An Essay by Michelle Cohen Corasanti.
At age sixteen, I wanted nothing more than to leave my home in Utica, New York for some place, any place that would offer freedom and adventure. My parents, liberal, strongly Zionist Jews, were more than protective; the line between mothering and smothering, had become intolerable. Finally they agreed to send me to Israel to study Judaism and Hebrew with our rabbi’s perfectly well behaved and obedient daughter Miriam. I was sixteen-years-old and it was the summer of 1982.
Other than the blue-and-white tin Jewish National Fund sedakah box my family kept in the kitchen and the money we gave to plant trees in Israel, all I knew was that after the Holocaust, the Jews found a land without a people for a people without a land and made the desert bloom. In retrospect, the sedakah box and the tree planting were a very smart way to create Jewish attachment to Israel. We saw the box every day in the kitchen and were reminded that Israel and our fate were the same. Planting trees was also brilliant, reinforcing the idea that Palestine was a barren land before the Jews arrived.
Even coming from a small town in Upstate New York, the transition to the Ben Shemen Boarding School was effortless. Located within a youth village in central Israel, we literally got off the bus and were immediately surrounded by the Israeli students. Among them was a gorgeous tall, dark and handsome boy named Rafi who soon asked me to be his girlfriend. This was exactly the kind of fun and freedom I had been looking for! As we got to know one another, Rafi told me he was a Kahanist. I had no idea what he was talking about.
“I believe in transfer,” he told me. “There are 21 Arab countries; the Palestinians must choose one of them. We don’t want them in this country.” And who was I to question him? I thought Palestinian was a synonym for Israeli. I had been taught, after all, that Israel was a land without a people. I had never met a Palestinian. And while I was at the school we never saw any Arabs.
That summer, I got my first glimpse of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict when Rafi and I went to visit his cousin in the north. We went to the border and I saw Israeli military vehicles entering Lebanon. Rafi told me that they were part of operation “Peace in the Galilee.” I didn’t really understand what I was seeing.
After being away, Utica seemed even less exciting and I persuaded my parents to allow me to finish high school in Israel. I switched to Hod Hasharon for my senior year. This boarding school was not as fun as Ben Shemen. Our schedule rotated between days spent sitting in class learning about our historical connection to Israel and days traveling throughout the country to historical Jewish sites to see what we had studied. We studied our secular subjects with tutors whenever we had free time. In the evenings, we would sing songs like “Am Yisrael Hi,” which means “the nation of Israel lives.” We’d dance around in circles, pump our fists in the air and work ourselves into an ecstatic state. As part of our program, we also made propaganda movies out of clips of angry Arabs that we were given.
At this point, I still had not met any Arabs, whether Palestinian, Jordanian, Lebanese, or Egyptian.
Having decided I wanted to attend the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I enrolled in the preparatory program at the Rothberg International School to improve my Hebrew. The instruction at the university is in Hebrew so I was going to need a high level of fluency in order to pass the language exam to be accepted there. I was excited about going to Jerusalem after having been at school in the sticks, but Rafi – the boyfriend – was unhappy. “There are too many Arabs in Jerusalem,” he said. By then he was in the military and despite his unhappiness he would come to visit me with his loaded M-16, as required by law.
The program was academically intense; we studied Hebrew, the horrors of the Holocaust, and Zionism. There were many foreigners in the school and surrounding us in the city, but despite Rafi’s fears, there was so much separation and segregation, I never encountered any Arabs that year.
That summer, I got my wish to go Paris to study French. While I was there I met Diana. She came from Beverly Hills, California and took me under her wing to show me how to have fun in “gai Paris.” Diana took me to exclusive dance clubs filled with rich, educated Lebanese men. They were the first Arabs I had ever met. I was thrilled to tell them that I lived in Israel and that we were neighbors. After all, Lebanon is right next door. Much to my surprise, they were enraged. They told me quite a different narrative than the one I had learned. According to them, the Zionists drove the Palestinians out of Palestine and wouldn’t let them return. They took nice Palestinian houses for themselves and razed the rest. The Palestinian refugees were still living in abject poverty in neighboring countries in refugee camps trying to return home to no avail. Having so many impoverished refugees was destabilizing host countries such as Lebanon. Then they went into detail about the horrors of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the massacres in Sabra and Shatilla. That’s when I remembered seeing Israeli soldiers being driven into Lebanon on military vehicles wielding automatic weapons and machine guns the previous summer.
