I first met Yossi Klein Halevi at a reading he gave in New York City on September 8, 2001, just three days before the attack on the World Trade Center. He read from his second book, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land (Morrow), which had just been published. I was already a fan of his autobiography, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist: An American Story (Little, Brown). In it, Halevi tells of growing up with a Holocaust-survivor father in the insular Jewish world of 1960s Brooklyn. Absorbing his father’s stories and opinions, Halevi became determined that the Jews would “never again” be helpless victims. Though raised in a traditional Jewish home, Halevi had by this time abandoned religion. In its place he chose activism. He joined the movement to free oppressed Soviet Jews and became a follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, a radical right-wing activist who founded the Jewish Defense League and advocated the use of violence.
Over time, the allure of right-wing rage faded, and Halevi and his wife-to-be moved to Jerusalem and began exploring spirituality together. To better understand other faiths, Halevi followed the sacred yearly cycles of Christianity and Islam and joined in the devotional ceremonies of both. In At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, he writes about his experiences, which took place not long before the outbreak of the current intifada, an uprising of Palestinian Arabs against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Halevi is presently working on a book about the Israeli paratroopers who fought in the Six-Day War of 1967 and who later helped to found both right- and left-wing movements in Israel. Halevi has more than twenty years’ experience as a journalist and is a contributing editor at Azure and the New Republic, and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a social-policy institute in Jerusalem.
After our initial meeting in 2001, Halevi and I kept in touch. While I was in Israel in the summer of 2002, I asked Halevi if I might interview him. He invited me to join him at an interfaith conference where he would be the Jewish voice on the panel. Afterward, we began to chat, and I reached for my tape recorder. “Oh, don’t worry about that now,” Halevi said with a casual wave of his hand. “This is just us talking.” Afterward, I was glad I hadn’t let that conversation get away; it was remarkable.
That night, I awoke to the sound of the muezzins’ call to prayer from an Arab village down the hill. A sudden intuition told me to check the tape of my interview at once. Sure enough, the sound was completely garbled. When I called Halevi to let him know what had happened, he said with a chuckle, “Well, it wasn’t meant to be.”
In June 2004, we would try again. By then I had moved to Israel myself, and we set a time for me to come to his home on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
On my way to meet Halevi for this interview, I saw a young Arab man sweeping outside Halevi’s apartment complex, and I asked him which one was Number 8. He scratched his head and then suddenly said, “Ah, Yossi Halevi! My friend! Of course. Why didn’t you say so?” And he guided me to his door.
Halevi and I sat on chairs in his study, beside a Muslim prayer rug and under a shrine to saints from a panoply of faiths, to discuss his pilgrimage for peace in the Middle East. (This was prior to the death of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.) Occasionally we were interrupted by one of his three children, or by a phone call from a student, or, once, by an elderly woman who had wandered in to use the telephone.
Dreisinger: In your first book, you tell of being drawn to the extremism of Rabbi Kahane because of the Holocaust. Tell me more about what led you into Kahane’s camp and why you left.
Halevi: I was drawn to Meir Kahane as a teenager in the late 1960s, when many American Jews were trying to convince the Soviet Union to free its Jewish citizens. At the time, Kahane was advocating a militant — that is, violent — approach to pressure the Kremlin, and that appealed to my rebellious sixties sensibility. I saw Kahane as the Jewish Malcolm X. He also represented for me the antithesis of the Jewish establishment, which I blamed for not having done enough to try to save Jews during the Holocaust. I was the son of an angry Holocaust survivor, and Kahane articulated my inherited rage — against both the American Jewish community and the non-Jewish world.
I left Kahane for many reasons, especially after he began his racist hate campaign against Arabs. Once Kahane stopped representing the effort to liberate Soviet Jews and became identified instead with expelling Arabs from Israel, I no longer wanted anything to do with him. But mostly I left him because I finally grew up.
Dreisinger: How did you go from angry teen to spiritually striving adult?
Halevi: It was a combination of disillusionment with the one-dimensionality of ideological politics and the realization that my life as an American Jew was the diametrical opposite of my father’s life as a survivor. I also realized that I would be limiting myself if I saw myself exclusively through the prism of my father’s life — which is how I grew up. It’s a long story, obviously, but for all its twists and turns, it’s really a simple story of a human being trying to overcome the negative consequences of history and circumstance.
