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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The ‘right to exist’ and the political right

Victimhood is a powerful claim on the rest of society and the world. Letting go of it is like writing off the debt someone owes to us

Recently, I read Letters To My Palestinian Neighbour by Yossi Klein Halevi. A friend had shipped it to me. I could not let him down. I am glad I read the book. It is reasonably short and an easy read. One learns a lot about the geography of Israel, its customs, conventions, traditions and holidays. The tensions, contradictions and debates that animate Israeli society are mirrored in India, too. For example, Israeli leftists call the Jewish settlements occupied territories.

It should come as no surprise to readers that the peace initiatives had been launched by the Israeli right and that the people of Israel trust it to make peace without sacrificing their security. The world over, it is a feature of the left to bask in the comfort and security provided by the nation state and work on chipping away at its foundations.

The book came as a reality check to someone who has been listening non-stop to Spanish tour guides waxing lyrical about the three to four centuries between the eighth and 12th centuries in which Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted peacefully in kingdoms that constitute modern Spain.

The two intifadas were launched right after the peace processes were initiated and Yasser Arafat’s speech in Arabic in a mosque in Johannesburg that he had no intention of making durable peace with Israel, and that the peace process was the pause that refreshed the conflict, hold eternal lessons for those who harbour peaceful intentions in various conflict situations around the world and in India. The challenge lies in ascertaining and verifying not only the credibility of one’s interlocutors, but also their sincerity. Peace has a far better chance of flowing from strength rather than from merely benign intentions. Halevi gets it.

It is fascinating to note two concurrent and seemingly contradictory strands that run continuously throughout the book. One is the repetitive and plaintive plea for peace, understanding, and the right to exist as a Jew. That is not a flaw or a shortcoming of the book. That is a reflection of the author’s sincere yearning for peace and security. He understands that justice for both Palestinians and Jews is possible only through injustice to both. He advocates partition of the land that both claim exclusively as theirs.

At the same time, the author lays down the non-negotiability of the right of Jews to exist, of the land and the state of Israel to exist, unambiguously. He is not a softie. He is not a peacenik. Halevi confronts the issue of the Holocaust. Instead of looking for sympathy and playing the victim card, he states that the birth of Israel was not because of the Holocaust, but that the Holocaust happened because there was no Israel.

The Holocaust happened because the Nazis thought that merely being a Jew was a crime and that a logical “remedy" for that crime was their extinction. More than seven decades later, many still think that an encore is due. Iran’s missiles advertise their intent rather clearly. They proclaim “Death to Israel".

Given this context, it is tempting to conclude that Halevi’s letters to his Palestinian neighbour are an exercise in naïveté. Indeed, the combined weight of human character, limitations of human imagination and history are against his quest for mutual security, accommodation and lasting peace. The wounds of a hundred years will take that long or longer to heal, if they can. Even then, it will take sustained efforts—day in and day out—to begin trusting one another. To undo it all, however, takes just one lone ranger—a crazy human—to press the “default" button and restart the cycle of violence. It takes one cockroach to spoil a bowl full of tasty cherries. So the odds are stacked against Halevi and his mission.

But that only makes his letters more, not less, important. They delay, if not deny, the spiral of death and destruction. In doing so, they raise the prospect—even if only imperceptibly—of setting off a virtuous cycle of dialogue, curiosity and empathy, which, as he notes in the book, are antidotes to self-righteousness. It was inspiring to read about the priest who took a small group of Arabs and Jews to Auschwitz, right after the second intifada. Even with that initiative, the enormity of the task involved becomes clear when one reads that an Arab participant who joined that expedition was warned that she would lose her victimhood if she undertook the journey to Auschwitz.

Victimhood is a powerful claim on the rest of society and the world. Letting go of it is like writing off the debt someone owes to us. No more future claims against them. It is voluntary abdication of power over others. It is not easy to do and, worse, there are many organizations—not just the alleged victims alone—that are invested in the process of nurturing and harvesting victimhood. It explains why only one Arab nation (Jordan) has granted citizenship rights to Palestinian refugees. It also explains (only) partially why Arab nations find it convenient to let Iraqi, Syrian, Libyan and Yemenese refugees seek shelter in Europe rather than accommodate them in their lands.

What next, then? One hopes faintly that a thoughtful and empathetic Palestinian neighbour replies to Halevi’s letters, reciprocates the sentiments and, thus, slowly enlarges the circle of reason and hope. Most importantly, he or she should proudly and fiercely stand behind those sentiments, and uphold and defend them while speaking in Arabic to an Arab audience.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is an independent consultant based in Singapore. He blogs regularly at Read Anantha’s Mint columns at

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