Michelle Cohen Corasanti is the Jewish American author of The Almond Tree, a novel that examines the plight of the Palestinians of Israel and Gaza through the eyes of a boy named Ichmad. Corasanti lived in Israel for seven years, where she attended the Hebrew University and saw the horrors and humiliations Palestinians are subjected to on a daily basis.
Les Edgerton wrote in his review of the book: “Ichmad’s story is a big-hearted story of a small Palestinian boy who learns to survive in a brutal environment and doesn’t simply endure, but emerges from the fire with the wisdom gleaned from the example of a father who has taught him that all men have value, even their enemies. A tale of innocence moving through a vicious world, compassion learned against an environment of daily horrors, and wisdom forged through a boy’s journey through a life we would never wish upon our own children. The book’s universal message of resilience, hope and forgiveness will hit home with anyone who has faced adversity. Cohen Corasanti’s novel brings humanity and clarity to the Arab-Israeli conflict, exploring themes of redemption, family sacrifice and the benefits of education and tolerance. Her personal experience of living in Israel for seven years and her undergraduate degree from the Hebrew University and her MA from Harvard, both in Middle Eastern studies, as well as being a lawyer trained in international and human rights’ law, gave her the perspective, insight and ability to craft this story.”
Michelle Cohen Corasanti explains the book’s genesis in her own words:
“I went there [i.e., to Israel] in high school with our Rabbi’s daughter. I was taught that after the Holocaust the Jews found a land for a people for a people without a land and made the desert bloom. I also was taught that Jews were always persecuted due to no fault of their own. I was shocked and horrified to learn that everything I had been taught turned out to be a lie. The victims had become the victimizers. I had never seen oppression and racism like I witnessed in Israel. The Israelis don’t want the Palestinians because they aren’t Jewish. It’s as simple as that. The Israelis want a Jewish-only country and are trying to make life so miserable for the Palestinians that anyone who wants any kind of life for their family will leave.”
“I went to Israel for fun and some parental freedom, but instead I became the witness who saw too much. One of the only glimmers of hope I saw during all my years involved in the conflict basically became the seed of the story. When I returned to the US, I was suffering from severe culture shock. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the intifada broke out during the last part of my stay in Israel. Israel’s policy of “break their bones” and “might, force and beatings” [also known as the “Iron Wall” doctrine] pushed me over the edge. I came back to go to graduate school at Harvard [majoring] in Middle Eastern studies. I was going to fight for justice for the Palestinians. At Harvard, I tried to tell everyone about the plight of the Palestinians, but no one cared. All the Harvard students I spoke with cared about was boycotting tuna fish because they killed dolphins when they caught the tuna.
“I won a merit fellowship to study Arabic over the summer and when I returned for my second year of graduate school at Harvard, I went with my professor to Walden Pond. I was speaking to him in modern standard Arabic and three Palestinians approached us. One spoke directly to me. He had lived in the same dorms as me at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. We knew the same people and had the same birth day, though he was five years older than me. It was love at first sight. I discovered he was doing his post-doctorate at Harvard jointly with a Noble Prize winner and his Israeli PhD advisor. His father went to prison when he was twelve years old after he helped a refugee who snuck back into the country to bury weapons. Being the oldest of nine with an illiterate mother, he was forced to become the breadwinner. But because of his genius in math and science, he was able to attend school infrequently and still get a need-based scholarship to he Hebrew University. In an environment of publish or perish, the playing field was leveled and the Israelis soon noticed and embraced his genius. Their love for science surpassed their love for country. I chose to base my story on the rarest of occasions, the perfect storm when all of the stars just happened to line up. This is by no means the norm. If it was, there would be no conflict. The relationship between the Palestinian and Israeli scientists showed me how strong we could be if we pooled forces, if we celebrated differences and focused on our commonalities to advance humanity. Almost everything in the book is fictionalized reality: either something I saw with my own eyes, experienced, read about or heard about over the years.”
Michelle Cohen Corasanti explains her book’s intended message:
“The message I would like the Zionists to take away is that we didn’t survive the Holocaust to go from victim to victimizer. That ‘never again’ should mean never again for anyone, not ‘Now it’s my turn.’ The message to the world is that we cannot be bystanders to human suffering. We need to find our common humanity and advance each other because the alternative will only lead to destruction. Every life is precious.”
A letter to the President from Michelle Cohen Corasanti:
Dear Mr. President,
I salute the brilliant humanistic speech about the Palestinian people that you made on your most recent trip to Israel. The fact that it was delivered to an audience of Jewish students in Jerusalem made it all the more groundbreaking and important. You said, “Put yourself in their shoes — look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents, every single day.”
I, myself, am Jewish and care deeply for my people. But, many of us have forgotten our history. We have forgotten that the Nazis said evil was in our blood. They took our houses, arrested our fathers, killed our children, and ghettoized our families. They wanted to purify their land by ridding it of our kind. Our crime? We were Jewish! In order to put ourselves in The Palestinians’ shoes, all we have to do is remember our past. We were in their shoes and we asked, Where are our oppressors’ hearts? Have they no mercy? Where are the objectors among them?