I broke away from religion as a teenager. But then, in my twenties, I discovered a book called Mystical Testimonies, which offered firsthand accounts by mystics of different faiths. What struck me was that, if you looked beyond the cultural differences among them, you found an astonishing unity of experience: that of divine love and human oneness. That was a seminal moment for me. It made me realize that the claims of religion might actually be true. It helped bring me back to Judaism, but it didn’t confine me to Judaism.
Dreisinger: At some point, it seems, you developed religious goals that went beyond the personal.
Halevi: In engaging my Christian and Muslim neighbors in a dialogue of prayer, my goal was to test the possibility that religion, specifically in the Holy Land, could be an instrument for healing rather than hatred. Praying and meditating with my Christian and Muslim fellow believers was an attempt to move beyond stereotypes. People of different faiths have always judged each other by what we believe about God rather than by how we experience God’s presence. We need to see each other’s synagogues, churches, temples, and mosques as variations of home, refuges from a secular world.
Dreisinger: Mystics don’t have much in common with fundamentalists, even when they share the same faith. Can mystics on both sides of the conflict help convince the fundamentalists to stop fighting?
Halevi: Pluralists need to support each other across religious lines. On one level mystics and pluralists from different faiths have more in common with each other than they do with fundamentalists of their own religion. Sometimes I feel like I belong to two peoples: the Jewish people and a pluralistic people drawn from all faiths.
I’m a religious Jew, and the Jewish story is the context in which I try to experience the miraculous. But I’m also a pluralist who believes that all the great religions are “denominations” of one great religion, which teaches that the unseen is more important than the visible, and that this is a universe of unity and intentionality, despite the surface appearance of chaos. That dual commitment means I live on two levels and in effect belong to two faith communities. I live fully within the Jewish people, and I also live within a new religious community that is quietly being formed by people of all religions who regard interfaith dialogue as our generation’s great spiritual advancement. For the first time, one can experience the vitality of another faith without being forced to leave one’s own faith. My venturing into Christianity and Islam as a religious Jew was an attempt to take advantage of that new reality.
That journey can be viewed as an experiment in applied monotheism. The mystics don’t consider monotheism a theological concept, but an experience of God’s oneness, and each of us a cell within the divine being.
Dreisinger: What, then, distinguishes a Jew from a Christian or a Muslim?
Halevi: Each faith is a distinct language of intimacy with God, and each is equally valid. Judaism is my language. Beyond that, being Jewish means joining the Jewish journey through history, which for me is the distinguishing characteristic of Judaism and Jewish spirituality. Judaism is the love story between God and the Jewish people, and Jewish history is the arena in which that tumultuous love story is played out. By being a Jew, you join the Jewish people’s struggle to reveal the presence of God in history through our collective experience — from the ancient revelation at Mount Sinai to the modern ingathering of the exiles in Zion.
Dreisinger: What are the political implications of an Israeli Jew praying with Palestinian Muslims?
Halevi: It’s part of a larger call for reconciliation based on religion rather than politics. The Oslo peace process, which ended the first Palestinian uprising in 1993, was planned by secular elites who bypassed the vast religious populations on both sides. Now we face a second intifada. There is an urgent need to develop a religious language of reconciliation, and my search for a common language of prayer among the monotheistic faiths was an experiment in that direction.
There is historical precedent for such an experiment. Islam and Judaism have known periods not just of civility but of intimacy. When I prayed with Muslims, I found their way of expressing devotion somehow familiar. The prostration of the body in surrender to God was once a mode of prayer in Judaism, and it’s echoed today in the Yom Kippur prostration in Orthodox synagogues. I was surprised to find that joining the Muslim prayer line helped reconnect me to my ancient roots here. But that was a bonus. My primary goal was to honor Islam and to try to experience something of its inner life.
Dreisinger: Can you give us an example of what religious, rather than political, reconciliation might look like?
Halevi: In my book, I tell the story of a visit to a Sufi community in the Gaza refugee camp of Nusseirat. I was joined by Rabbi Menachem Froman, one of Israel’s leading proponents of Muslim-Jewish dialogue, who also happens to be the rabbi of a West Bank settlement. The Jewish settlers, who make their homes in disputed areas, are known for being extremely nationalistic. That a settler rabbi would be in dialogue with Muslims in Gaza is one of those crazy paradoxes that make Israel such a surprising place, though you won’t read about them in the newspapers.
