Desperately seeking peace

Jennifer Miller, the daughter of a top Middle East diplomat, went on "a search for hope" among young Israelis and Palestinians. But her journey is too self-centered and sentimental to be illuminating.

Published September 21, 2005 5:41PM (EDT)

Although we prefer to think of our cultural and political institutions as meritocracies, in America, nepotism is fair play. Whether it's the White House or the Warner Bros. studio, getting your foot in the door can be a bit of a slog. And one of the best ways to avoid the tedious work of making a name for yourself is to have one already. The publishing industry is no exception, of course. Children of famous parents score book deals all the time -- and why shouldn't they? Just because an author happens to be a legacy doesn't mean his or her writing can't be taken seriously. On the other hand, personal heritage is not a free pass.

To her credit, Jennifer Miller acknowledges in the introduction to her first book, "Inheriting the Holy Land," that she comes from a privileged background. She jokes that "Middle East peace is the Miller family business" and adds that she has been "completely drawn into my parents' world." Considering her parents' stature and the fascinating complexities of the region, it's easy to see how she would be inspired to enter the fray. Aaron Miller, her father, was a top advisor on Middle East policy for the Clinton administration and was among the diplomats who steered negotiations on the Oslo and Camp David Accords. Lindsay Miller, her mother, is a former vice president of Seeds of Peace, a high-profile summer camp that brings Israeli and Palestinian teens together to build leadership and conflict-resolution skills in the woods of Maine. Lindsay is now on the board of directors, and Aaron has since retired from the State Department to become president of the organization.

By her own account, Miller is a dutiful daughter. That is to say, she admires her parents and the work they do, has internalized the values they instilled in her and hopes to honor them as an adult (she is 24). As a girl she felt indifferent, sometimes embarrassed, by her parents' political commitment. She remembers her early refusal to read the newspaper and how she stood passively on the White House lawn as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands to inaugurate the Oslo era. But she got "hooked" on Seeds of Peace, she explains, when she attended camp with a small group of Americans at the age of 16, and she continued to work as a staff counselor there through college. After graduation she spent six months in Israel and the occupied territories catching up with former "Seeds," exploring their respective cultures and discussing prospects for peace with her father's colleagues, who happen to be the region's most powerful players.

"Inheriting the Holy Land," a hybrid of reportage and memoir, strings together anecdotal reflections from this "challenging, often lonely trip," a self-described "journey through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" that "acquainted me with the diversity outside my own small life." Dedicated to Miller's parents, the book is guided by their example and benefits noticeably from their prestige. (When she sits down to interview senior Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan, for example, he opens by exclaiming, "It is wonderful to have you here ... Let's call Aaron!")

What a disappointment, then, to find that Miller largely squandered the opportunity her extraordinary access provided. The questions she poses to the region's leaders -- she talks at various points with Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Saeb Erekat and Mahmoud Abbas, among others -- are so broad, so abstract, they're easily fielded or tossed aside. These men are quite skilled in the art of the dodge, and Miller is no Oriana Fallaci. A remarkable exchange with Yasser Arafat, who at the time was enduring his last days in the crumbling Muqata, re-imagines this back-and-forth as vaudeville. She fires ridiculous questions at him -- "What does it mean, Mr. Chairman, for a young Palestinian to be an independent thinker in Palestine?" -- to which he insistently responds, "We are proud of it." They retire to lunch, during which Arafat drops a piece of broccoli into Miller's palm and demands that she eat.

The premise of Miller's trip is voyeuristic and ultimately inner-directed, an uncomfortable fact that she only partially acknowledges. "I live thousands of miles away from the violence of Gaza and Tel Aviv," she writes. "I ride the bus and never wonder whether someone might detonate a bomb inside of it; and I have never seen a tank parked outside my home or waited hours at a checkpoint to get to school. After I lived among Israelis and Palestinians, I realized how much I took my freedom and security for granted." Reading such lines, one begins to wonder about Miller's true subject. Who is doing the "inheriting" here: the children who have been subjected to the spectacular violence of the second intifada or their hopeful delegate, an American Jew with a budding commitment to humanism and a vaguely guilty conscience?

The book proceeds at a brisk pace, thanks to Miller's informal, ordinary-girl tone and her generous use of dialogue. She seems more interested in sharing stories than making pronouncements, which could be a matter of form following fitness, since she's more adept as a moderator than as an analyst. As a narrator she is attentive to stage direction and diligent about recording salient details for color and context. Her unsentimental depiction of the places she visits -- cramped homes, Westernized cafes, cluttered offices, checkpoints -- properly shrinks the conflict, too often portrayed in epic proportions, down to its human scale. The people she talks to, whether Seeds of Peace alumni or political dignitaries, speak for themselves, and she portrays them credibly as individuals.

