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Jewish Journal

A Citizen of Jerusalem

Yossi Klein Halevi explores interfaith relations in his new book.

by Ruth Andrew Ellenson

September 13, 2001 | 8:00 pm

In His New Book, "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden" (William Morrow, 2001), Yossi Klein Halevi, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Jerusalem Report and The New Republic, chronicles his journey as a Jew searching for understanding of Christianity and Islam in Israel. Never questioning his connection to Judaism, Halevi believes that while political dialogues have failed in the Middle East, these groups might come together in their mutual love of God -- even if they differ as to who that God is.

It is a very different attitude from the one Halevi was raised with. His father, a Holocaust survivor, was continually suspicious and distrustful of non-Jews. Even with his hard-won openness to other faiths, he is by no means idealistic about the prospects of such a dialogue in the current political climate of Israel -- he laments the availability of Muslim dialogue partners at the moment, and says war is inevitable. He describes his desire to learn about other faiths as a response to being a "citizen of Jerusalem" and learning more about the people in the city in which he lives. Such an open attitude is antithetical to how many in the region feel, and perhaps it could only come from an American -- a New Yorker, no less -- who wants to learn about the people who share his geographical space.

In person, Halevi is a modest, thoughtful man. With a ready laugh, Halevi laments the manners of his Israeli-born children. He has lived in Israel since 1982, but is a native of Brooklyn, N.Y. and has written a previous book, "Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist," about his youth in the Jewish Defense League. Halevi currently lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Sarah and their three children.

Jewish Journal: What sparked your interest in learning about Islam and Christianity in Israel?

Yossi Klein

Halevi: The initial impetus was to try to become more at home in Israel. When I moved to Israel in 1982, I made the decision that there would be no part of the Jewish people that I would feel estranged from. I would be able to enter any political, religious or social world in Israel and I would feel at home -- because that was part of my homecoming. I went to Israel to become a part of Am Yisroel, and being a journalist really gave me access to every corner of the Jewish people. I realized, however, that when I finally felt at home as an Israeli, there was a large portion of Israel that I was in exile from, and that was Christian and Muslim Israel. And you can't be fully at home in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, without having some relationship with Christianity and Islam. So in a way, this journey was a deepening of my homecoming.

JJ: You remark on the concept of being a "citizen of Jerusalem" several times in the book. Do you see that idea of citizenship taking hold in the larger public?

YKH: I think that this book, in a way, is a reassertion of my American Jewishness. All of these years I have been actively working at becoming an Israeli. I reached the point, especially after having Israeli children, where you are finally part of the culture and you start to think of yourself that way. I no longer felt the need to distance myself from my American roots, and I feel very proud that I was nurtured on American pluralism. Even though I grew up in Boro Park -- which is hardly a hotbed of pluralism -- I grew up in the '60s and went to college here. I am a child of America. This was an attempt to apply something of that American perspective to a place where it is, perhaps, totally inappropriate.

I think in Israel right now, we're moving in the opposite direction [from pluralism]. All the walls are being built ever higher, and that's understandable, and the fear is deeper than it's ever been. I wouldn't have been able to take this journey now -- it simply wouldn't have been possible. I could not, as I did in 1998 and 1999, go to a mosque on the West Bank today. Now it would be physically impossible for me to go to Gaza, I couldn't even go to mosque in the Galilee. There was a fragile opening in the late '90s before the Oslo process completely disintegrated.

JJ: The character descriptions of the people you encounter are almost novel-like in their detail. Your portrayal of Ibrahim, one of the Muslim sheikhs you befriend, is quite vivid. It's a description of life among the Palestinians that few Israelis are able to see.

YKH: When I said I wanted to pray with Muslims, I was told it was impossible. But I was able to find that it may not have been a home run, but I did get to first base -- we got on our knees together and experienced God's presence. When people say, so what's the big deal if you found five decent sheikhs who danced with you in Gaza? My first answer is: that's right. So what? It has no political significance for the short term. What I do hope is that this book can be an offering for the future, but we need to begin the dialogue with Islam now. And, if at this point in history we have five people to talk to, those will be the five people that I stand with.

Ibrahim is suffering terribly now at the hands of the Palestinian Authority. He has been warned by them that his life is in danger by Hamas, but he understood who was really threatening him. So he dropped out completely. Now when I speak to him on the phone, which is rarely, he will only speak to me in English, even in his own house.

JJ: Despite the current stalemate with Islam, do you see any hopeful signs for interfaith relationships?

YKH: What gives me hope is the miraculous process of what has happened with the Catholic Church. Here you have a religion whose scriptures are anti-Semitic. Fifty years ago if you had told a Jew that the Catholic Church would one day be a force of love for the Jewish people, it would have been inconceivable. What the Catholic Church has done is take their theology of contempt and reverse it -- Jews are no longer cursed by God, but blessed by God. That's a theological miracle.

If we can have reconciliation with the Catholic Church, there is hope of reconciliation with Islam. There were more moments of intimacy between Judaism and Islam in history than there have been between Christianity and Judaism. If Christianity is capable of making such a theological leap, as a Jew who is raising my children in the Middle East, I must believe there is a future for us there. To ensure that future it means that we have to find our way to the heart of Islam, and there is a heart. I was trying to learn how to reach that heart.

JJ: What do you think Jews need to do to further interreligious understanding?

YKH: The first thing we need to do is acknowledge the incredible changes that have happened on the Christian side -- especially the Catholics, precisely because it wasn't expected there. I think they have gone deepest in confronting their theology. Last year, when the pope put his note into the Kotel, and called the Jews the people of the covenant in the note, I don't think most Jews realized what a shock that was to Christian theology. To call the Jews the people of the covenant is to negate 2,000 years of previous theology. When Jews heard that, they thought, 'Oh, that's nice.' We didn't understand what those terms mean in their own context. We as a community have not appreciated the depth of change that has gone on the other side. We need to educate our community and acknowledge those changes. For anyone who grew up in an Orthodox religious home, as I did, the hardest thing is to change your theology. And they did it. We have the chance for the first time in history to take a hand that has been extended to us.

JJ: In choosing your partners for an interreligious dialogue, how do you choose wisely and avoid people whose only mission is to convert you?

YKH: It is important to choose people whose hearts are open to the Jewish people. If there is an open heart, you have a chance to bypass and even resolve some of the political and theological problems.

I have had heated discussions, but through those fights, I grew not only to respect my dialogue partners, but love them. They also have changed in understanding the place of Judaism in their lives.

There are nuns I discuss in the book who say that watching the devotion of Jewish parents to their children allowed them to understand God's love for humanity. Here you have childless women who fall in love with the Jewish people by watching them interact with their children. Mary is the key figure in their covenant. And for them to see the relationship between Mary and Jesus in the relationship between Jewish parents and their children is the deepest reverence one religion can pay to another.

JJ: What is your ultimate hope for this book?

YKH: For me, this book is really a journey of small miraculous encounters. If I answer you as a religious person, my hope is [it illustrates] that for God to act in the world doesn't require quantity, it requires quality. It needs one sheikh sitting in a refugee camp who has conquered bitterness inside himself to be open to a Jew in a kippah. There won't be a visible cause and effect, but there will be a spiritual cause and effect. As a religious Jew living in the land of Israel, who takes Israel as a place of miracles seriously, I have an obligation to explore other realities. Did I find people who were almost prophet-like? I did.

I don't know what God can do with such people, but I have hope.

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