Until third grade, Michelle attended public school and then she transferred to the Hillel Yeshiva. The greatest lesson Michelle feels she learned at this Yeshiva was articulated by Rabbi Hillel (30BC-10AD), one of the greatest rabbis of the Talmudic era in his famous quote, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.” There were two students in her sixth grade graduating class.
Michelle returned to public school for seventh grade, stopped wearing skirts with pants underneath and re-befriended her former best-friend whom she had lost touch with during her yeshiva years. Her friend’s father had since died, her mother turned into a raging alcoholic and her older brothers spent most of their time in their bedrooms listening to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in a state Michelle still was too young to recognize. Michelle’s friend lived without rules as she had no supervision. Just what every teenage girl wants and what every parent doesn’t.
Being the oldest and the only daughter in the family, Michelle’s parents’ strictness suffocated her. She decided she wanted to study abroad in Paris in order to get distance from her parental-choke-hold. Her Zionist parents rejected that idea and sent Michelle to Israel to study Judaism and Hebrew with the Rabbi’s perfectly well-behaved and obedient daughter Miriam. Michelle was sixteen-years-old and the year was 1982.
Despite having come from Utica, New York, the transition to the Ben Shemen Boarding School was effortless for Michelle. She soon had an Israeli boyfriend. When he told her he was a Kahanist, she had no idea what he was talking about. “I believe in transfer,” he told her. “There are 21 Arab countries, the Palestinians must choose one of them. We don’t want them in this country.” And who was Michelle to question him? She thought Palestinian was a synonym for Israeli. After all, Michelle had been taught that Israel was a land without a people. She had never met a Palestinian. As it turned out, Michelle’s socializing helped advance her Hebrew more than the flash cards Miriam was constantly reviewing in their room. She had become a top student. Of course she decided to stay.
When Michelle graduated from high school, she enrolled in the preparatory program at the Rothberg International School to improve her Hebrew in order to attend the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her boyfriend was unhappy. “There are too many Arab Israelis in Jerusalem.” He was in the military by then and would come to visit her with his loaded M-16, as required by law.
Michelle’s parents, in an attempt to break-up her relationship with the Kahanist, sent her to Paris for the summer to study French. There she met a girl from Beverly Hills and they spent most of their nights in exclusive clubs filled with rich, educated Lebanese men. Those were the first Arabs Michelle had ever met. They had quite a different version of Israel than the one she had learned. With her eyes opened, Michelle returned to Israel.
After she dropped the Kahanist, Michelle enrolled in the Middle Eastern studies program at the Hebrew University. She was the only American in her department. The rest of the students were Israeli Jews and “Arab Israelis.” After her experience in Paris, Michelle befriended the latter, but they were nothing like the elite Lebanese she had met. They were poor, second-class citizens and Michelle had to hide her friendship with them out of fear she might be failed-out.
At the start, Michelle was the only one in the department who didn’t know who Mohammad was. As she soon learned, both the “Arab Israelis” and Michelle had no knowledge of the version of Islam and Middle Eastern History that was being taught at her department. It was forbidden to write Palestine because it never existed. Before 1948 there was the empty land of Israel and afterwards there was Israel. It is true what they say that history is written by the victors. Michelle was quickly learning another history from her “Arab-Israeli” friends. Plus, she witnessed first-hand how they were treated.
When Michelle told her parents, they refused to believe her. Her parents, who are liberal democrats, who were the first to support Martin Luther King Jr. and all of the civil rights legislation that followed his marches and were opposed to the Apartheid in South Africa, didn’t want to hear and refused to believe what she was saying. In fact, none of the American Jews she knew believed or wanted to hear what she was saying. She had never witnessed such racism and discrimination in her life. In fact, she was mystified to observe how the same group of people could be vehemently opposed to oppression and racism of blacks in the US and around the world, could support a similar form of discrimination and oppression of Palestinians. It was then that she realized how she differed from the other American Jews she knew. The lessons she learned from the Holocaust were that they can never be bystanders to human suffering whether it be Jewish or non-Jewish. The lessons the other Jews learned was the Berlin Wall. They can only rely on themselves. They must do whatever it takes so that they can have an as close to an ethno-religiously pure Jewish country as they can in case it’s needed and they will achieve that goal regardless of what they have to do to the non-Jewish natives. Michelle felt like she was pitted against the rest. At that time, she didn’t know anyone else who took her position. She had never heard of Amira Hass or Ilan Pappe at that point in her life.
