics and ideas.
MS. TIPPETT: Today, the first of a series, “Two Narratives: Reflections on the Israeli Palestinian Present.” The modern state of Israel was founded in the aftermath of war in 1948. Other wars and agreements have shifted its borders since, but the ongoing struggle between Israelis and Palestinians is locked inside larger histories, among these the Biblical drama of ancient Israel and the tragedy of the 20th-century Holocaust; the politics of the British Empire and the Cold War; the histories of Christianity and Islam and of the disparate, intertwining cultures we now call the Middle East.
The Oslo Peace Process of the 1990s initiated a gradual process towards Palestinian autonomy and governance in portions of the long contested West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Oslo raised hopes within the Palestinian and Israeli publics for an enduring peace.
The dashing of those hopes accounts in part for the uncertainty and bitterness of recent times.
REPORTER 1: On September 13, 1993, Israel and the PLO had formally recognized each other and signed the Oslo Agreement, which was to provide self government to the Palestinians. Rabin and Arafat vowed to end the conflict, now nearly a century old.
FORMER PRESIDENT YITZHAK RABIN (ISRAEL): We, who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today, enough of blood and tears.
FORMER PRESIDENT YASSER ARAFAT: Let me address the people of Israel. The difficult decision we reached together was one that required great and exceptional courage.
REPORTER 2: A brand-new beginning after decades of bitterness and suffering. The handshakes in Washington pointed to an era of cooperation.
But the opponents of peace were quick to respond. Suicide bomb attacks against Israeli civilians triggered outrage and second thoughts.
REPORTER 3: One of his closest assistants said that it took Arafat a year to understand that he didn’t get a state.
REPORTER 4: The murder of worshipers in Hebron was another brutal reminder of the awful passions generated by long years of conflict.
MS. SUSAN STAMBERG (NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO): In 1994, Rabin, Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize…
REPORTER 5: Another round of suicide bombs tips the electoral balance. The result in national elections was agonizingly close, but the opponents of Oslo won.
MR. ROBERT SIEGEL (NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO): The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, declared that Israel will not abandon any of its Jewish settlements in the territories…
REPORTER 6: Speaking recently, Mr. Netanyahu called Oslo a flawed, evil accord. What began so brightly looks less and less convincing.
REPORTER 7: Right-wing political leader Ariel Sharon, protected by about a thousand Israeli police, entered the Temple Mount and it was instantly seen as a provocation by Muslims…
REPORTER 8: Then a new intifada would erupt, this time with deadly weapons in the hands of both sides — the Palestinians and Israelis farther from agreement than ever before.
MS. TIPPETT: This week and next, we’ll explore this history as seen through Palestinian and Israeli eyes.
We begin today with the perspective of Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli Jew and the author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.
Halevi’s own life has been a prism for some of the larger conflicts in which current Israeli Palestinian tensions are held. He was born in the United States, the son of a Holocaust survivor. His father raised him with a memory of the Jewish people as a besieged, pursued, hated people that could never find its place with the rest of humanity.
As a teenager, Halevi was briefly an adherent of a Jewish extremist movement and a leader in a militant student group set on freeing Jews held captive in the Soviet Union. He renounced violence as he discovered his spiritual homeland in Israel. He emigrated, began his family in Jerusalem and became a respected journalist, both in Israel and the United States.
I first interviewed Yossi Klein Halevi in the months immediately after 9/11.
I wondered now about his reaction to dramatic, overlapping events of recent years and weeks. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon departed Israeli politics suddenly by way of illness. A former hard-line general, Sharon recently took the step of forcibly evacuating right-wing Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. But Sharon also set in motion the construction of a physical barrier of separation — in places, an electronic security fence, in others, a wall over 20 feet high that traces contested borders with the West Bank.
On the other side of that wall, the Islamist movement Hamas won a government majority in recent Palestinian elections. Hamas was a chief architect of the five-year suicide bombing campaign known as the second intifada that began in 2000 and targeted Israeli civilians. The second intifada hardened many newly moderate Israelis towards the Oslo process, including Yossi Klein Halevi.
Though after the first Palestinian popular uprising that had erupted in 1987, Halevi, like many Israelis, had re-examined his own attitudes and Israeli policies towards the Palestinian people. He even undertook a now unimaginable journey that led to his 2001 book about knowing and praying with Palestinian Muslims and Christians.
