NOTE: DUE TO TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS FROM ISRAEL BECAUSE OF THE CORONA VIRUS, THIS EVENT WILL BE BROADCASTED IN VIA SATTELITE. FOR LAST-MINUTE INFORMATION IN CASE OF CANCELLATION, GO TO https://bit.ly/2UvqIVb

Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi is no stranger to engaging in conversations with people who deeply disagree with him. 

Through decades of work, starting with the years that were the source of his first book, At the Entrance of the Garden of Eden (2001, HarperCollins), Halevi has come to terms with his own misgivings about Christianity and Islam as he traversed areas of the Middle East to learn with other religious groups while explaining to them the history of the Jews. 

Halevi will be the keynote speaker at Temple Beth El’s Rabbi B. Benedict and Ada S. Glazier Institute 7:30 Monday, March 16 at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills. “Entering Each Other’s Faith Narratives” is free and open to the public. 

Program is free of charge but RSVP strongly suggested –> https://bit.ly/2UvqIVb

The event is sponsored by IFLC as well as the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Anti-Defamation League of Michigan and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

Halevi’s lecture in Detroit will be divided into two sections. He will first share his stories of the spiritual journeys he took 20 years ago as he learned and prayed alongside Christian and Muslim communities in Israel and the Palestinian territories. These explorations were the basis of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden

Secondly, Halevi will discuss how his career pivoted into what he describes himself as a reconciliation activist, and how his book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor (2018), was the beginning of that experiment. 

Halevi believes that people should be seeking out dialogue with those whose opinions differ most from their own. This is the only way to bring about understanding and peace. 

As part of his work as senior research fellow and co-director of the Muslim Leadership Initiative of Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, he has welcomed young American Muslim leaders – sometimes secretly and unbeknownst to their community – to Israel to learn about Israel and Zionism. 

“Some are pro-Palestinian activists who are hostile to Israel and who deeply disagree with me. These are the people I actively seek out,” said Halevi in an interview with IFLC. Halevi is a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who has lived in Jerusalem since 1982. “I am not phased by disagreement. Because within those disagreements one can find many openings into a continuing conversation.”

Halevi said Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor has been download in Arabic for free thousands of times. Since the initial printing, Halevi received many letters from Palestinians and Arabs throughout the Muslim world, some hateful but many empathetic and constructive. 

“Some of these letters have been printed in the new paperback edition of the book,” said Halevi. “They are printed at the end of the book as an epilogue. In the letters, Palestinians and Arabs tell their narrative. I wanted to give them respect and therefore in my book’s reprint, gave them the last word. By showing each other honor and respect, I wanted to use this as a model of a new kind of conversation. We can have respectful disagreements over irreconcilable narratives, this is the only way we will have hope in breaking through: by listening to each other’s narratives.”

Halevi, a traditional observant Jew, listened to church bells toll and calls to prayer from Jerusalem’s ancient churches and mosques in his neighborhood. Yet Halevi admits that he knew little to nothing of these two Abrahamic faiths outside of his own. 

“I would hear the call to prayer from the Muezzin at four in the morning, yet I knew nothing of the Muslim faith. This ignorance (of each other’s faiths) is reciprocal among most Israelis. So, in the late 1990s and into 2000 I took the impetus to explore these two religions for myself.”

Halevi said he had to overcome mental obstacles to explore Christianity and physical and logistical barriers to learn about Palestinian society and get access to prayer times in Mosques. As he gained entrance and acceptance into these holy spaces, he, in turn, would explain to Christians and Muslims what it meant to be a Jew. 

“I wanted to learn not so much as what they believe – that can be learned in books and texts – but what they do and how they observe.”

After maneuvering some logistic difficulties, he joined Muslims in a prayer line, meditated with Christians at a monastery and sat with the Sufis, the Muslim mystics. He learned to love and appreciate the two faiths as paths to God that are quite different from his own Jewish path. 

Halevi cautions about the “banality and blandness” of interfaith dialogue. It is important to have deeper conversations and to take risks by asking uncomfortable questions or going to uncomfortable places. Visiting a mosque as a kippah wearing Jew in Gaza in the late 1990’s, Halevi said, was a risk that gave him and his hosts many new perspectives. 

Halevi hopes that people across the religious spectrum will come to his lecture, though they should know “gulfs between us cannot be overcome with one talk.”

“Do not expect breakthroughs from my talk,” he said. “Interfaith dialogue is a long process. And it is not enough to compare dietary laws (like kashrut and halaal) and feel good about oneself that we had that conversation. We must have deeper and more difficult conversations about conflicting narratives. A large part of Jewish history and our identity is the connection to Jerusalem and the land of Israel. You cannot have a conversation about Chanukah without discussing the Temple that stood on the Temple Mount. We must enter deeper dialogues and conversations about conflicting narratives. There is a gulf there that we cannot overcome with just one lecture, but I hope people can begin from it to start to have deeper conversations.”

About the Shalom Hartman Institute

The Shalom Hartman Institute is a leading center of Jewish thought and education, serving Israel and North America. It strives to strengthen Jewish peoplehood, identity, and pluralism, enhance the Jewish and democratic character of Israel, and ensure that Judaism is a compelling force for good in the 21st century.

In 2019, The Hartman Institute established an outreach office in Metro Detroit, focusing on Israel engagement. It will offer the tools to have difficult conversations about potentially divisive issues. The Davidson Foundation has been pivotal in helping to bring these new learning opportunities to Detroit and our partnerships with area congregations, day schools, and agencies has been extremely helpful.

The Hartman Institute is known for its ability to engage in challenging conversations across religious and cultural boundaries. The institute in 2013 launched the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) under the directorship of Imam Abdullah Antepli and Yossi Klein Halevi to build relationships of understanding, respect, and trust between North American Muslim and Jewish communities. Through a rigorous academic curriculum and exposure to diverse narratives, MLI seeks to expand participants’ critical understanding of the complex religious, political, and socioeconomic issues facing people in Israel and Palestine. The program invites North American Muslims to explore how Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood.

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