The rabbi explained to the skeptical Muslim men in the mosque that we’d come to learn how to worship God from our Muslim brothers, because the Jews had been exiled from the land for so many years that we’d nearly forgotten how we’d served God in our earliest days. Now that God had brought us back, he wanted us to learn how to serve him with the joy of the Sufi dances we once knew.
Can you imagine it? A settler rabbi telling Palestinian refugees that God was responsible for our presence in this land. But the tone of his message was the key: respect and modesty that conveyed a love for Islam, so that the men were not offended. The Muslims in that mosque suddenly saw us not as foreign intruders nor agents of godless Westernization, but as fellow believers, fellow Middle Easterners. It was Froman’s honoring of Islam that effected that change, which would allow Muslims to honor the Jewish return.
Dreisinger: I’ve always felt that the lack of respect evidenced by both sides is far more of an obstacle than people realize. Particularly in the Middle East, respect is of paramount importance.
Halevi: True. The intangible issues of legitimacy and respect are at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Those intangibles will continue to undermine the efforts of the peacemakers so long as they concentrate on finding a precise political formula for peace. They are redrawing the map, thinking that will resolve all claims and grievances, rather than confronting the religious and psychological dimensions of the conflict.
This is a historical-theological conflict. In the Middle East there is no nationalism without religion. That’s true not only for Arabs, but also for Jews. The Zionist movement was largely secular, yet it drew on religious roots for its legitimacy and appealed to both secular and religious Jews. The overlap between politics and religion is even more overt among Muslims. That is why you can never have total separation of religion and state in the Middle East — though Israel proves you can create a thriving democracy with religious elements in its identity, and live with the resulting tensions.
Dreisinger: What obstacles did you face in undertaking such a radical journey?
Halevi: The first obstacle was fear. I had to have an armed Palestinian escort to pray in Gaza, even though this was before the current intifada began.
The second obstacle was my own anger. As an Israeli, I’d been living with the threat of jihadist terrorism and the refusal of Muslim theologians to recognize Israel’s right to exist, so I felt a lot of anger toward Islam.
The third obstacle I faced was the tension between my political and spiritual selves. I’m a journalist by profession, and a journalist’s sensibility is the opposite of a spiritual seeker’s. The journalist inhabits a world of duality in which opposing sides compete and clash, whereas the seeker recognizes humanity as one great, unified soul. The journalist suspects spirituality of being an impediment to political clarity, whereas the seeker dismisses politics as an impediment to spiritual vision. Throughout my journey, the journalist and the seeker were constantly monitoring each other, suspicious of each other’s perceptions of reality.
Ironically, it was the threat of violent fundamentalism that allowed the seeker and the journalist within me to converge. Both agree that the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict is hopeless by rational standards, and that only some entirely unexpected development, some intrusion of the miraculous, can possibly avert disaster. In the Middle East, despair reconciles the realist and the visionary.
Finally, there were the historical and psychological obstacles. A Jew trying to encounter the devotional life of Christianity and Islam is burdened with traumatic memories. The history of our relationship with Christianity is shattering, but the Jewish-Christian dialogue of the past few decades has given us a hopeful present and future. Our situation with Islam is the opposite. Muslim-Jewish cooperation in the past resulted in an extraordinary school of Jewish Sufism in Cairo, but the present state of Muslim-Jewish dialogue is abysmal. What little dialogue exists is due only to the heroic efforts of a handful of individuals on both sides.
What I learned from Muslim devotion was the power of total immersion of the physical and emotional self in surrender to God. There is little I’ve experienced that can compare to the power of Muslim surrender.
Dreisinger: Would you say that your journey into Christianity and Islam is an outgrowth of your journey from Brooklyn to Jerusalem?
Halevi: Absolutely. It is precisely because I was no longer a Diaspora Jew that I was able to conceive of undertaking a journey into Christianity. Being an Israeli gave me an unprecedented opportunity to reconcile with Christianity from a position of strength. For the first time, a sovereign Jewish majority is responsible for the fate of a Christian minority. That reversal made it possible for me to enter monasteries and churches without fear and resentment. For the first time in my life, I was finally able to see churches as places of devotion and not as reminders of historical trauma.