MR. HALEVI: In many ways, that was a magical journey. I was admitted into Sufi mosques in the Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank, and I went as a religious Jew, as an identified and a visible religious Jew, wearing a kippa, the skullcap, and I was accepted by Sufi Palestinian communities, admitted into the prayer line and into the Sufi dance, the zikr. And there was this moment where I felt I could touch Islam, where I could, in some way, embrace Islam and feel at home in a mosque.
And my goal, as an Israeli on this journey, was to test the possibility of Israel becoming at home in the Middle East, in the culture of the Middle East — and there is no Middle Eastern culture without Islam. And for me to learn to overcome my fear of the mosque and to become at home in Muslim devotion was a psychological breakthrough for me and, I feel, a spiritual breakthrough.
And the tragedy for me, since this terror war began five years ago, is that Islam has receded since the intifada began, is that Islam, which is all around me — I live at the edge of Jerusalem on the next hill, there are half a dozen mosques, and I wake up to the sound of the muezzin, and I go to sleep to the sound of the muezzin, it penetrates through the day — and yet Islam has now receded into intangibility and inaccessibility.
And there is an invisible wall, and soon there’s going to be a tangible wall.
MS. TIPPETT: Coming to your neighborhood, the wall.
MR. HALEVI: Yes, apparently it will be right outside my window. I’m at the very edge of the city.
MS. TIPPETT: Let me push you a little bit. I mean — and I realize I’m watching all of this from this very safe and luxurious distance, right? But with power, which, I think, Hamas did not even expect to get to the extent that it received it in this election, comes a sense of responsibility. And as Hamas leaders have been interviewed by American journalists these recent weeks, you know, American journalists quote at them the lines from their foundational documents, which call for the destruction of the state of Israel.
MR. HALEVI: And for the mass murder of the Jewish people, wherever they are.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, okay. I mean, maybe this is a completely false analogy. But, I mean, I look at someone like Ariel Sharon, and, I mean, there is someone, who personally, in his lifetime has undergone a kind of evolution, from exercising power, in one way, and interpreting power to different approaches. I mean, do you think it’s conceivable that that could also be something that happens with Hamas — that there is an evolution that comes with power?
MR. HALEVI: Anything is possible. As we say in the Middle East, God is great. Realistically, not in this generation. You know, it’s not to say that individual members or even leaders of Hamas are incapable of evolving. Everyone is not only capable of evolving but, ultimately, I believe will evolve, in this lifetime or another.
But if you’re asking me whether Hamas, at this phase of its collective evolution, is capable of leaving behind its theology that is rooted in hatred of the Jewish people and the state of Israel and adopt a pragmatic attitude, which means undoing not just their politics but their theology, my answer is absolutely not.
The Sharon analogy, I think, is in some ways, only reinforces that because Sharon was a secular man, and Sharon was never really a believer in the biblical right of the Jewish people to all of the land of Israel.
MS. TIPPETT: Okay.
MR. HALEVI: He was a security-minded general and then a politician whose only interest was keeping Israel safe. When he realized that the settlements had turned into a liability and that it was impossible to stop a Palestinian state, his goal became trying to shepherd Israel through the transition period toward a Palestinian state and keeping Israel as safe as possible.
Now, the religious right in Israel has not produced the equivalent of Sharon because their ideology is rooted in theology. And I think we need to start taking religion seriously and religious commitment seriously, for better and for worse.
MS. TIPPETT: And that is something that Americans and even American leaders and negotiators try to bracket out of the conversation.
MR. HALEVI: Exactly, exactly. And it’s terrifying, especially when you confront this tsunami of fundamentalism in the Middle East. But we’re not going to be able to deal with reality unless we get rid of our wishful thinking. I also feel, Krista, that that’s a spiritual imperative. It’s not just a political imperative.
MS. TIPPETT: To get rid of wishful thinking?
MR. HALEVI: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Okay.
MR. HALEVI: There is a wonderful story from Ramakrishna, the 19th-century Hindu saint. One of his disciples came back from the market and brought back these broken pots that he’d bought. And he’d been cheated by one of the vendors, and Ramakrishna said to him, “Just because you’re on the spiritual path doesn’t mean you have to be a fool”. And I’ve thought of that story over the last five years over and over again when I come up against Western attitudes toward the Middle East.
