An Interview of Jewish American author Michelle Cohen Corasanti about her book The Almond Tree (The Edited Version of this Interview had appeared in The HINDU LITERARY REVIEW)
Michelle Cohen Corasanti is author of The Almond Tree. A Jewish American Michelle had studied at Hebrew University, Jerusalem and Harvard University, USA. She uses the Israel-Palestine conflict as the backdrop of her novel. While growing up in a pro-Israel Jewish family, she learned that after the Holocaust, the Jews found ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ and made the desert bloom. Later, after spending seven years in Israel, she could know about the Middle Eastern history and was moved by the pathetic conditions of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. And in order to tell the story of Palestinian people to the world, she decided to write a novel.
Hailed as another The Kite Runner by both critics and readers, Cohen Corasanti’s novel tells an inspiring story of a poor Palestinian boy called Ichmad who despite living under the ruthless Israeli military rule, achieves great success in his life. On Amazon.com, the book is among the bestselling debut books. It is a must read for anybody interested in understanding the different aspects of the Israel-Palestine problem.
In the author’s words: The Almond Tree humanises a culture and brings characters from a distant land to life, with a family united by love but divided by their personal beliefs. From Ichmad’s staunchly traditional and at times overbearing mother, to his father who believes in the power of education, the crux of the family’s story lies in the growing dispute between two brothers, Ichmad and Abbas, who choose very different paths in order to create a new future.
In an interview with Abdullah Khan, the author Michelle Cohen Corasanti talks about herself, her book and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Here are the excerpts…
1. What made you write The Almond Tree?
I decided to write The Almond Tree when I realised that a writer can reach into readers’ hearts and change them forever.
As a Jewish American, I was taught that after the Holocaust the Jews found ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ and that Jews went to “the land of Israel” (i.e. Palestine) and made the desert bloom. In high school, I went to Israel to study Hebrew and Judaism. I soon learned that Palestine had neither been a land without a people nor all desert. Palestine had been the home of a multi-religious society that had a high standard of living and a rich culture and heritage.
I lived in Israel for seven years and witnessed the kind of miserable life the Palestinians lead there. Returning to the US to join Harvard University as a student of Middle Eastern studies, I wanted to devote my life to bringing about peace, equality, freedom and justice between the Palestinians and Israelis. That was in 1989, the world wasn't ready to hear my message. I went on to law school to specialize in international and human rights law and was also doing my PhD at Harvard in Middle Eastern studies, but I felt impotent. Feeling helpless, I buried my desires for over a decade until I read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. In it he wrote that religion, history and politics can’t really be overcome. That’s when I got the idea for my book because I had seen those very obstacles overcome between an Israeli and a Palestinian, two scientists --one Israeli Jew and the other a Palestinian Muslim --who worked together, at Harvard. I decided I would use that seed to write a story about how strong the Palestinians and Israelis could be if they worked together to advance humanity. I believe no one is free until we all are free. There is no peace without justice and a man’s worth should not be measured by his religion. I believe in a world in which we work together to push each other up. Through my novel, The Almond Tree, I wanted to shine a light on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and show that there was a better way.
2. What made you choose a Palestinian boy as the protagonist of your debut novel? Being a Jewish American, wasn’t it difficult for you to write in the voice of a Palestinian?
I got the idea for my story from a Palestinian man I met at Harvard. I had met his family, had seen where he came from and felt I knew who he was at the core. So, the voice of a Palestinian boy to tell my story was a natural choice. I had many Palestinian friends in Jerusalem. I heard their stories. I bore witness to their lives – where they came from, how they were treated, what their dreams were. I could see the world through their eyes and so it was not difficult for me to become the Palestinian boy.
3. Novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab in his review of Susan Abulhawa’s book Mornings in Jenin in the Sunday Times, London says. “The Zionist story has Palestine before the state of Israel as “a land without a people awaiting a people without a land.” Writers from Mark Twain to Leon Uris, as well as Hollywood studios and certain church pulpits, retell the tale. But Palestinians, in the West at least, lack a popular counter narrative. Palestinians are reported on, met only in the news. “Do you agree with this statement? If yes, why is it so?
