“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” – Stephen Hawking
A few readers have thought that my protagonist is from the West Bank. He is not. My protagonist is a Palestinian from inside the 1949 armistice lines. This misunderstanding distorts the readers understanding of The Almond Tree.
The majority of Palestinians inside the 1949 armistice lines lived under Israeli martial law until 1966. It was against the law for them to have any contact with anyone associated in any way with what Israel considered a “terrorist organization” and one never knew who Israel would consider to fall into that category. Furthermore, it was against the law for Palestinians from inside the green line to visit a hostile country.
My protagonist is from the Triangle, also known as “The Little Triangle”, the concentration of Palestinian villages and towns located adjacent to and inside the Green Line. The village I write about, which I named ElKouriyah, is an impoverished rural, peasant village in the Triangle inside the green line.
My story begins in 1955 with my protagonist’s village under Israeli martial law. The village remains under Israeli martial law for more than one hundred pages of The Almond Tree until 1966 when Israeli martial law ceased in the Triangle. Note also that Israel didn’t occupy the West Bank until 1967; prior to that time the West Bank was controlled by Jordan.
Palestinians inside the green line can and do attend Israeli universities and do receive scholarships. In fact, Israel’s policy of encouraging Palestinians from Israel to study science as a means of removing them from the country was leaked to the press in 1976. That policy was part of a comprehensive package of recommendations known as “The Koenig Memorandum” which had secretly been submitted to Prime Minister Rabin that same year. Since many jobs in scientific fields require military service, if Palestinian PhDs wanted to work, they needed to go abroad.
In the novel, my protagonist wins a math competition in which he beats all the Jewish Israeli students because he is smarter than them and thus wins a scholarship to the university and a stipend. Had he tried to go to one of the institutions of higher education on the West Bank and Gaza, he would have had to deport himself and would have been unable to return to Israel to see his family, much less his father who remains in prison. His family could have been targeted if he self-deported himself to Jordan. Given the fact that he was supporting his family and was barely able to keep them afloat, self-deportation and abandoning them just so he wouldn’t take a free education and stipend from an Israeli institution for which he was not required to give anything back to Israel does not seem plausible. Even if he self-deported, abandoned his family who he was supporting and his imprisoned father and crippled brother, put them and himself at risk of being targeted by Israel, how was he supposed to get to Jordan, finance his education and living expenses there, given that in 1966 there was no peace and the borders were closed?
One critic claimed I suggest that the path to success is necessarily through the Israeli or oppressor’s educational system. This is an example of how an assumption of knowledge leads to misunderstanding.
The Almond Tree is based on what I witnessed with my own eyes, what I heard, and what I learned. I am a Jewish American who was raised in the US by Zionist parents. From the ages of sixteen to twenty-three, I lived in Israel, inside the green line, the 1949 Armistice lines. During that time, I attended Hebrew University where I received my BA in Middle Eastern studies. My department was composed of Palestinians from inside the green line and Jewish Israelis. My friends were both Palestinians and Israelis; we attended school and lived together in the dorms. Both groups invited me to their homes on weekends and during vacations, as I had no family nearby. The last year I lived in Israel, I rented an apartment in Wadi Jose, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, with a Palestinian friend in a Palestinian family’s house.
When I went to Israel at the age of sixteen, I knew nothing about the Middle East or the history of the Israeli/Palestine conflict. After seven years, I returned to the US having had my eyes opened. Wanting to learn more, I pursued a Masters in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. I then continued on to my PhD at Harvard. At the same time I attended law school. While I was doing my Masters at Harvard, I met a Palestinian from inside the green line. He had also attended Hebrew University and we knew many of the same people. He was a post-doc working jointly with his Israeli professor and a Harvard professor. I married him in his village inside the green line and lived there that summer. (It was not my first experience in Palestinian villages inside the green line, as I had visited a number of them while I was a student at Hebrew University.) Ultimately and sadly, our marriage did not succeed and we divorced several years later.
So when I began to write The Almond Tree, I drew on not only my years of study but also my personal experiences in Israel and here in the US with both Israelis and Palestinians. My aim was to write a story that could reach into readers’ hearts and help them to understand the perspective I came to see, one that is not known to many Jews or Americans. I wanted readers to step into my shoes and experienced what I did.