And I have to respect the intelligence of Palestinian voters, and I also have to take them at their word, and; you know, imagine, if in the upcoming Israeli elections, we were to elect a government, a party that calls for the physical annihilation of the Palestinian people
MS. TIPPETT: Even if that’s not what — you could parse that and say that’s not what people were voting about. You’re saying that would still matter?
MR. HALEVI: It would still matter, and I think it’s time for the international community to start asking the same kinds of hard questions to the Palestinians, which were rightfully addressed to Israel during the first intifada before a majority of Israelis came to the conclusion that the Palestinians deserve a state.
Now is the time for those hard questions to be asked to the Palestinians, and that means listening carefully with respect, but also not with selective hearing — listening and understanding that not all that’s being said conforms to what we wish were being said.
MS. TIPPETT: Israeli journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media.
Today, the first in a series seeking understanding into the contrasting ways Israelis and Palestinians tell the story of their history and present.
MS. TIPPETT: This conflict was, for many years, a zero-sum game between two peoples, neither of whom recognized the legitimacy of the other to nationhood.
Most Israelis regarded Palestinian nationalism as an invention of the Arab world intended only to destroy Israel. There are 22 Arab countries. They don’t need country number 23. That was the standard Israeli attitude.
And of course on the Palestinian side, in the Arab world Israel was seen as either the last gasp of Western colonialism or as a modern-day version of the Crusades rather than what Israel in fact really is, which is the expression of an indigenous people returning home.
And until the two peoples can see the legitimacy of the other’s right to define themselves as a nation, there won’t be peace.
MS. TIPPETT: And that, for you, you see that as a prerequisite for true change?
MR. HALEVI: There can be no reconciliation until that happens. The only reason the Israeli public came to endorse the Oslo process was because most of us came to the painful realization that this is a conflict between two legitimate narratives, between right and right.
And until we see the beginnings of a serious Palestinian debate about who are the Jews — are we crusaders, are we colonialists, or are we a fellow traumatized indigenous people — and if we begin to see that kind of debate happening within Palestinian society then I will begin to be optimistic.
MS. TIPPETT: You said to me once that something that happened among Israelis, after that first intifada that you just mentioned, was that you feel that Israelis began to perceive themselves and to behave less like victims and more like survivors. Now I hear that in what you’re saying about your perception of where the Palestinians are now.
But what you also have admitted is that compromise is something that people can do from a position of strength. And I think when the world looks at the Palestinians, these are not people in a position of strength just economically, to begin with, but in every other way.
MR. HALEVI: Yes. There’s no question that it was a lot easier for me as an Israeli as part of the winning side, the side that had created a state and a thriving economy and a strong military presence, to develop empathy as much as I could for the Palestinian narrative, to try to expand my own understanding of the Israeli-Arab conflict and incorporate how Palestinians view the conflict.
That kind of generosity is easier for the winning side. The tragedy, though, is that the Oslo process offered the Palestinian people empowerment with tremendous backing by the international community. Just think what the Kurds or the Tibetans or, if you want to go back to the 1960s, the Biafrans, all of those disenfranchised peoples without a state, what those peoples could have done with an Oslo process.
And today we would be in an entirely different Middle East if there had been a Palestinian leadership that was the equivalent of Yitzhak Rabin, for example. Rabin told the Israeli people that the dream of greater Israeli is over.
Arial Sharon said it at the U.N. six months ago. He said the Palestinians deserve a state. There has not been one Palestinian leader — never mind Hamas — from Fatah, who has told the Palestinian people the dream of greater Palestine is over. There are two peoples in this land. We need to share the land.
The Palestinian people have never heard that in Arabic from their own leaders. So that a tremendous historical moment of empowerment was squandered.
MS. TIPPETT: You wrote in your book in 2001, after your journey where you had wanted to understand and pray and, sort of, move towards rather than away from Palestinians and Islam in your part of the world, you wrote, “I insist on revering Islam and its fearless heart.” That was that quality of fearlessness that you found that had a dark side and also a side that you knew you had to, that you wanted to revere.
And you wrote, “The fanatics will not deprive me of that victory.” I mean, have they now?
MR. HALEVI: Basically no. And there have been opportunities even in these last five years of terror. A couple years ago, I was part of a joint Arab-Jewish group that went to Auschwitz. This was an initiative by Muslim and Christian Arab-Israelis, Palestinian citizens of Israeli, as an overture to Jewish society to study the Holocaust. It was also meant as a repudiation of the growing Holocaust denial in much of the Muslim world and an attempt to together go on a pilgrimage to Auschwitz.
