Written by Jackie Congedo, Director, Jewish Community Relations Council and Kelly Sheehy, Content Specialist, Downtown Main Library 

Beginning July 15 and wrapping up mid-August, seven of our branch libraries will host the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, and the Mayerson JCC of Cincinnati in a book club-style discussion series of Yossi Klein Halevi's bestseller Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. 

The Library sat down with JCRC Director Jackie Congedo to chat about the upcoming events, what she hopes the community will get out of the discussions, and resources for those who want to learn more about the fraught Isreali-Palestinian conflict. 

PLCH: Thanks for speaking with us, Jackie! Can you please give us a brief introduction to the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, its mission, and your role as director of the Jewish Community Relations Council? 

JC: The Jewish Federation of Cincinnati is a community strengthening organization that strives to bring diverse groups together to build a vibrant Jewish community. Its mission is to develop and connect leaders, contributors, organizations, and ideas to build an inclusive Jewish community that helps people in need, supports Israel, and assures a vibrant Jewish future.

I direct the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), which is the public affairs arm of the Jewish Federation. The JCRC’s mission is to protect Jewish security, recognizing that Jewish security depends on a just society for all people. In order to achieve this mission, we build partnerships with other faith, ethnic, and civic groups in Cincinnati to work on a wide range of issues where justice is threatened.

We work to combat antisemitism and we advocate for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the Middle East—one in which Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace and security.

PLCH: Why was this particular book chosen for the community conversations? 

JC: The beauty of this book is that it is a wonderful example of how people with different viewpoints can attempt to find common ground. We are at a moment in the history of our country (and the world, for that matter), where polarity and division are keeping us from engaging with our neighbors—in any given neighborhood. We seem to have lost the ability to be in conversation with people who feel differently than we do—on just about every critical issue that we as human beings face together. How can we expect to make any progress if we can’t talk about these issues in a way that engenders empathy and respect?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the potential for a peaceful, shared future is just one example of these issues, where discourse has completely disintegrated with the emboldening of extremes. But at the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, we believe that leaning into this difficult issue with intention to listen, learn, and understand is the only way we can make progress together.

We entered into a year of learning and conversation called “We Need to Talk.” The Jewish Federation of Cincinnati’s Israel Center in partnership with the JCRC and the Mayerson JCC, chose Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor to help guide these conversations because this book, more than anything else, is an invitation to have a conversation. It is written with sincerity, empathy, and humility, and it is an honest effort to cut through polarized discourse that is often dominated by extremes in order to seek moderation and common ground. 

PLCH: How would you describe the book? What are its strengths and what are its weaknesses? How does the author bring nuance into this polarizing subject? 

JC: I loved this book because it simply and personally explores an endlessly complex topic that often feels far away and impersonal. This is one Israeli author’s attempt to bridge what many see as an unbridgeable divide by doing something completely original and bafflingly simple all at the same time—by speaking directly to his Palestinian neighbors in a series of ten letters.

The book seems to contradict itself at times—as Halevi explains his feelings of pride and shame, and joy and loss. But the truth is that reality is almost always conflicted and complex— it’s not completely validating or completely condemning; it’s not black and white. In that way, this book is refreshingly candid and honest. It does not drive an agenda or propose a solution, other than to say that the act of speaking and listening with true intent to understand is an end in and of itself—and an opportunity to make progress on the most difficult issues.

PLCH: How will the Palestinian perspective be brought into the conversation or represented in the discussion?

JC: Halevi’s original book was simply his attempt to share his perspective—his take on what Israel means to him personally and to the Jewish people. While the book was an invitation for dialogue, it was only one person’s view. So, I was glad to see that a second edition was released with an epilogue that contains eleven letters Halevi received from Palestinians and others around the Middle East in response to his book.

In his introduction to the Epilogue, Halevi writes, “And so, Letters has evolved into its next stage: a document of two narratives. My hope is that this book will offer a new language for Palestinians and Israelis to navigate their competing and perhaps irreconcilable narratives—not through zero-sum debate, where each side tries to expose the flaws of the other, but through discussion and listening. Not to convince the other but to allow each side to understand how the other understands and experiences the conflict.” 

PLCH: What do you hope the community gets out of the discussion? What do you hope everyone is able to take away?

JC: I hope that this book can serve as an opportunity for people to sharpen their skills of bridging divides—not just on the topic of the conflict in the Middle East—but just as importantly, on the myriad issues we face together as Cincinnatians, Ohioans, Americans, and members of one human family.

I am convinced the magic ingredient to productive conversations across differences is empathy. And the key to empathy is creating space to truly understand someone else’s journey, circumstances, and views. Like any skill, creating capacity for empathy is something we must practice, and I’m hopeful engaging in discussion about this book is a starting point.

PLCH: Are there any other books, movies or documentaries that you’d recommend for people who want to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? 

JC: Yes, definitely! There are many, but here are just a few:

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know
– “An even-handed and judicious guide, written in an engaging, jargon-free Q&A format.” 
(available for purchase from your preferred bookseller)

Ari Shavit's My Promised Land - is “An authoritative and deeply personal narrative history of the State of Israel, by one of the most influential journalists writing about the Middle East today.”

Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry – “Victims of a Map presents some of their finest work in translation, alongside the original Arabic, including thirteen poems by Darwish never before published – in English or Arabic – and a long work by Adonis written during the 1982 siege of Beirut, also published here for the first time.”
(available for purchase from your preferred bookseller)

Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai
– “Yehuda Amichai is Israel's most popular poet as well as a literary figure of international reputation. In this revised and expanded collection, renowned translators Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell have selected Amichai's most beloved and enduring poems, including forty new poems from his recent work.”

The Words of My Father: Love and Pain in Palestine
– “A Palestinian-American activist recalls his adolescence in Gaza during the Second Intifada, and how he made a strong commitment to peace in the face of devastating brutality in this moving, candid, and transformative memoir that reminds us of the importance of looking beyond prejudice, anger, and fear.”

Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered: One Woman’s Year in the Heart of the Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish Quarters of Old Jerusalem
– “On a night in 1999 when Sarah Tuttle-Singer was barely 18, she was stoned by Palestinian kids just outside one of the gates to the Old City of Jerusalem. In the years that followed, she was terrified to explore the ancient city she so loved. But, sick of living in fear, she has now chosen to live within the Old City's walls, living in each of the four quarters: Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish.”

Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine
– “Side by Side comprises the history of two peoples, in separate narratives set literally side-by-side, so that readers can track each against the other, noting both where they differ as well as where they correspond.” (available for purchase from your preferred bookseller)

And not a book, but a good recent article: “Eight Steps to Shrink the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”  

If you're interested in attending one of these free book discussions at a Branch near you, click here to see a list of dates and participating locations. Place your holds on 'Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor' here

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