I definitely agree with this statement. After the Holocaust, many western countries felt guilty when the magnitude of the atrocities committed against the Jews was revealed, but at the same time, they didn’t really want to take in so many Jewish refugees. So the west was quite happy to give the Jews Palestine and to buy the fallacy that Palestine was a land waiting for a people. Mark Twain did not make it as a news reporter because he loved to make up stories to make his material more interesting. When you want people to believe a lie, you look for justifications anywhere you can. The west found them with Mark Twain and the novelist Leon Uris.
As Jewish Americans, we would give money to plant trees in Israel every year to show how we were making a barren land bloom. The west didn’t want to hear the Palestinian narrative because they preferred the Jews to be in Palestine. Furthermore, the first Zionists were from the west. Initially the Zionists only wanted western Jews in Israel, not the Jews from the east. After the Holocaust, many Jews preferred to go to the UK, the US or even stay in other places in Europe. When the western Zionists realized after 1948 that they needed more Jews, they decided to recruit them from the east and de-Arabize them.
The Western Jews spoke western languages, were well organized, had money and made the story they wished to tell the world whereas the Palestinians mostly spoke Arabic and didn't have anyone to tell their story to the western audience. As time went on, the Zionist narrative was the only one heard. In order to further justify the Jewish state, Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims were portrayed as anti-Semites, radical Muslims, Jew-haters; anti-western jihadists much like the Nazis dehumanized the Jews.
Zionism is a concept of Jewish nationalism and Judaism is a religion with completely different principles and values. Zionists bound Judaism with Zionism so as to gain support from world Jewry as well as to label anyone who criticized Israel as anti-Semitic with all the implications to the Holocaust. Many were afraid to say anything that went against the Zionist narrative.
When I read westerners’ reviews of my novel The Almond Tree, many start with, remember the author is Jewish to justify believing what I say. Now there a many Jewish people like Professor Ilan Pappe, Professor Noam Chomsky, Dr. Norman Finkelstein, Miko Peled, Amira Haas and others who are saying what the Palestinians have been saying all along – that Palestine was not a land without a people and the truth is finally being believed.
4. How well has The Almond Tree been received in the US and elsewhere? What kind of feedback have you gotten from your readers, especially the Jewish ones?
I’ve been shocked to see that The Almond Tree is being embraced by all sides of the conflict as well as those with no involvement whatsoever. My story is about a boy, who grows up in a brutal environment and despite it all, goes on to achieve what others have only dreamed. The Almond Tree is about forgiveness and letting go of hatred. I show how strong we are when we celebrate our differences and work together to advance humanity instead of focusing on our differences and destroying it. I don’t try to show who is right and who is wrong and who did what to whom. I just tell a gripping story about how powerful we can be when we work together. I think it’s hard to find fault with such themes. When I wrote The Almond Tree, I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible so I hit on as many themes as possible. As a result, everyone finds something in The Almond Tree. My father-in-law who was born during the depression, his father was a new immigrant, they lost their home, but he went on to achieve great success in business, saw himself as my Palestinian protagonist.
I was expecting a backlash from Jewish readers, but I have found the opposite. I have gotten emails from Jewish readers telling me how courageous I am, that they are reading my book in their Temple book clubs, that The Almond Tree was brilliant because it took that personal of a story to show them what Zionism did to the Palestinians and that they are embarrassed as Jewish Americans not to have ever thought about the Palestinian because our entitlement to Israel as a result of the Holocaust is drilled into our heads our entire lives.
5. As a writer, what do you wish to achieve through your writings? How is your book going to help the cause of peace in the Middle East?
As a writer, I hope my writings can shine a light on the Israeli-Palestinian situation. I would like to debunk fallacies. I want to help the Palestinian narrative to be heard because I don’t believe one can solve a conflict if they only hear one side. I hope I can help expose the truth because there can be no peace without justice which is based on the truth.