We spent four days in Poland together. We were about 500 people, all told.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s a huge group, 500 people.
MR. HALEVI: It was a huge group.
MS. TIPPETT: And it was half Jews and half Muslims, or else as Christians were there, too.
MR. HALEVI: Yes. I’d say we were about 300 or 350 people from Israel with another 150 people who came from France with a very similar makeup of Muslims, Christians and Jews.
And those were some of the most powerful four days of my life. And for me as the son of a Holocaust survivor, it required an enormous effort to trust Muslim and Christian Arabs with my trauma.
And by the same token, it required an enormous effort and courage on the part of Palestinian-Israelis to reach out and empathize with the Jewish suffering while their people were suffering and while we were, in effect, in war with each other.
So that was a moment where I felt that the fanatics had not deprived me of my capacity to continue revering Islam and to be receptive to those kinds of experiences.
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MS. TIPPETT: You wrote a diary or an essay, what you called an Auschwitz diary, after that experience. And I thought this was such a striking image. You talked about being in Auschwitz and, you know, Arabs were comforting Jews and Jews were weeping on the shoulder of this Christian leader who’d brought you there, who’d organized this.
MR. HALEVI: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And you wrote that when you began, you confessed you had wanted Arabs to emerge from this journey understanding about what the Holocaust means for Jews and also for the state of Israeli.
And you wrote, “Now those expectations sound vulgar. For now, I want nothing more than to be together with these people in this place.” I mean, just that image, what I wondered, and again, this is me from this safe distance of America, if that could not be an image for a different kind of future, just simply being together without having reconciled everything.
MR. HALEVI: It’s not a coincidence that the journey to Auschwitz happened as a result of an initiative by Arab-Israeli citizens. That’s because even after the security fence or wall is going to be built between Israeli and Palestine, we will still be together on this side of the boundary, Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis, so that we need to stand together and figure out how to create a civic society together.
The question of how to stand together with Palestinians, which really was the basis of my journey into Palestinian Islam and Christianity, was exactly that, to see whether we could stand together in prayer, stand together before God.
And the tragedy now is that after all that’s happened here, and now with the wall rising as the physical expression of the psychological wall that’s been here now for the last five years, it’s just not possible, even physically possible, anymore for Israelis and Palestinians to stand together. We don’t have any physical ground on which to stand together anymore.
I do have ground on which to stand with my fellow citizens who are Muslim and Christian. And for now, that’s the best I can do. But that remains a very strong commitment.
MS. TIPPETT: Let’s talk about Israeli society and what this does inside you and inside Jewish Israelis. And I have just recently seen pictures of that wall. I spent eight years of my life in Berlin living in a city with a wall. I mean, the wall in Berlin just looks like child’s play compared to this wall in Israel. It’s so much higher.
And, you know, one question that would occur to me, we said a moment ago you had said that Israelis had stopped being victims, many, and had become survivors. Have Israelis again become victims? Or maybe that’s not the analysis. But what does that wall do to you?
MR. HALEVI: Well, for me personally it’s the antithesis of everything that I hoped to achieve in my journey into Palestinian society six years ago. My goal was to try to find a way of personally feeling at home in the Middle East.
And now this barrier is the clearest indication that I’m not part of the Middle East. The Middle East has rejected me. And now Israel has reciprocated. And I can’t bear looking at that wall. But I also know that that security barrier is going to keep my family reasonably safe.
And I can’t tell you what here these last five years have been in Jerusalem raising three children, two teenagers, who go out on weekends downtown. And there’s no way you can keep kids home, even in a war zone.
And the suicide bombings, the suicide bombers, went for the clubs and the pubs, the discos, the buses. And who rides buses? It’s working-class people and teenagers, kids.
So, the first instinctive response that I have to that wall is horror at what that wall represents, which really is the end, at least for the foreseeable future, of my dreams, of Zionism’s dreams, of normalizing the Jewish people, of restoring us to the Middle East in some kind of a condition of normalcy.
And the second instinctive response that I have is “thank God,” gratitude that the Israeli army figured out a way to keep the killers out of the clubs and the buses that my kids are on every day.
MS. TIPPETT: Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, more of his personal perspective, the first program in a two-part series exploring the intersection of the spiritual and the political in the Israeli-Palestinian present.