These are the lessons the Holocaust taught me: We must never be bystanders to human suffering. “Never again” means never again for any people ever again. When the horrors of the Holocaust were uncovered, there was a need to find a place for the survivors to go. The west, didn’t want us so they were happy to give us Palestine. And they were happy to buy the fallacy that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land”, and that we made the desert bloom. Let’s be honest, Palestine already had a people, the Palestinians, and the vast majority of whom were not Jewish. Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Acre, Haifa, Nazareth, Jaffa and many more cities were already well-developed. These cities were made of stone and contained universities, hospitals, schools tea houses and hotels. There were trains, sea ports and international trade and travel. The desert we brought to bloom was the land on which we built Tel Aviv in 1909, and that’s it.
In 1947, when the UN proposed to partition Palestine into a Jewish and a Palestinian state, the Palestinians objected to the partition plan and instead argued for the creation of a secular democracy where Jews, Christians and Muslims would live together with equal rights. As you know, the west rejected their proposal for democracy.
In November, 1947 we began to execute our Plan Dalet to ethnically cleanse Palestine of the non-Jewish majority. We took, by force of arms, the cities of Haifa and Jaffa, creating hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in the process. Having seen the devastation and injustice caused by Plan Dalet, five Arab countries decided on military intervention, but the 60,000 poorly armed and trained Arab soldiers were no match for the 90,000 heavily armed and well trained Zionist soldiers. When we won the war and took even more Palestinian land than the UN gave us, we told the world that David beat Goliath and the west was happy to believe it.
But we need to be honest. The Palestinians have paid the price for the Holocaust. We ethnically cleansed as many as we could, which is well-documented by Israeli historians, including from the left Ilan Pappe to the right Benny Morris. We kicked them out and refused to let them back in. We looted their houses, we took the beautiful ones for ourselves and then we razed 500 of their villages so they wouldn’t have a place to come home to. We were once made refugees in Europe and now we have immigrated to Palestine and made the Palestinians refugees. When we wouldn’t let them return, they resorted to violence, so we called them terrorists and made it stick.
Only awareness can set us free, because awareness leads to understanding, and understanding leads to change. We cannot turn a blind eye to the truth. We have the power now, but that won’t last if we don’t give others what we want for ourselves. The greatest lesson I learned from Judaism was articulated by Rabbi Hillel, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”
We cannot keep repeating our same history: We are persecuted, we overcome, we abuse and we are persecuted again. The Palestinians’ crime is that they are not Jewish; because if they were, we would accept them with open arms. I lived in Israel for seven years. It’s easy to live there and never notice anything. We were segregated from the Palestinians and taught that they are evil and violent and less than human, that their lives don’t matter.
We managed to convince the US that we, with one of the strongest militaries in the world, a nuclear regional superpower, are threatened by an unarmed population that has no army, no navy, no airplanes, no tanks, and no nuclear weapons, where the majority of them are children.
Mr. President, I want you to know that I saw the way the Palestinians were treated, and I felt embarrassed to be both American and Jewish. You’re no doubt aware, Zionism is secular nationalism, and couldn’t be further from Judaism. I wanted to help. I did my BA at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and my MA at Harvard both in Middle Eastern studies. I’m also a lawyer trained in human rights. But there was little that could be done until I read The Kite Runner, and realized a writer could reach into readers’ hearts and change them forever. I wrote The Almond Tree in the voice of a Palestinian Muslim. I became him in an attempt to reach my people. I don’t try to say who is right and who is wrong, I just appeal to our values of democracy and equal rights for all. All sides of the conflict are embracing my book, as well as people who have no interest in the subject, because I tell a very human story about a boy who, against all odds, is able to achieve what others have only dreamed.
I know that our government has the power to help the Israeli government to do the right thing. You will remember that not long ago the United States had a similar relationship with South Africa. The Reagan administration considered Nelson Mandela a dangerous terrorist, and the white Afrikaner government a close ally. The Apartheid government of South Africa knew that they would never have to dismantle their Apartheid system of control and discrimination unless the United States told them to do so. For South Africa, it didn’t matter that the rest of the world condemned apartheid and called for democratic reforms to take place because as long as the United States didn’t complain, South Africa felt empowered to ignore the rest of the world. Democracy and equality for all came to South Africa when we changed our policy. If we change our policy now, we can help Israel revisit its core Jewish values and do the right thing for everyone.
David Broza, one of Israel’s greatest singers, and Guillermo Fesser, a Spanish TV and radio host have joined me to form The Almond Tree Project. We held our first event at a theatre in Utica, NY, on April 23rd. The Almond Tree Project entertained a crowd of approximately 500 people with music and discussion about Israel and Palestine. The event also included a presentation by and interview of Miko Peled, Author of The General’s Son. I wanted you to know that we are responding to your call to action.
With best regards,
Michelle Cohen Corasanti
Author of The Almond Tree