With my eyes opened, I returned to Jerusalem. It wasn’t the same. I couldn’t forget what I had been told about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I dropped Rafi, the Kahanist. And I decided to enroll in the Middle Eastern studies program at Hebrew University. I was the only American in the department. The rest of the students were Israeli Jews and “Arab Israelis” as the Palestinians were referred to by the Israelis and described on their ID cards.
The contrast between the Lebanese I had met in France and my Palestinian classmates could not have been more startling. In Paris, they drank champagne and ate caviar. At the university, the Palestinians brought stuffed pigeons wrapped in newspaper from their villages. In Paris, they went to after parties in decadent penthouses. I still remember one apartment in which diamond chips were embedded in the paint on the wall, which made it sparkle. At the university, the Palestinians whose homes I visited lived in one-room mud brick houses with no furniture. In Paris, I remembered being driven on the Champs Elysees in a Maserati. At the university, the Palestinians barely had money for the bus.
I began forming friendships with some of my Palestinian classmates. It was not just the reality of life for the Palestinians in Israel that shocked me, but also the way that the Israeli students reacted when they saw me speaking to them. They were quick to tell me to stay away, that the Arabs were dangerous cockroaches who could not be trusted. And I soon learned that my professors would look no more kindly on these new friendships, forcing me to hide them, out of fear that they might fail me as a result. It was a very real fear.
I had grown up being taught to treat others the way I wanted to be treated. I remember learning about the Holocaust as a child, unable to believe that people could be so evil. The lesson I took from the Holocaust was that we can never be bystanders to the human suffering of any people, anywhere, ever again. Others learned the lesson of the Iron Wall: we can only rely on ourselves and must do whatever it takes to create an ethno-religiously pure Jewish country. This was my first exposure to how building that wall to protect one people, can harm another.
As a Jew I understood the need for Jewish people to have a place where they felt safe. And as a Jew, I also couldn’t understand creating that safe place at the expense of another people. When I told my parents about what I was learning they refused to believe me. This confused me even further since they had been among the first to support Martin Luther King Jr. and all of the civil rights legislation that resulted from his marches. They opposed Apartheid in South Africa. I was mystified to observe how the same group of people who were 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.
During my last year at Hebrew University, a Palestinian friend and I moved out of the dorms and into an apartment owned by a Palestinian family in Wadi Jose, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem that had become available because of the intifada which had started the previous December. As a result of the desperate economic situation, Palestinian families rented out their homes and moved in with their parents. The apartment I lived in was one of four that the owners had built into their home for their sons’ families in addition to a small two- room apartment for themselves. The four sons all rented their apartments, and with their wives and children all moved into their parents’ small apartment where they lived like sardines for the year I lived there.
From here, I had a front row seat to the Palestinians’ rock throwing, strikes and other acts of civil disobedience. Early every morning the organizers of the intifada would drop leaflets in the road for the Palestinians giving them the day’s instructions. My Arabic teacher, who was a settler, would bring the leaflets into class for us, her students, to translate. I also saw Israel’s response to the intifada, which they dubbed “force, might and beatings” and “break their bones.” Israeli soldiers would literally hold Palestinians who participated in the uprising by their arms and legs while other soldiers pounded them with rocks until their limbs broke. I remember one day when some Palestinians, who lived in the village next to the university, were buried alive by some Israelis. All I wanted was to try and find a way to make it stop.
Something needed to be done and I was determined to help bring it about. I returned to the United States to pursue my master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. I wanted to devote myself to achieving a just peace in the Middle East and defending the oppressed. When I came home, I tried to tell everyone there about what was happening in Israel. My parents did not want to hear about it and we could not speak about the conflict without almost coming to blows. I felt as if no one cared.
And after seven years in Israel, I was experiencing extreme culture shock. I thought I would reacclimatize immediately into American life. But having lived through the intifada, it was hard to gossip about guys, what to wear and what parties to attend. After a year in graduate school, I still hadn’t met a friend I could relate to until I met Ahmed (not his real name). He was a Palestinian from inside Israel or an “Arab-Israeli.”
