Friday, March 31, 2006

Planting the Seeds of Peace in the Middle East: Book Review

Planting the Seeds of Peace in the Middle East

Inheriting the Holy Land:An American’s Search for Peace in the Middle East
by Jennifer Miller
$24.95 259 pp.
Random House

Dov Burt Levy
Jewish Journal North of Boston, March 31, 2006

When asked if I could review “Inheriting the Holy Land,” I wasn’t too keen on reading a book written by a 24-year-old only recently out of college. However, cover blurbs by Madeleine Albright, Shimon Peres, and Elie Weisel convinced me give it a try. I wasn’t disappointed.

Jennifer Miller is an excellent observer, interviewer and writer. In fact, this young woman is extraordinary.

The book springs from the author’s experience with Seeds of Peace, an organization aimed at promoting coexistence by bringing Israeli and Arab kids to a summer camp in Maine. Miller participated in the program during high school and was a counselor during her college years at Brown University. Her research began in Israel and the Palestinian areas in 2003 and the book was published in September 2005. This young woman does not waste time.

Miller wanted to see how effective the Seeds of Peace experience was, whether it resulted in promoting important values like openness, compromise, acceptance of differences, and to what extent these young people — many very close friends during summer meetings in Maine — continued their friendships back in the Middle East.

What did she find? Everybody had retained some feelings about their Seeds experience — some more, some less. These were good and decent youngsters, but going from peaceful, idyllic Maine to the reality of suicide bombings and Israeli military actions doesn’t make notions of peace, if not friendship and brotherhood, an easy go.

For example, Miller writes about two 15-year-old boys: Omri, an Israeli patriot who wears a large Star of David and his father’s army dog tags around his neck; and Mohammad, a soft-spoken and modest East Jerusalemite with incongruently flashy metallic sneakers.

The two were best friends during the Seeds experience, and the author caught up with them in Jerusalem just after a bus bombing in July 2003 ended a period of calm. Omri said: “I’m pissed off. I want to scream bad things, but I don’t, because I am a Seed. I feel really confused and I don’t know what to do; I’m a Seed but I’m also an Israeli.”

When asked if he talked to Mohammad, he replied, “I don’t have much to say to him right now. His nation hurt me. I don’t need to call him.”

When Miller phoned Mohammad, he said: “I think it’s wrong to kill innocent people … They shouldn’t have done this bombing, but what else can Palestinians do? This stuff will happen even when we are Seeds. We have to accept that we are in a conflict.” He hadn’t called Omri after the bombing even though an unwritten rule of Seeds’ etiquette was that Palestinians called Israelis if Israelis were targeted and vice-versa. Mohammed said: “Omri knows how I feel about the bombings.” Miller was not so sure he did.

This is just a fraction of much anecdotal material, which together provides a better picture but not definitive one. But it is a place to start, a place to think about how in the world — and these internecine conflicts are all over the world — something good may be played out in the future.

Miller’s participation in the Seeds of Peace movement also earned her access to many people and places. About a quarter of the book is a journalistic report of mostly private interviews with the main characters in the Israeli-Palestinian saga: Peres, Arafat, Ehud Barak, Colin Powell and others.

I hope you will love, as I did, Miller’s questions and the candid responses that often were so far from the public persona you know from the media. Her eye for scenery and place is sharp, her questions provocative, and for unspoken reasons (perhaps her unthreatening youth, charm and attractiveness, or the fact that Miller’s father is a State Department diplomat), the national figures answered in revealing ways. I learned a lot about these political characters, plus the humor — particularly the interview with Arafat — was very welcome.

Miller also interviews those less prominent, such as Jewish settlers, Arab refugees, soldiers, students and even the family of a young woman suicide bomber. Tough visits for Miller, but she seems to have gotten it right and had the courage to report faithfully.

No doubt, dear reader, you are wondering how a recent college graduate gets these interviews, writes a book, finds a major publisher and gets it all into print within two years.

Who knows exactly? But being the daughter of Aaron Miller, a negotiator at the Oslo and Camp David peace summits, was a big plus, wouldn’t you think?

As for the young author, she says: “My book is hopeful because it proves the Israel-Palestinian conflict is not the fight of good against evil. It proves that Israelis and Palestinians are not wired to hate each other … Young people in both societies have real potential to rise above their immediate circumstances, if given the opportunity to do so.”


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At 5:50 PM, Anonymous Roger said...

wonderful review...looking forward to reading this book!


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