I probably would never have felt the pull to journey into Islam had I stayed in New York. I wanted to know my Muslim neighbors so that I would feel more fully at home in this land. Needless to say, being an Israeli also complicated my relationship with Islam. While the Holy Land’s Christians are a genuine minority, the Muslim community here is both minority and majority: they are a substantial minority within the Jewish state, but they’re also part of the regional majority that hasn’t yet accepted Israel’s legitimacy. Almost all Christian communities I approached were welcoming and grateful that a Jew would be interested in their inner life, but the only Muslim communities that were prepared to accept me were the Sufi mystics.
For me, acknowledging the religious attachments of other faiths to this land is an essential component of a Jewish Israeli identity. We should see those attachments as an enrichment of our national experience. By exploring Christianity and Islam, I was trying to expand my Israeli identity, and to become more at home in the Middle East.
Dreisinger: What did you learn from the Christian communities you visited?
Halevi: I confined my experiences with Christianity to monastic communities. Most of them were Catholic, but I also visited two Eastern Orthodox communities: the Ethiopians and the Armenians. What I learned from them most of all was the power of silence. You know, silence makes Jews nervous. I once attended an interfaith gathering where the group attempted a period of shared silence. Finally, one Jewish participant couldn’t stand it anymore. He began humming a nigun, a wordless Hasidic song. Another Jew took that as his cue to inform us of what the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas had to say about silence. And so it went.
Among the monastic communities I was privileged to gain entry to was a community of silent sisters, whose name I won’t mention because they insist on anonymity. Through their practice of silence, they’ve surrendered themselves to the ultimate anonymity, in which they’re known only to God.
The sisters believe that silence is the highest form of prayer and contains something of the essence of God. I’m not qualified to measure the relative potency of various forms of prayer, but I did learn that silence can sometimes be more effective than words in resolving misunderstandings. We in the West tend to conceive of peacemaking as a process of communication leading to compromise, but the sisters know a deeper wisdom.
During my visits to the convent, I became friendly with the sister who oversees the convent’s relations with the outside world. We became close enough to argue about the extent of the Catholic Church’s complicity in the Holocaust, the anti-Judaism in the New Testament, and the anti-Christianity found in Judaic texts. But when we shared periods of silence, the arguments stopped, and we were able to place our differences in the context of our longing to do God’s will.
The Left should understand that a denial of Israel’s right to exist is a return to the mentality of what was known, not so long ago, as the “Jewish problem” — that is, the “problem” of Jewish existence.
Dreisinger: What about Islam? What insight did you gain there?
Halevi: What I learned from Muslim devotion was the power of total immersion of the physical and emotional self in surrender to God. There is little I’ve experienced that can compare to the power of Muslim surrender. In Islam, the choreography of the prayer line insists on uniformity of movement, on perfect alignment of your shoulders and feet with those of your neighbors. That alignment transforms you into a particle in the great wave of prayer that preceded your birth and will continue long after you die.
Islam’s other great spiritual insight, I believe, is the acute awareness of one’s own mortality. Unlike in the West, where we try to evade thoughts of mortality with black humor and the distractions of entertainment, Muslims deliberately cultivate an awareness of death. The Koran constantly reminds the believer that his or her days on earth are numbered.
The dark side of that, of course, is the phenomenon of suicide bombers, who’ve transformed this awareness into the ultimate contempt for life. I think one reason that Islamist fundamentalism has become so powerful is because it draws its vitality from this essential Muslim insight about death. But, in the right context, that same insight can promote humility and offer religious grounds for compromise. Palestinians have sometimes said to me, “Why are we arguing about who owns the land when soon you and I will be buried in it?”
Dreisinger: If the potential for compromise is built into the religions of the Middle East, why does peace remain so elusive?
Halevi: In my travels among Palestinian Muslims, even among those who are ready to live in peace with Jews, I repeatedly encountered a rejection of the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty in any part of this land. Like much of the Arab world, Palestinian society rejects the most basic facts of Jewish history, from the existence of the Jerusalem Temple to the existence of the gas chambers. The refusal to grant Israel legitimacy isn’t a consequence of the conflict but rather, to a large extent, is the cause of the conflict.
On the other hand, if you ask Israelis whether the Palestinians have a legitimate claim and should have a state, most will tell you yes. Those who disagree tend to be settlers and their supporters, who are a minority.
Dreisinger: But what about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and expansion of the settlements there? Doesn’t that play a role in prolonging the conflict? Many would see this conflict as a cycle of revenge.
