Learning Empathy from Leaders

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Our goal is to bring the wide contours of dispute within Israeli society to your classroom, to your synagogue, and to your dining room. We want young Jewish people, of all religious affiliations and across the political spectrum to identify with Israel, attach themselves to Israel, and become more informed about Israeli history, politics and society as a way to thoughtfully deepen and enhance their Jewish identity.

While each of these newsletters are made specifically for the week itself, they are also “evergreen” and can be referenced throughout the year. Want to talk about the diversity and challenges within Jerusalem? See here. Want to explore the complexities of the Israeli elections? See here. Interested in learning how to model healthy debate? See here.

Today’s weekly on the recent interview of Professor Mohammed Dajani Daoudi and Yossi Klein Halevi by David Horovitz is a unique opportunity to explore more about Klein Halevi’s book Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, as well as explore the fascinating story of Dajani Daoudi.

What should we learn about this interview? Was Klein Halevi’s book a fantastical attempt at reconciliation bordering on pollyannaish, or was it a noble effort to do his part in peace making?

Regardless of where you stand, make sure to read it, make sure your family and students read it, and as always, make sure to have thoughtful and respectful dialogue about it.


What Happend?

On Wednesday of this past week, Times of Israel editor-in-chief David Horovitz published a captivating conversation that he had with American-Israeli author Yossi Klein Haleviand Palestinian educator Dr. Mohammed Dajani Daoudi. On the surface, Klein Halevi and Dajani Daoudi are quite the odd couple. Klein Halevi is a former Jewish extremist (in his own words), and Dajani Daoudi is a former senior Fatah operative who, at one point in his life, felt that “to even speak to a Jew, that was something catastrophic.” Last year, Klein Halevi published a book called Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, explaining Judaism and Zionism to his Palestinian neighbors. He encouraged Palestinians to respond to these “letters,” and the book was recently published with an epilogue that included some 50 letters that Klein Halevi received in response to his book.

One person who wrote such a letter was Dajani Daoudi, known for taking a group of Palestinian students to visit Auschwitz. Dajani Daoudi used to have strong antipathy towards Jews and then explained how “unremarkable acts of kindness and grace by the Israeli medical personnel who treated his parents utterly changed him.” This change helped him understand something about empathy. He led a group of Palestinian students to a Nazi death camp in order to help foster understanding and empathy between the two groups, but this trip caused him to be ostracized from much of the Palestinian community, “destroyed his professional career and, in some circles, his reputation.” Horovitz invited Dajani Daoudi to his office to join him in conversation with Klein Halevi, which gave birth to this thoughtful exchange.

Why Does This Matter?

Klein Halevi’s goal in writing Letters was straightforward, arguing that while we are within our rights to be “outraged” when the Palestinian community attacks the legitimacy of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, “we’ve simply never bothered to explain it to them before.” Klein Halevi’s had ambitious aspirations for this project, explaining to Horovitz that he wanted to “facilitate a mutually empowering dialogue: each side would learn more about the other.”

His goal was never to convince the Palestinians about the Jewish perspective and experience, but rather to “complicate the picture and to at least get Palestinians to understand that there is a coherent Jewish narrative,” which is so often ignored in their textbooks and media.

To that end, Klein Halevi made the decision to translate the book into Arabic and “the leading Moroccan daily (Al Ahdath Al Maghribia) recently published a front-page review, and the leading Saudi Arabian news magazine, Al Majallah, included the story as well.

Diversity of Perspectives

Not everyone was thrilled with Klein Halevi’s Letters. He notes how some extremists wrote about destroying him and burning him, while some people on the right sarcastically said, “So you think you’re going to make peace?”

One of the major detractors of the book was Palestinian writer and public intellectual Raja Shehadeh, who published a harsh, critique of the book in the New York Times. Shehadeh accuses Klein Halevi of condescension and lecturing, stating that “to make peace possible, the Palestinians are not required to become Zionists” and “all most of us wish is for Israel to withdraw from the territories it has occupied and leave us to go on with our lives.”