6. What do you mean by ‘dehumanising the Palestinians’? Please elaborate.
It is easier to justify oppressing a people, if you dehumanise them. The Nazis did that to the Jews. For example, the Jews were put into ghettos and denied basic necessities. When you can’t feed your children that brings out the worst in humanity. Forced to live that way, one begins to look less like human which makes it easier for the oppressor to kill or persecute you. Another way of dehumanizing is to attribute negative characteristics to a people. The Nazis claimed the Jews were evil. They forced Jews to live in horrible conditions and then said they live like animals.
Palestinians have been dehumanised. For example, in Gaza, Israel has them locked in an open-air imprisoned, denied basic necessities and is one of the most densely populated places on the planet and when some of them fire crude rockets at their oppressors, they are considered to be terrorists. I would have said uneducated Americans think that the Palestinians are culturally inferior because of the way they are forced to live under Israeli military occupation, but Americans like our Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, could not understand that their conditions are due to circumstances and not culture. Had he seen how the Jews lived in the concentration camps, I don’t think he would have thought our culture was the same as so advanced.
A great example is Gilad Shalit. He was a soldier in a tank unit in the Israeli military in occupied Palestine and was captured while actively on duty as an occupying solider. We knew everything about him. His mother, his father. His life. Hundreds of Palestinian children are held prisoners in Israel, yet no one knows anything about them. In an extremely rare occurrence, a news reporter was able to film a twelve year old boy that Israel held in an adult Israeli prison with Israeli criminals for two years before the boy was even charged with a crime. During that period, he tried to commit suicide twice. He was finally sentenced to six months. When he was released, he provoked his own death. The root of the problem is that in the west Palestinian lives are viewed to matter less than Israeli ones. I tried to show that these Palestinians were not nameless, faceless people, but mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. That we all tuck our kids in at night and that every life is precious.
7. As you have already mentioned in some of your interviews that the aggressive policy pursued by Israel against the Palestinians is against the basic tenets of Judaism and that Zionism is actually harming Jews (Judaism). Please explain the difference between Judaism and Zionism to our readers. And, how does the concept of Zionism mould Israeli policy against Palestinians?
Judaism is a religion. We believe in one God. We follow the Ten Commandments such as thou shall not kill; thou shall not steal and the Torah. Rabbi Hillel (an ancient Jewish saint) summed up the Torah when he said, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another. That is the whole Torah, the rest is just commentary.”
Zionism is a concept of nationalism like Nazism. Zionism arose as a result of a few factors. Among them were: gentile attraction, gentile repulsion, the rise of nationalism and anti-Semitism at the time. Zionists decided that the Jewish people needed their own country and set their sights on Palestine. In order to create a Jewish state in the heart of Arab lands at the end of the 19th C when the Jews in Palestine were about 4% of the population, the Zionists knew they would have to expel the native Palestinians and take their place.
In order to do so, the Zionists had to kill and steal from the natives and commit many other despicable acts that are documented by Israeli historians from the left (Ilan Pappe) to the right (Benny Morris). A few of these polices include: land theft, home demolitions, mass imprisonments, administrative detentions, making life as miserable as possible for the natives so that anyone who wants any kind of life for their children will leave. As you can see, Zionism could not be further from Judaism.
8. What according to you is the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict?
I believe there can be no peace without justice which is based on the truth. The Palestinians need to be compensated for all that they have suffered like the Jews were after the Holocaust. I believe in a secular democratic country on all of historic Palestine where everyone lives with equality and freedom. I believe the Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return. The Afrikaners didn’t want to let go of control and neither will the Israelis. That shouldn’t matter. We need to do what is right for all. The majority of Israelis today in Israel came from the Arab world. They have very similar cultures; similar educations and more in common than many other people that live in the same country. This doesn’t have to be a difficult transition. This way, not only will the Palestinians be free, but also the Israelis will be free. One can’t be free when they are oppressing another people.
9. What is your next project as an author?
I hope to write another book that shows the benefits of peace between Palestinians and Israelis.