Next week, we’ll hear at length from a Palestinian in the West Bank and a Palestinian citizen of Israel now in the United States.
This exploration continues at speakingoffaith.org. This week you’ll find images of the Israeli security barrier currently being constructed and Yossi Klein Halevi’s Auschwitz Diary. Use the Particular section as a guide and subscribe to our free weekly podcasts. Listen on demand — at any time, at any place. Also, read my journal on this week’s topic and sign up for our e-mail newsletter. All this and more at speakingoffaith.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett.
Today, “Two Narratives: Reflections on the Israeli Palestinian Present.” Any discussion, any study of the history and present of this region yields irreconcilable narratives of the same lived events.
We’re listening this hour to journalist Yossi Klein Halevi’s perceptions and perspectives as an Israeli Jew. We’re seeking to understand the difficulty of reaching resolution in a land that its inhabitants on both sides of conflict consider holy.
Next week in the same spirit we’ll hear Palestinian perspectives.
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Yossi Klein Halevi has been describing to me his disillusionment of recent years. I wondered if he remains involved with the conciliatory project, Open House, with which he’s been publicly associated. Open House seeks to improve social services for Arab citizens in the Israeli town of Ramle and to provide a place for encounter and cooperation between Jewish and Arab citizens there. Ramle is home to many new Jewish immigrants from Africa and the former Soviet Union, and, like the whole of Israel, its population is about 20 percent Arab, mostly Palestinian.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I’m always searching for the stories that aren’t being told and that aren’t in the headlines, not the crisis, but perhaps the kind of humble building blocks for seeing a different picture and perhaps seeing a different future. And you have been involved or were involved in this Open House initiative. Are you still doing that?
MR. HALEVI: Yeah, very much so. And the miracle of Open House is that we’ve been able to prove that dialogue can happen not only among university-educated, middle-class people, but it could also happen in a…
MS. TIPPETT: That poverty doesn’t have to be a stumbling block or…
MR. HALEVI: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: …a complete hindrance…
MR. HALEVI: That’s right, that’s right. And it could happen in a really hard place. The story of Open House is extraordinary. It was founded by a friend of mine, Dalia Landau, who grew up in Ramle. Her parents were refugees from post-Holocaust Europe. Ramle was one of the areas from which Arabs were expelled by Israel in the 1948 war, and Dalia growing up knew nothing about this. And one day after the 1967 war, an Arab family knocks on the door. They had come from Ramallah and now the border was open between Israel and the West Bank after the ’67 war.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. HALEVI: And they said we used to live here and could we see the house? This made an enormous impression on Dalia, especially the blind grandfather, who wanted to touch the lemon tree that he remembered grew in the courtyard and was still there. And Dalia later moved out, her parents died. She was an only child. She inherited this house and she decided to donate it to reconciliation work for the future of Ramle’s Arab and Jewish children and she, in fact, did this in conjunction with the family that had originally lived in this house…
MS. TIPPETT: That knocked on her door.
MR. HALEVI: That knocked on her door. So Open House is really a symbol for possibility. And, yes, it’s true that this, again — and I can’t emphasis this enough — this is happening within an Israeli context. We’re dealing with Arab citizens of Israel…
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I hear you talking a lot about what’s happening between Arab and Jewish Israelis.
MR. HALEVI: Because I don’t see at this point a real possibility, at this point, of overcoming the literal wall between Palestinians and Israelis. But I do very much see, not just the possibility but the imperative for the Jewish majority in Israel to reach out to the Arab minority and say we welcome you into Israeli society, you are part of us. We want you as equal citizens and that could possibly, possibly, if when I think of hope in the long term, that could possibly be a long-term bridge to the Middle East. But again, we’re talking about a very long-term process.
MS. TIPPETT: Israeli journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi. In his 2001 book, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, he wrote, “If peace is ever to come to the Middle East, religion must be an integral part of the process. The Oslo Accords tried to impose a peace of secular elites on a region whose language and instincts are religious. This book, then, is an attempt at helping to begin to redress that fateful omission.” Despite Yossi Klein Halevi’s own present sense of the limits of both religion and politics in his land, he insists that a failure to take religion seriously is at the root of a Western failure to comprehend the Israeli-Palestinian present.