The last year Michelle was there, the intifada broke out. Things went from horrible to unbearable. Something needed to be done and Michelle was determined to help bring it about. Michelle returned to the United States to pursue her master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. She was determined to devote herself to achieving a just peace in the Middle East and defending the oppressed. She devoted her every breath to that goal.
While at Harvard, Michelle won a Foreign Language & Area Studies fellowship to pursue Arabic at Middlebury College’s summer total immersion program. As Michelle had already studied Arabic for four years, she entered at the advanced level. When Michelle finished the program, she went with a classmate to Walden Pond and they were speaking in Modern Standard Arabic when three Arabs approached them. One spoke to Michelle in colloquial Palestinian. He, who we’ll call Hasan, told Michelle she spoke like Nagib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel Laureate.
Hasan had completed his PhD in Chemical Physics at the Hebrew University and was doing his post-doctorate with a Nobel Prize winner at Harvard. Michelle and Hasan knew the same people, had lived in the same dorm and had the same birthday. She learned his father had gone to prison when he was young and wasn’t released until Hasan was in graduate school. Hasan’s father had helped a refugee bury arms. Hasan, being the oldest son of nine children with an illiterate mother, had to work to support his family from a very young age. Due to circumstances, Hasan was only able to attend school on occasion. But because he was brilliant in math and science, he didn’t need more. He eventually won a scholarship to the university. There, the Israelis recognized his genius and embraced him. He grew up in a mud brick one room house. They didn’t get electricity until he left for college. Michelle was going to make up for everything he had suffered.
Michelle graduated from the master’s program at Harvard and started law school (She was going to be an international human rights lawyer) and her PhD at Harvard at the same time. The Middle Eastern studies program had been easy for Michelle, but law school was a different story. She felt she should have read Scott Turow’s One L before she started. She was studying twenty hours a day. Michelle did a semester of law school in England where she took ten classes at Cambridge University and two at Regents College in every aspect of International law they offered. Michelle never went out while Hasan tried to find a professorship. Since Michelle spoke to him in Arabic, she hadn’t realized that his English was practically non-existent and so Michelle had to spend many evenings translating and listening to his lectures in Chemical Physics.
When Michelle met Hasan she didn’t realize that getting an academic position would be harder than achieving peace in the Middle East, with up to a thousand top candidates applying for the seven or eight positions that opened up each year. She told him it was fine for his mentor, a Nobel Prize winner, to take risks, but he was at the start of his career. Little did Michelle know that he was at the forefront of nanotechnology. With the pressure from her studies and his job search she crumbled.
Michelle decided to do an internship her last semester in law school with her father’s law firm in her hometown. There, she met her husband who had recently returned home from Los Angeles and never looked back. She had wanted to save the Palestinians and in the end she only saved herself.
For twenty years, Michelle successfully buried her past and pretended it never happened until she started reading Khaleed Hosseni’s book, The Kite Runner. She was lying on a lounge chair, by the pool, at the Setai hotel, in South Beach, sipping a cosmopolitan. She was on vacation with her husband and twins. She didn’t have a care in the world until Amir, the protagonist, said that the past can’t be buried, that it finds the means to claw its way out. And like Amir, Michelle’s past found a way to call her. And there she was face-to-face with her worst nightmares and her greatest failures. One might say a defining moment. And Michelle decided, that she wanted her children to know, that she had seen injustice and that she would try to do something about it. And so Michelle wrote the story that had been inside of her for so long.
The Kite Runner forced Michelle to deal with her past, but it also gave her a way to be good again. She realized that when she read the passage about how history and religion weren’t easy to overcome and in the end Amir was a Pashtun and Hasan a Hazara— she knew she was finally ready to tell the story that had been inside her for twenty years. She would show how such obstacles between Israelis and Palestinians could be transcended for she had seen it with her own eyes.
For five years, while her friends shopped, Michelle slaved over this novel because she had found a different way to achieve her dream. While a human rights lawyer can save a few, a writer can reach into the hearts of many and affect them forever. Even if she makes a ripple, Michelle feels that she will have succeeded.
The Almond Tree is fiction and the characters are straight from Michelle’s imagination, but it has a sound and accurate base in reality.
Michelle’s motto is “May the battles we fight be for the advancement of the human race.”