RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Yossi Klein Halevi left his home in New York when he was in his 20s and moved to Israel. Over the decades since then, he has tried to sort out for himself how these two peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians, have been locked in their intractable conflict for generations. In his new book, titled "Letters To My Palestinian Neighbors" (ph), Halevi tries to reach beyond the failed politics and toxic narratives to connect with the neighbors that he does not know. Here he is reading from the opening chapter.
YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI: (Reading) We are living incarnations of each other's worst historical nightmares, neighbors. But I don't know how else to address you. I once believed that we would actually meet, and I am writing to you with the hope that we still might. I imagine you in your house somewhere on the next hill, just beyond my porch. We don't know each other, but our lives are entwined. And so - neighbor.
MARTIN: Halevi says this book is a sequel of sorts to a previous work that chronicled his journeys through the Palestinian territories. In that book, it was he who was trying to understand the Palestinian story. Now he wants to share his own.
HALEVI: This is an attempt to explain to my neighbors who I am as an Israeli Jew, who my people are, what our story is, and it's an invitation to a deep conversation between Israelis and Palestinians about our stories, about our peoples' narratives, our conflicting narratives and about our own, personal stories.
MARTIN: You write in this book that it is actually your Judaism, your Jewish identity and the theology behind it that allows you to see the beauty in Islam. Can you explain how so?
HALEVI: So I know I'm a bit of a strange religious Jew in that I have come to love Islam. But I have a complicated relationship with the Muslim world because at the same time that I love Islam and deeply respect its spiritual power, my people is at war with much of the Muslim world, and much of the Muslim world has not yet recognized the legitimacy of my country. My country is occupying another people. And so we are - we're locked in a - in this vicious cycle of lack of recognition, of denial of legitimacy. And I believe that a religious language applied to our conflict is essential for opening hearts.
MARTIN: You write the following in the book. Quoting here - "I understand the Palestinian visceral rejections of the very word Israel because I feel the same way about Palestine." Explain what that means. What is it you feel about the word Palestine?
HALEVI: The word Palestine evokes for Israelis the same emotions that the word Israel evokes for Palestinians, which is this visceral sense of threat to my claim of legitimacy. And the tragedy of this conflict is that this little land is really conceptually two lands. It's the land of Israel and the land of Palestine. The same land is really two lands. And so the question that I pose again both to my Palestinian neighbors and my fellow Israelis is, what is our starting point, and what is our end point?
And I believe the next round of negotiations, if and when they happen, need to incorporate the premise that this land is claimed by right - or at least from the subjective perspectives of each people; all of this land belongs to two peoples. And so how do we solve this? And my end point is, each side is going to need to impose on itself the injustice of partition. And I regard dividing this land as an act of injustice against both peoples because each peoples' total claim can be justified from its own self-understanding.
MARTIN: I want to follow up on something that you mentioned at the top of our conversation, which is a provocative idea, this idea that religion is actually at the core of the solution to the crisis, whereas a lot of people would say - perhaps you don't understand it as well - that the religion is the cause.
HALEVI: (Laughter) Right.
MARTIN: ...That religion is the primary agitant in this war between Israel and the Palestinians. You say it's not. You say religion is the solution. How can that be?
HALEVI: So let me just change one little word - from the to a.
HALEVI: I mean, I'd say that religion is a principal cause of the conflict. It's certainly not the only one. And it is potentially a principal part of the solution. And it depends how religion is used. One of the mistakes that I feel the peacemakers have made over the years is to approach this conflict with a Western mentality, which is to say that - to secular elites on either side - Palestinian secular elite and Israeli secular elite - will somehow be able to circumvent the vast religious populations and sensibilities and loyalties of their own peoples.
It's the Middle East. It's not the West. There will be no peace agreement without at least some religious legitimacy to the concessions that each people will need to make. And that means that we need at the table not only diplomats but imams and rabbis. And there are imams and rabbis on both sides who can be at the table, who should be there. And so we need new thinking. And what I've tried to do in this book is give both Palestinians and Israelis a new language for rethinking these issues that have trapped us in this seemingly hopeless conflict.
MARTIN: Yossi Klein Halevi. His new book is called "Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor." Thank you so much for talking with us.
HALEVI: Thanks so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOXHOLE'S "THROUGH BONE AND MARROW")
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