I first discovered Yossi Klein Halevi in the early days of this program. I picked his book Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist off the shelves of the public library and was riveted by this son of a Holocaust survivor’s journey into, and then beyond, violent rage.
In the 1970s, in Brooklyn where he was growing up, he got very close to a charismatic rabbi who inspired his followers to bomb Soviet embassies to liberate Jews in that now-vanished empire. A deeper connection to the spiritual core of Judaism drew him out and took him to Israel. And there, in heady days of the Oslo Accords of the 90s, he undertook another kind of journey inward and outward — an experiment in religious empathy.
He sought knowledge of the religious others in his land by way of their devotional lives rather than their religious, political, or civic identities. He prayed with monks and nuns and sheiks. He knelt in prayer with his skullcap on in Palestinian mosques. He came, as he described it, not merely to revere but to love Christianity and Islam.
And even as Yossi Klein Halevi was testing — and defying — the border crossings between faiths, the Oslo process was unraveling under bad faith and broken promises on both sides. The second intifada in the early years of this century made Yossi Klein Halevi’s project unthinkable. It also ultimately brought an end to the simple freedom of movement and human contact that had made it possible. Meeting him in person for the first time as a guest in his home in Jerusalem earlier this year — I looked out his window at the wall that obscured what was once an expansive view of desert and of the Palestinian West Bank.
During our days in Israel and the West Bank, of course, we also experienced that same wall from the other side — from Palestinian refugee camps and communities where it has sliced life and dreams apart. In this newest most tangible representation of the divide between Israelis and Palestinians, a quintessential characteristic of multiple narratives about the same “facts” emerges. For one side, the wall signifies security and safety; for the other, separation and oppression. Both reactions to it are valid on some deep level.
“There are no facts here,” someone said in our early days in Jerusalem. Yossi Klein Halevi admits the maddening intensity of life in a place where the abyss between different interpretations and enactments of the same history, the same facts, obliterates any sense of shared reality, much less a basis for dialogue or peacemaking.
Yossi Klein Halevi — with his own personal wells of integrity and eloquence, of grief and despair — asks provocatively how the dynamics of the Holy Land could be any less dramatic, any less extreme, on their way to whatever resolution, whatever “miracle” they must be leading towards. The Jewish story, after all, is a test case of intimacy with God; Jerusalem in particular is a crucible of sacred sites and stories that trace dispersed glimpses, as he understands it, of “different faces” of God. Yossi Klein Halevi calls this a city where not just religion but the essential human story is played out with a particular intensity. It is messy like the Bible is messy. Like human life, it is treacherous and purposeful at once.
I can’t help but correlate this observation with a conversation I just had with a great astrophysicist, Martin Rees. He recently ended a term as the president of Britain’s Royal Society, the academy to which Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking have all belonged. And after more than four decades immersed in the study of complex phenomena in the cosmos, Rees freely contends that human beings are the most complex systems in the universe. It is far easier to make definitively true statements about the constitution of stars, he says with no irony, than about dieting or child care. Imagine the Holy Land, then, as a kind of human, geopolitical black hole: space becomes time and time becomes space. Here land becomes memory and memory, land.
I can’t sustain this analogy for long, though. The Holy Land is not a place from which no light can escape. I was captivated by the human courage and long-term (if not short-term) hope that digs roots there right alongside conflict and the death of dreams. In my conversation with Yossi Klein Halevi, as with my recent conversation with the Arab-Israeli civic leader Mohammad Darawshe, I experience an incredible counterintuitive weight of human dignity and possibility.
Israelis and Palestinians both said to me, applying different words but kindred visions, that what is needed — indeed what is underway, however painfully slowly — is something like a human evolution, a maturing of people and peoples. They and I hold on to that promise, even as they also see that history progresses here one step forward and then at least two steps back, with severe trauma on both sides all along the way. To be merely hopeful would be foolish.
Yet somehow — as Martin Rees helps me take seriously — the very complexity of a Yossi Klein Halevi, or a Mohammad Darawshe, is redemptive. It complicates my hearing of the news from this region. The future is always, undeniably and everywhere, a far more fluid, expansive, and surprising thing than we ever take for granted. And as I’ve heard from diverse Israeli and Palestinian conversation partners across the years, the rest of us serve the possibilities of now unimaginable futures when we insist on seeing lives of dignity and courage amidst more prevalent images of despair.
About the image: Yossi Klein Halevi and Krista Tippett speaking in his offices at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. (photo: Trent Gilliss)