On telling the truth to others and oneself

by John E. Phelan Jr.

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor
Yossi Klein Halevi
New York, HarperCollins, 2018
Hardback, 204 pages

On the Brink of Everything
Parker Palmer
Oakland, CA, Berrett-Koehler, 2018
Hardback, 198 pages

The two authors and books I have chosen to review have little in common. Yossi Klein Halevi is a distinguished American/Israeli journalist and Senior Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Parker Palmer is a renowned Quaker educator known for books like Let Your Life Speak and The Courage to Teach. The topics of the books couldn’t be more different. Halevi is addressing perhaps the world’s most vexed issue—the State of Israel and its Palestinian citizens and neighbors. The subtitle of Palmer’s books is “Grace, Gravity, & Getting Old”—although it would be a mistake to peg this as yet another book on “aging.” Yossi Klein Halevi is a friend of mine. I do not know Parker Palmer. What connected the two in my imagination was not only the compassion and wisdom both brought to their respective topics but their efforts to engage hard truths honestly. I was deeply interested in Halevi’s book not only because the topic is inherently interesting and important, but because he is trying to do something different, something new, in a situation that appears to grow more hopeless every day. I was deeply interested in Palmer’s book because, well, I am getting older myself! But in On the Brink of Everything I found more than I bargained for.

Like many Jews in Israel and around the world, for Yossi Klein Halevi the hopefulness of the 1990s gave way to the gloom of the 2000s. By his own admission, in the wake of the Second Intifada, he had little interest in engaging with Palestinians, Muslim or otherwise, even though an earlier book had described his efforts to pray with both Muslims and Christians. The persistence of a Muslim acquaintance pulled him out of his gloom and together they established the Muslim Leadership Institute at the Shalom Hartman Institute. This brings Muslims and Jews together to explore Jews and Judaism as well as the problems and possibilities of the State of Israel. Jews and Palestinians in Israel live very close to each other. They are neighbors—Halevi can hear the Muslim call to prayer from the balcony of his apartment and see his Palestinian neighbors going about their lives. Israel is a small country. For all this closeness, Halevi worries that they really don’t know each other’s stories. Each community has a narrative of Israel and they are mutually contradictory. Each would argue the other is trying to destroy their community and wipe out their respective histories. Halevi’s book is his honest effort to share the Jewish/Israeli narrative with his Palestinian neighbor as well as to honor their narrative. He intends to start a conversation. He has made the book available in Arabic, free of charge on the internet and invited anyone in the Arab world to contact him to continue that conversation.

Perhaps the most powerful, and to me hopeful, part of Halevi’s book is his willingness to acknowledge that, however much he values and believes in the Israeli/Jewish narrative, the Palestinian narrative is also true. He is willing to grant their grievances and griefs while holding firmly to the Jewish story he embodies. Halevi does not back away from or soft-pedal the Jewish story. He still gets a thrill from returning to Ben Gurion airport from abroad. He is a proud Israeli and a proud Jew. He is proud of those early Zionists and the courageous women and men who formed a new state in the wake of the disaster of the Holocaust. He is also frustrated by the narrative of many Palestinians that would deny, against all the archeological and literary evidence, that the Jews ever had a place in the land of Israel. He is well aware of the history of Israeli brutality and indifference that has traumatized the Palestinians. He is well aware that their roots also go deep into the land. Halevi insists that the narratives of Jews and Palestinians are both true: both have suffered; both have deep and historic connections to a beloved place; and both, Halevi insists, must be willing to sacrifice part of their narrative, part of their hopes to survive in peace. This is a compelling, moving, blunt and compassionate book. I hope it finds many readers in the Arab world as it already has, especially in the United States.

Parker Palmer is now 80. As one of my friends recently put it to me, turning 80 gets your attention. He told his long-time editor that he didn’t think he had another book in him. Over the years he had been publishing and sending friends, including his editor, short reflective essays, many of them from his column on the On Being website. His editor asked him if he had ever thought about pulling them together into a book. He opined that a collection of such random pieces would probably make no sense or have any coherence:

Sheryl: Um, that’s not true. I know because you’ve been sending me a lot of those pieces over the last few years.

Me: And you think there’s a theme running through them?

Sheryl: (after a brief pause) Parker, do you ever read what you write?

Me: Of course not. Why should I? I write the stuff. But OK, I’ll bite. What, pray tell, have I been writing about?

Sheryl: Getting old! That’s what you’ve been writing about. Didn’t you know that?

Me (lights blinking on in my brain): Well, no . . . But now that you mention it, a book on aging might be interesting . . . Wow, am I ever glad I had that idea.

And it is true that the book addresses aging. But this is a book on aging that is as much for someone young as it is for someone aging (technically that is, of course, all of us and I hesitate to set a date for the beginning of real aging). On the Brink of Everything is really more a book about living than it is about aging. It is a book of advice, complaint, and celebration. It is about living truthfully with one’s failures as well as one’s successes. It is also a book of “spirituality.” Palmer grew up Methodist and became a part of a Quaker community as an adult. The book is not self-consciously Christian but clearly rooted in Christian soil—although Palmer draws inspiration from many sources. The “spirituality” of the book addresses the ways that we keep our souls alive to themselves and alive to God or the transcendent throughout our lives. Each morning I would read one of Palmer’s short pieces before going on my morning walk. It was a wonderful discipline to reflect on his self-deprecating humor, wisdom and compassion. I had to discipline myself, not always successfully, to read only one of the essays a day.

To love and understand another is to love and understand ourselves. To recognize the story of another, we must wrestle with our own story. In both cases we need to be honest enough to face painful truths about ourselves—our self-absorbed fears and willful dishonesties as well as our deeply held convictions and profoundest convictions. To live fully we must live in truth—we must tell the truth. Both of these books are about telling and living into the truth. The one is about two people’s willingly listening to the other’s truth and granting it legitimacy. The other is about one person willingly telling the truth about himself or herself and living and loving out of that truth, however painful. Both are about the lies we tell ourselves as individuals and communities and how those lies can destroy us as readily as the truth can heal us—and set us free. I recommend both books heartily.