A Young Writer's Hope for the Middle East
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.
Jennifer Miller has interviewed Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Colin Powell. In fact, she's interviewed just about all the major players in the Middle East peace process. But for her, the real players are the young Israelis and Palestinians who are not names in the news. She's woven their stories into the tapestry of the conflict in her new book, "Inheriting the Holy Land: An American's Search for Hope in the Middle East." In the book, she recalls her first visit to Israeli-occupied Gaza.
Ms. JENNIFER MILLER (Author, "Inheriting the Holy Land"): (Reading) `The second I turned from the car, I erupted into tears. I knew it was best to shove back down whatever I was feeling, have my shower and go to sleep. But once I felt the water over me, no amount of scrubbing seemed good enough. The grime of Gaza had sunk through my skin. I felt utterly disgusted. I was disgusted by those disgusting refugee camps, the disgusting ideas I heard there and the disgusting circumstances that fed them. I was disgusted with myself for thinking all day long how lucky I was not to have been born into such a cesspool, among sewage and soldiers, Kalashnikovs and Qassam rockets, bulldozers and graffiti proclaiming death. Even though these people were stuck in Gaza against their will, I was disgusted that any Palestinian would dare conceive a child in such a cage. It was a horrible, unfair thought, but I didn't care. I was as disgusted with the Gazans as I was with the Israelis.'
ELLIOTT: Miller is the 25-year-old daughter of a US Mideast negotiator. She became engaged with the Middle East conflict at a camp in Maine for young Arabs and Israelis called Seeds of Peace. Her book follows campers as they become unlikely friends.
Ms. MILLER: Omari(ph) is a young Israeli who I met at the Seeds of Peace camp. And what was so interesting about Omari is that he did not come to Seeds of Peace because he wanted to make peace. He actually came, as he said, to, quote, "kick some Arab butt." And what he meant by that was he realized this was his opportunity to confront Palestinians his own age for the first time and tell them the, quote, unquote, "truth" about the conflict as he saw it. And, of course, Omari was extremely right wing in his politics.
Three days into camp, his best friend had become Mohamed(ph), who is a Palestinian from the Old City in East Jerusalem. And the two boys were really able to connect initially over their obsession with basketball and then, later, to be able to delve into the very difficult issues of history and identity and politics and all of that.
ELLIOTT: So Omari, in particular, came in with this hard-line attitude and even had promised his friends back home that, `Oh, I'm not going to go and come back as a man of peace.' Was there something that cued you to his transformation?
Ms. MILLER: It was really seeing Omari back in Israel that alerted me to this, and there were little things. His screen saver, for example, is a photo of the camp, and he was even telling me--for example, his favorite Israeli rapper is a hip-hop artist named Subliminal, whose lyrics are very controversial. Many people accuse Subliminal of being racist. And Omari would tell me that before he went to Seeds of Peace, he would go to concerts where 40,000 Israeli teen-agers would be shouting, `Death to the Arabs!' and Omari would be shouting the loudest, as he said. After Seeds of Peace, he would not do that anymore. He has a profound sense of respect for his Palestinian friends, and he knows that that kind of innate anger and emotion is just not going to get him anywhere.
ELLIOTT: We should point out that you are Jewish and grew up in a suburb of Washington, DC. How did your own set of beliefs come to change, though? Now you even get to the point where you question the need for a Jewish homeland.
Ms. MILLER: These are issues that I'm constantly grappling with, and the one that you refer to--you know, how can Israeli exist as a Jewish state and a democracy?--is something that I constantly grapple with, on the one hand, as a Jew, but on the other hand, as someone who has very close Palestinian friends as well as friends with Arab citizens of Israel. And, you know, I think it's important to grapple with these ideas, but I haven't made up my mind in any sense. I mean, I believe that there should be a Jewish state; I understand the importance of that to Israeli citizens and Israeli society. At the same time, you know, there's got to be equal rights for Israel's Arab citizens, and so this is a dialogue and a debate that I'm constantly having with myself.
ELLIOTT: You're very up front in the book about how your whole experience researching this book forced you to sort of confront your own set of beliefs.
Ms. MILLER: In "Inheriting the Holy Land," I take a lot of risks, go into communities that I did not feel initially comfortable going into. One example I give is of the settlements. It took me a long time to overcome my bias of the settlers' ideology and to actually go there and sit with them face to face and confront their own opinions. And, of course, being able to spend shabbat with them and experience their religious services showed me their human side and showed me the complexity of their role in the conflict in a way that I had really refused to admit before I actually went to the settlements.
ELLIOTT: Will you read to us from your book where you talk about your experience with the Jewish settlers on the West Bank?
Ms. MILLER: Sure. So this is from my chapter--it's entitled "Tekoa," which is a settlement in the West Bank, and these are some thoughts that I have as I am driving through the West Bank.
(Reading) `And suddenly I lost all sense of why these people were fighting each other. It was as though I had spent weeks studying for an exam, and the moment I had it in front of me, my mind blanked. I struggled to recall the ideological disputes and historical grievances, to get back to reality. I could not. For one pristine moment, I felt that land love that Israelis and Palestinians share and over which they clashed. I understood that my initial reaction to Gush Etzion and Tekoa--that Jews had no right to be there--was fueled by my belief that settlers represented a moral injustice and so were not worthy of the same patience and understanding I had so willingly given to Palestinians. Now driving through the West Bank, I knew it was more complicated.'
ELLIOTT: Jennifer Miller is the author of "Inheriting the Holy Land."
Thank you so much for being with us.
Ms. MILLER: Thanks for having me on.