Halevi: My least-favorite journalistic cliché about this conflict is the “cycle of violence,” because it prevents us from making necessary judgments. During the first intifada, I served as a soldier in the Gaza refugee camps, and I learned that the occupation was destroying much of what was precious about Israel. I didn’t see that conflict as part of a cycle of violence. Many of us who served then understood the Palestinian teenagers who were throwing rocks at us; in their place, I would have done the same. At the time, Israel hadn’t yet offered the Palestinians any reasonable solution, only more occupation and more settlements.
Finally, a majority of Israelis came to that same realization, and the result was the election of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and the beginning of the Oslo peace process a year later. But what we have learned since then is that [the late] Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority, never intended to make peace and instead used the Oslo years to prepare for war. My children used to come home from school singing songs about peace and waving flags with doves intertwined with Stars of David. Meanwhile Palestinian children were learning songs about suicide bombers.
This latest intifada is the responsibility of the Palestinian leadership, which chose violence over negotiations, even though Israel was the first country ever to offer shared sovereignty over its capital city.
Obviously, the occupation has caused bitterness and has to end, but even many of those Israelis who are willing to make almost any compromise for peace no longer believe that the Palestinian leadership is ready to end the conflict on any terms short of the disappearance of Israel. Just as I thought that the first intifada was Israel’s responsibility, this time it’s the Palestinians’ turn to ask themselves why they push Israelis who are desperate to end the conflict into the skeptics’ camp.
Dreisinger: You’ve written in support of the security fence Israel is now building along the length of the West Bank and on West Bank land. How do you reconcile your support for this fence with your religious pluralism and your calls for tolerance and unity?
Halevi: I despise the fence; it represents the opposite of my hopes for an Israel integrated into the Middle East. But at the same time, I see the fence as a terrible necessity. No single issue has more support among Israelis than this fence, which has already saved lives. Almost everyone here, from Right to Left, supports it. Many see it as a short-term fix to protect ourselves. My hope is that once it is in place and we have controlled the pathology of suicide bombings, we can try again to become good neighbors from a distance.
It’s hard to describe to an outsider what life in Israel has been like for the past four years. I happened to be visiting Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001, and I saw the panicked crowds run from the burning towers. We Israelis have lived with some of that same fear every day since this terrorist war began. This isn’t an assault launched by renegades, but a campaign supported and encouraged by the mainstream Palestinian leadership. If anyone built this fence, it’s Yasser Arafat.
I know this isn’t something that someone who believes in interfaith dialogue is supposed to say, but I can’t ignore reality, even as I struggle to transcend it. This means that sometimes I will find myself praying in a mosque in Gaza, and sometimes I will find myself building a fence.
Dreisinger: So the wall is a short-term bandage to allow both sides to nurse their wounds in the hopes of removing the bandage once the wounds have healed. But what of those who would argue that fences, once built, tend to stay up? The Berlin Wall stood as long as the Soviet Union remained standing. Under what conditions could you imagine Israel taking the fence down?
Halevi: This is not the Berlin Wall, the purpose of which was to imprison people. The purpose of this fence is to stop a terrorist assault aimed at unraveling Israeli society by depriving us of our public space. The fence will probably remain up until the Arab world shows signs of accepting the legitimacy and permanence of a Jewish state in any borders. Those signs will be simple gestures, like including the name “Israel” on maps in Arab textbooks and repudiating Holocaust denial. Mere declarations of peace intended for Western consumption are not enough.
Dreisinger: How do you respond to the current tide of anti-Zionism among liberals in the U.S.?
Halevi: What some on the Left don’t understand is that most Israelis have accepted that the occupation has to end. For all the mistakes Israel has made, it has always said yes to every serious proposal for compromise, and the Palestinian side has always said no. Simplistic moral judgments about the conflict only increase Israel’s sense of siege.
Looked at from one angle, Israel is Goliath to the Palestinians’ David. But when you expand the lens to include the bigger picture of Israel in the Middle East, those roles become reversed. The Left should understand that a denial of Israel’s right to exist is a return to the mentality of what was known, not so long ago, as the “Jewish problem” — that is, the “problem” of Jewish existence. The Nazis proclaimed that “the Jews are our misfortune.” Too many people around the world today feel that the Jewish state is humanity’s misfortune. The United Nations devotes far more attention to human-rights abuses by Israel, a country that’s been under siege from the day of its birth, than to abuses by any other nation. That situation intensifies Israeli insecurity and bitterness.