David Suissa, editor of the Jewish Journal, then went at Shehadeh, calling him “so drenched in smug victimhood,” and also calling Shehadeh out for “falling back on the ‘tired trope of chronic victimhood that has served only to perpetuate Palestinian misery,’” blaming Israel for all problems Palestinians face and taking no responsibility for the lack of peace between them and Israel. Suissa concluded that a time for settlement “will never come if the Shehadehs of the Palestinian world continue to treat Palestinians as hopeless victims who are too weak to ever understand the authentic longings of their Jewish neighbors.”

Klein Halevi himself published a response to Shehadeh, expressing his main point that “a prerequisite for peace is that we stop denying the right of the other to exist” and a personal blow: “because your work has been so important to me, I was especially disappointed by your unequivocal dismissal.”

Within the American Jewish landscape, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor was well received. Klein Halevi notes, “The Forward responded to the empathic outreach to Palestinians, and Commentary responded to the strong defense of the Zionist narrative.” Liam Hoare wrote for the Forward, “Halevi’s story is both clearheaded and very much penned in the spirit of reconciliation. He seeks to strip away misconceptions.” Elliot Kaufman, in Commentary, said, “Capturing the enduring Jewish love of the land of Israel and the magic as well as the dilemmas of Zionism, the letters are highly compelling… An inspired reading of the Israeli soul, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor should be recommended to non-Jews and Jews alike.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Klein Halevi had two audiences in mind when he wrote Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: “The first, obviously, were my neighbors near and far, the Palestinians and the wider Middle East. And the second audience were Diaspora Jews.” The first is obvious; why do you think Klein Halevi also sought to reach Diaspora Jews with a book explaining the Jewish/Zionist story?
  2. In their conversation, both Klein Halevi and Dajani Daoudi describe their younger years – Klein Halevi as a former Kahane supporter and Dajani Daoudi as an anti-Israel Fatah member. Now, they are both champions of dialogue and building bridges. Does this give you hope for the future of the Middle East, or are these individuals of a small minority? How do you think their more extreme backgrounds shaped who they have become?
  3. Dajani Daoudi describes that a turning point in his life was when Israeli medical professionals aided his parents at times of ill-health. “I think it is getting to know the humanity in the other,” he says, that makes the difference. Why is seeing the “humanity in the other” such a salient point? How can we increase this type of interaction between two different, often opposing, peoples?

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. Watch this clip of Dajani Daoudi and consider two perspectives from Klein Halevi: one of despair, that Dajani Daoudi is ostracized for exposing his students to the Holocaust, and one of optimism and honor, that Dajani Daoudi made the trip to Auschwitz happen. Do you find yourself feeling more or less optimistic after learning the story of Dajani Daoudi?
  2. Assign Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor to your class. Alternatively, have each student (or pairs) read one letter, summarize it, and present it to the class. Engage in class discussion using the questions above.
  3. Write a letter to your Israeli cousin. Empathy is a muscle like any other trait. Ask your students to follow Klein Halevi’s lead and share with your “Israeli cousin” where you are coming from as a Jew living in the Diaspora. What do you want your cousin to know and to understand? What do you want to learn about your Israeli cousin?
  4. The conversation between Klein Halevi, Dajani Daoudi and Horovitz is very enlightening, if quite long. Divide your class into groups of three, in which each reads the part of Klein Halevi, Dajani Daoudi or Horovitz. Bring the class back together to reflect on what they learned from this process.
  5. Watch this video and use the accompanying educational materials to learn the story of an unlikely friendship and peace treaty between Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

In Other News…

  1. June 12 marked what would have been Anne Frank’s 90th birthday.
  2. Yoav Horowitz, acting director of the Prime Minister’s Office, announced his resignation last week. He intended to see the job through the elections (which he did), but those elections were inconclusive and new ones will be held in September. Deputy cabinet secretary Ronen Peretz will take over.
  3. After last week’s gay pride parade in Jerusalem, gay pride month continued with a parade in Tel Aviv. Approximately 250,000 people from all over the world participated in the march.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is the Senior Vice President of Education at Jerusalem U. Noam holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design. Before joining Jerusalem U, he was the principal of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where he spent 9 years actively engaging and empowering students to find meaning in their Jewish learning.

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