MR. HALEVI: One of the frustrations that I feel in these last years, both with Israel at war and the U.S. at war, is the polarization between a left wing that doesn’t want to look at the political reality and prefers to hide behind wishful thinking, on the one hand, and a right wing that tends to indulge in anti-Islamic racism, hatred, contempt for Islam and that truly hates Islam.
And I can’t feel comfortable in either camp. I feel schizophrenic in a certain way. I end up defending Islam against the right and defending the war on terror against the left. You know, and when Europe, Western Europe in particular, represents for me exactly the wrong approach, both politically and spiritually.
And if you take this cartoon incident, I think it’s telling that those cartoons, which really were a deliberate assault on Muslim religious sensibilities, those cartoons didn’t come out of the American press. They also didn’t come out of the Israeli press. You don’t see that kind of contempt for Islam in the mainstream Israeli media despite five years of Jihadist terrorism. And I think that that’s telling because what you have in Europe is, on the one hand, a policy of appeasement toward terror and, on the other, a contempt for Islam. And I think that those two distorted policies are expressions of the same basic approach, which is not to treat the Muslim world seriously.
MS. TIPPETT: Isn’t that also an expression of what you have said that, you know, wanting to dismiss or belittle religion in this picture, you know, to assert that it really shouldn’t matter that much.
MR. HALEVI: Exactly. So I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had in recent weeks with European journalists. I just had a conversation this afternoon with a journalist from Finland, who [was], on the one hand, talking to me about the hysteria in Israel about Hamas. And on the other hand, talking about the cartoons in Denmark as, ‘Oh, just something silly and not serious.’ I take those cartoons very seriously as an offense against a fellow religion and I take the rise of Hamas very seriously as a tremendous distortion of religion and as a threat to my existence…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. HALEVI: And that’s because I take religion seriously, and it’s part of the same approach of respect. I will respect Islam as a partner and I will respect Hamas as an enemy and that’s my plea for clarity, if we have political clarity.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s — what you’re asking people to do also in the United States is to start seeing the world differently, right? I mean, you’re talking about throwing out categories that people use without thinking to analyze.
MR. HALEVI: Yes. Both left and right.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. HALEVI: Very much so.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You’re mixing up the picture. You’re mixing up the way people look at these things all together.
MR. HALEVI: Exactly, exactly. And what we need now — and this is something that really should come from religious people, from religious pluralists — what we need is a nuanced way of approaching our relationship with Islam. When there are problems, face the problems. Sometimes one requires a hard line in dealing with these problems, but at the same time, never lose your basic respect for Islam as a religion that has brought countless souls to the presence of God and that has taught its believers humility and discipline and love of God and, at its best, love of humanity. That’s there in Islam and I know it’s there. I experienced it. I experienced the “fearless heart of Islam” that you had quoted earlier.
MS. TIPPETT: And you also fear that heart everyday.
MR. HALEVI: Yes, yes. That’s right…
MS. TIPPETT: You fear the dark…
MR. HALEVI: …and at the same time.
MS. TIPPETT: …expression of that.
MR. HALEVI: At the same time, I’m ready to face the darkness that large parts of Islam — I’m not going to euphemisms here — large parts of Islam have declared the Jewish people the enemy and have declared war against the existence of the Jewish people and have gone on a campaign of dehumanizing the Jewish people in a way that those cartoons that appeared in the Danish newspaper were just a small taste of what we see here in the Middle East almost every day in government newspapers, the most demeaning, insulting portrayal of Jews and Judaism. The kinds of anti-Semitic cartoons that we haven’t seen since the Nazi era that are routine in Arab government media.
And that is part of what I face. So yes, when I speak to Muslims — as I have in recent weeks — about the cartoons, my response is very straightforward. I’m with you in affirming the dignity of Islam as a great religion, but I’m going to ask you to look at the kind of cartoons that your people throughout the Middle East see on a daily basis. And I’m going to ask what your response to that is.
MS. TIPPETT: And there’s real depth and integrity in both of those reactions you have in holding both of those ideas together.
MR. HALEVI: It is, I would say, if I had to define what my real spiritual struggle is living in Jerusalem in these last five years, it’s holding onto both those sensibilities and very often losing the balance, then being forced to remind myself that I also have a religious commitment not only to protect Israel and stand strong against what I see as an attack on my very being, but also to remember the dignity of Palestinians, the dignity of Islam and to remind myself of the love that I felt, not just the respect that I felt for Islam in the Mosque when I got on my knees and joined the Muslim prayer line, but really the tremendous sense of gratitude to Islam for making the experience of prayer and surrender to God so overwhelming.