We had both graduated from the same college in Jerusalem. We knew many of the same people and had lived in the same dorms. I was doing my masters and he, his post-doctorate in chemical physics jointly with a Nobel Prize winner and his Israeli professor. I finally felt at home. We had come from the same world, or so it felt at the time. We married shortly after. My parents’ dreams of me marrying an educated Jewish American with potential were long dead so they accepted him. I’m sure it helped that the Nobel Prize winner made a speech about Ahmed at our wedding celebration in my hometown since we had already eloped.
Soon after we went to Ahmed’s home village to spend the summer living with his family. Now I wasn’t a visitor in my Palestinian husband’s world, I was his wife and as such, a part of his world. Yet he never told his family I was Jewish. They never asked how I had learned to speak Arabic. And during our stay in his family’s village, I began to see that despite my love for him and his people, we were perhaps not from the same world. I was not used to being surrounded by so many people all the time. Everyone in the village had binoculars and everyone watched everyone else. Even when Ahmed and I were alone, people would watch. I was not used to being the center of so much attention.
We returned to the US; I started law school. I was also working on my PhD. When Ahmed decided he wanted to become a professor at a major research university, I discovered he barely spoke English. We had always spoken in Arabic and he’d also been able to use his Hebrew with his Israeli mentor. And it became clear that in order to land the kind of teaching post he wanted, Ahmed needed to be able to teach in English. So in my free time, between the JD and PhD, I translated his lectures from Arabic to English.
I began to realize I was never going to be able to make up for everything that Ahmed had suffered growing up as a Palestinian in Israel. And after ten years of studying around the clock, never going out, preparing myself to help end this needless suffering, I was utterly exhausted and overwhelmed. I had been passionate about wanting to do something about the conflict, but now I felt only the urge to escape, to put it behind me. So I jumped ship. And now I must reveal the worst part of me. I divorced my Palestinian husband. I walked away. I made myself forget. I buried my past.
I reinvented myself. I went home, married a man who grew up five minutes for my parents’ house, became a family lawyer and lived my American life.
Fast forward ten years. It was 2007, I began reading The Kite Runner. I didn’t have a care in the world until Amir, the protagonist, said that the past couldn’t be buried, that it finds the means to claw its way out. And like Amir, my past found a way to call me. And there I was, despite all my efforts, face-to-face with my worst nightmares and my greatest failures. But The Kite Runner gave me a way to shine a light on what I witnessed. It made me realize I could step into the shoes of the many Palestinians’ I had known and loved over the years and tell their narrative, the one that has always haunted me, the one that is little known in the US.
Although I wrote in Palestinian and Israeli voices, one thing remained constant throughout my story, the almond tree. People asked me why I chose The Almond Tree as my novel’s title and frankly, I didn’t know until one brilliant interviewer from The Times of India asked: what the significance of the almond tree was, why it’s a witness to the atrocities but stands mute and silent, and if silence could ever be an answer to violence. That’s when I realized that I was the almond tree and my story is my refusal to remain silent. I tried to tell it through the voices of others, but what I was really doing was putting the readers in my shoes to see what I witnessed and learned. I have now owned that I was married before to a Palestinian, in another world, but it was my world too. No person with a consciousness can forget what he knows, where he’s been or the ones he left behind. For me the conflict has never been about religion, nationality, ethnicity or the color of one’s skin. For me it’s about being human and by writing a human story I hope that it can help us find our common humanity. I didn’t write the Zionist narrative, nor the Palestinian one. I wrote the narrative I had witessed in an attempt to shine a light on the ones I left behind. By giving voice to the almond tree, I am not only a witness but a truth teller. I have come to learn that awareness leads to empathy, compassion and understanding, and understanding leads to change.
This is the story behind the story; a story I would have preferred to keep to myself. But perhaps it is necessary for people to know more about me. I was a reluctant witness to events that are so horrific, I could not remain silent though I tried, I’m sorry to say.
But now I must speak, bear witness, to what I saw with my own eyes. If this story can help us get, even one step closer, to a peaceful resolution, I am willing to tell it as loud as I can.