Islam’s other great spiritual insight, I believe, is the acute awareness of one’s own mortality. . . . Palestinians have sometimes said to me, “Why are we arguing about who owns the land when soon you and I will be buried in it?”
Dreisinger: You’ve touched on some of the historical and theological constructs that underlie the conflict over territory. What do you think is each side’s biggest misperception of the other, and how do you think these might be remedied?
Halevi: The tragedy is that Arabs and Jews have come to embody each other’s worst historical nightmares. For Arabs, Jews are the latest incarnation of colonialism and a reminder of the humiliation and defeat that the West imposed on them for centuries. Even though Israel is now in a mode of territorial contraction rather than expansion, the damage in terms of Arab perceptions has been done.
For Jews, Arabs are the latest variation of the eternal enemy who will “rise in every generation to destroy us,” in the words of the Passover Haggadah. The Arab world has reinforced that perception by celebrating the suicide bombers. Still, the Palestinians are not Nazis, just as we are not colonizers. Two nations, traumatized by history, are now locked in a pattern of mutual demonization. And each side has done its best to reinforce the other side’s fears.
Perhaps one answer lies in realizing that each side has a quality that the other lacks. Israeli culture is incredibly alive and adaptive, but hasn’t yet developed a sense of calm and respect for itself and others that comes from having deep roots, from being fully at home. Arab culture is exactly the opposite: deeply rooted in a tradition of respect, but lacking in vitality and initiative. In a sane Middle East, Muslim Arabs would empower the rootedness of Israeli Jews by welcoming them home, and Israeli Jews would empower Muslim Arabs with the confidence to accept an infusion of outside ideas.
Yehuda Pearl says something similar. He is the father of the American journalist Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded by Islamists in Pakistan. Since his son’s murder, Yehuda has been active in Muslim-Jewish dialogue, and he says that Jews and Muslims hold the key to each other’s place in the world: Jews can offer Muslims legitimacy in the West, and Muslims can offer Jews legitimacy in the East.
Dreisinger: Earlier, referring to the division in yourself between the skeptical journalist and the spiritual seeker, you said, “despair reconciles the realist and the visionary.” Do you think a mutual realization of the hopelessness of the situation could, paradoxically, become a source of hope for reconciliation?
Halevi: First the Arab world would need to come to the realization that the Jewish people have returned home and aren’t going anywhere. So Arabs need to “despair” of their ability to destroy or subvert Israel.
Israelis need to “despair” of the possibility of absorbing the West Bank and Gaza into the Jewish state, as in fact a majority already do.
Dreisinger: Do you ever regret coming to this intense land, raising your children here?
Halevi: I came here in part because of the intensity of this place. Being a custodian of this land is a privilege that I’m especially aware of in these hard times. What happens here is of significance for humanity. That’s not to say that I’m always thinking about the big issues; we live mundane lives in the midst of turmoil. And of course I agonize about the safety of my three children. But I am also struck by how being part of a Jewish majority culture — and even living with the tensions and the fear — has made them alive, strong, and generous. The generation of Israelis coming of age now is more open to spiritual questions than any other group of young people I know, if only because they live so intimately with death.
Dreisinger: On the jacket of your book published in 2001, author Samuel Freedman writes, “This is a book of hard-won, tough-minded hope.” Have you lost some of that hope since then?
Halevi: I am a pessimist for the short term and an optimist for the long term. I’m a short-term pessimist because Arafat and his circle have raised a generation of Palestinians in a culture of hate — and have poisoned them against reconciliation with Israel. I don’t see any alternative for the time being, other than to build this terrible fence and separate the two peoples. I’m a long-term optimist because the Arab world is at a historic crossroads and has the opportunity to begin transforming itself. I don’t see the Palestinian issue as separate from the question of transforming the Arab world.
There are many Arabs who want desperately to join the modern world. Just recently, more than two thousand Arabs petitioned the United Nations to ban incitement to hatred on religious grounds. That’s an astonishing development, and I don’t know why it hasn’t gotten more media attention. The defection of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi from the terrorist camp is another significant step toward Arab transformation. And, like all religions, Islam too needs to grow. I believe in the power of religions to adapt — consider how Vatican II altered the Catholic Church and its negative theology toward Judaism. Significant elements within Islam, I believe, are on the verge of a historic self-reckoning. What else can an Israeli hope for?