There’s just nothing quite like Muslim prayer. And when you’re part of that prayer line — and you know that choreography of prayer when you get on your knees and you stand and you bend and you stand again and you prostrate and that repeated — the effect is of a kind of a wave of prayer. And you feel yourself to be this point, this particle in this great wave of prayer and you just join this extraordinary wave that’s just always there and always will be there.
That’s a gift that I received from Islam. And that’s something that I have to remind myself even when I’m being politically realistic and hard.
MS. TIPPETT: Israeli Journalist Yossi Klein Halevi. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media.
Given all the experiences we’ve been discussing, including Yossi Klein Halevi’s early years as a Jewish extremist, I wondered how he responds to crises with a religious dimension elsewhere in the world. Shortly before we spoke, a new spiral of religiously charged violence erupted in Iraq after a major Shiite shrine in Samarra was bombed.
MR. HALEVI: I grew up indulging my anger in a Holocaust survivor family, enraged at the whole world. I saw the Holocaust as being the responsibility not just of the murderers, but of the onlookers. Everyone or almost everyone, for me, was implicated in the Holocaust. And I saw my rage as being the most noble part of me. That was the part of me that was purest; that was the most spiritual. I wouldn’t have used that language then. But that’s really what I felt.
And I was soaring, I was soaring with righteousness and nobility when my anger was distilled to its purest and its rage. And my spiritual struggle growing out of that was to realize that sometimes the qualities that we think of as our best, our most spiritual qualities are actually our most self-destructive, are exactly the qualities we need to overcome. We need to surrender in order to move on and become real servants of God. And that took me years and years to learn.
I was just sitting with a friend yesterday and he reminded me of something that I’d very conveniently forgotten, which was when I’d first come to Israel in 1982, him and I went on a trip together and we went to a Jewish holy site here in Israel. And there were two German tourists in that holy site.
And I went over to them and they were speaking German. And I shouted to them and said, “Don’t speak that language in this holy place, don’t desecrate this holy place.” And I don’t remember the incident, fortunately; I’ve protected myself from the memory.
MR. HALEVI: But I, you know, it’s true to form. I look back at myself in those years and, yeah, that’s probably what I did.
MS. TIPPETT: So you see yourself, actually, when you see these people enraged and you see the rage out of control?
MR. HALEVI: Yeah, I was looking at some of the pictures after the destruction of the mosque and what I saw in some of the faces was very familiar to me. It wasn’t just rage in the sense of despair. It was the opposite: it was the ecstasy of rage. And that is what I, when I look at those crowds, that’s where I so uncomfortably identify myself and…
MS. TIPPETT: So what do you do with that…
MR. HALEVI: …place myself.
MS. TIPPETT: …fact that you can actually understand, in a way?
MR. HALEVI: You know, that’s really the question for me because now that rage is directed against me, it’s directed against my children. And, obviously, my first response is I have to do everything I can to push that rage as far away as possible. And if it means building a wall, it means building a wall. But at some point, I’m going to have to engage that rage. And it’s still a little bit raw for me. I don’t have an answer, but maybe, at some point, that’s the work I need to start thinking about. And that’s very terrifying because I know what that rage is. And I know that if someone had tried to reach me when I was a teenager caught up in the purity of my Holocaust rage, I don’t think it would have been possible.
MS. TIPPETT: Yossi Klein Halevi is a New York correspondent for The New Republicand a senior fellow of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
Next week, we’ll continue listening to understand the spiritual and human dynamics in a land considered holy on both sides of conflict. We’ll speak with political scientist Mohammed Abu-Nimer, a Palestinian citizen of Israel; also Palestinian educator Sami Adwan, who is bringing contrasting Israeli and Palestinian narratives of life in one land into schools.
Continue this conversation at speakingoffaith.org. Contact us with your thoughts.
On our site this week, see photos of the wall under construction and read the writings of Yossi Klein Halevi.
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This program was produced by Kate Moos, Mitch Hanley, Colleen Scheck and Jody Abramson, with editor Ken Hom. Our Web producer is Trent Gilliss, with assistance from Ilona Piotrowska. Special thanks this week to Professor Ronald Krebs of the University of Minnesota.
The executive producer of Speaking of Faith is Bill Buzenberg. And I’m Krista Tippett.
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