Michelle Cohen Corasanti: Never Again!
"... 'never again' should mean never again for anyone ..."
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
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