Americans in Palestinian Shoes. Two weeks ago Obama arrived in Jerusalem and shared, before a packed auditorium of university students, a concern that no president in the White House has dared to publicly mention before: “The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes”.
This declaration seems very simple and even obvious, but coming from an American president, it has the potential to be game-changer. Why? Far from Jerusalem, many Americans were also listening to or subsequently heard the President’s words. And implicit in those words is an invitation to think about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians from a new, more human perspective.
Most Americans have little grasp of the history of the region, or knowledge of the major issues and particulars of past disputes and negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It can all seem like just a never-ending, intractable conflict, a mix of strong religious beliefs and complicated politics, that once in a blue moon comes close to some sort of resolution that quells the violence, but soon reverts back to the status quo of rockets and bombs and civilian deaths. However deep — or shallow — their understanding of the conflict, many Americans generally come down on the side of believing — or acquiescing to — the anemic, final analysis that, after all, Israel is the USA’s “best friend” in the region, it has the right to defend itself from hostile neighbors and “terrorists,” and the two countries are vital to each other’s safety and security, end of story. The result: every year the U.S. Congress allocates, without hesitation, more assistance to Israel than to any other country in the world, with over 3 billion dollars proposed for 2013. And meanwhile the plight of the 4 million Palestinians who live in Gaza and the West Bank is overlooked, ignored, or unrecognized. Until, that is, Obama spoke these dozen words. “Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes”.
I believe that if Americans sincerely do as their President asks, they will see that most Palestinians aspire to the same democratic ideals of one-person, one-vote and equal rights for all. They’ll see that Palestinian parents want to be able to tuck their children into bed at night with a roof over their heads in a safe environment. That they too want their kids to have enough food, sufficient health care and the opportunity for a good education and hope for a better future. Peace will be possible when U.S. voters implore their congressional representatives to use the power of the foreign aid package to demand that the government of Israel stop the occupation and subjugation of the peoples of the West Bank and Gaza. Americans need to encourage their president and congress to pressure the Israeli government to sit down and negotiate with the Palestinians on equal terms so that peace will come — for everybody.
So how will Americans be able to put on those shoes and see through those eyes? By engaging in loud debate? Vociferous argument? Lengthy lectures? Probably not. Sometimes it takes a small thing, something unforeseen, to open eyes and galvanize opinion. How about a good story?
Yes, a good story. Here’s one: a novel entitled The Almond Tree. The first novel of a Jewish New Yorker, Michelle Cohen Corasanti, an epic drama of the proportions of The Kite Runner, but set in Palestine. A story that grabs you from the first page and makes your heart go out to the Palestinians without pointing fingers at anyone. An adventure that brings you into the magical world that travelers once crossed on horseback or camel towards Beirut, Amman or Cairo. A land where for centuries Christians, Muslims and Jews shared their traditions. Where the children inherited the land, generation after generation, and the clans stayed together. Where courage was not the absence of fear, but the absence of selfishness. Where children learned a fundamental principle of life: decency.
Spanning six turbulent decades, The Almond Tree follows Ichmad, a gifted Palestinian boy from a small rural village, on a journey of painful enlightenment as he seeks to keep his family together while trying to make sense of the violent conflict that surrounds him. When he encounters hardships and obstacles, Ichamd must learn to respond without hatred and understand that soldiers are only human beings and that war is merely politics. This novel is not a political lecture, but a gripping and compassionate work of fiction that puts the reader in those shoes that Obama spoke of.
If Americans can find the time to read this novel, I believe they will be inspired to ask questions and do research. The next time they watch CBS, FOX, NBC or CNN, instead of anonymous refugees or “terrorists,” they will see the faces of mothers with children, grandparents with grandchildren, parents with brothers. People going to work, returning from school, shopping in the market. People who can’t pick the oranges from their own trees because the Israeli military have blocked them off. Students who can’t accept their scholarships to Harvard or Yale because Israeli authorities don’t allow them to leave Gaza. And then, those same Americans who have been silent and unaware will demand justice and peace. Because this wonderful story is not about being anti-Israel, but about helping Israel to live in peace with its Palestinians brothers and sisters. Through The Almond Tree we can step into the shoes of the Palestinians. Then, we will begin to see, with our own eyes, a glimmer of hope in solving a conflict that weighs so much on us all.