As a commentator, however, Miller is less reliable. Her extended take on Israeli and Palestinian history textbooks, for example, tilts unfairly in favor of Israeli nationalism. She purports to approach her "impartial, academic research" with an "impersonal eye," but she filters her discussion on this and other topics through a Zionist, security-first lens. In her estimation, both curricula deny or distort the other side's historical claims. But she excuses Israeli public schools for including "academic or cultural" references to Bible stories, in which Jews are chosen by God to live in Israel, whereas she concludes that Quranic references to jihad in Palestinian textbooks "cannot help but stir up students' emotions."

Miller's own understanding of history is factually accurate, but put to little use, and she gives rather short shrift to substantive explication of the conflict's most pressing concerns: Israeli occupation, West Bank settlement expansion, and construction of a separation wall beyond the 1967 Green Line; Palestinian poverty and political paralysis, and the Islamist militants who benefit from both; the second-class citizenship of Israeli Arabs and the paradoxical nature of a "Jewish democracy"; governance of Jerusalem; borders; disputes over the refugees' "right of return."

All of these matters receive a requisite nod, and in some instances a few pages of expository analysis, which will be helpful as background for readers who are just beginning to regard the conflict critically (this book's ideal audience). But Miller devotes more attention to the personalities of her subjects and her experience meeting them than to the views they espouse. Never mind the political details, she seems to suggest; if the next generation of leaders can learn to respect each other, everything will work out for the best when they meet to hash out final-status arrangements. "To interest young Israelis and Palestinians in political and social action -- to teach them the way of the negotiator as opposed to that of the fighter -- is the only way to invest in the future of these nations and ultimately solve the conflict between them," she explains. This might be true, but it's also willfully naive, blustery and totally inadequate. Rhetoric that calls to mind Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All" is no basis for understanding.

Miller further reveals her bias, however inadvertently, through her selective reporting and evident discomfort with Palestinian society. She bravely pushes herself beyond the boundaries of her comfort zone, but conditions in the territories fill her with trepidation. Her judgments are clouded by fear, and consequently Palestine is presented as a laboratory for cultivating terrorists. When Miller visits a school in Ramallah, she is shocked to discover posters of martyrs in a nearby courtyard and concludes that educators, in their pessimism, are tacitly handing their students over to militants.

Likewise, a daylong tour through Gaza introduces a gallery of Islamist stereotypes: In Gaza City she meets with Ghazi Hamad, editor of a Hamas-affiliated newspaper, whose every claim to a pragmatic platform she doubts; a refugee in Rafah dispenses conspiracy theories about Zionist control of the global media; and Ola, a 19-year-old Seeds of Peace graduate, acknowledges that she understands the motivations of the 9/11 hijackers. As soon as Miller returned safely home that night, she remembers, she broke down in tears. "I was disgusted by those disgusting refugee camps, the disgusting ideas I heard there, and the disgusting circumstances that fed them," she writes. "I was disgusted with myself for thinking all day long how lucky I was to not have been born in such a cesspool: among sewage and soldiers, Kalashnikovs and Qassam rockets, bulldozers and graffiti proclaiming death." So much for I and Thou.

Eager to establish credibility as an honest broker, however, Miller projects herself as a nonideological observer attuned to the suffering on both sides. This tendency often leads her to abandon contradictions as soon as she acknowledges them, to reserve judgment where it is due, and to fall back on bromides better suited to a Seeds of Peace brochure. In a typical passage she reconnects with Uri, a former camper who has since become a tank commander in the Israeli Defense Forces. Dazzled by his transformation from a pimply kid to a handsome man, and excited to catch up with an old acquaintance, she listens with concern (and perhaps some vicarious thrill) as he recounts his experience in the military and tells her about his unit's siege of the West Bank town of Qalqilya in 2002. She does not investigate the number of civilians killed during the raid, nor add that the town is now surrounded on all sides by 30-foot slabs of concrete, with entry and exit access subject to IDF approval. Instead, she asks, "You don't see any contradiction between making Palestinian friends at Seeds of Peace and fighting against them in the army?" He tries to change the subject. She presses him for an answer, at which point he relents with a halfhearted criticism of Israeli aggression.

The question Miller leaves hanging is a provocative one, and she poses it on several different occasions, to herself and others, throughout the book. She asks Omri, a young Israeli right-winger with a hip-hop attitude and some bling in the shape of a Star of David, if he will remain friends with a fellow Palestinian camper. "No," he answers. "My nation is more important to me than Mohammad." In turn, Mohammad confides, "It's not a good idea for him to visit the Muslim Quarter with his star." These sobering admissions lend credence to the widespread feeling among campers that Seeds of Peace is a "dream," its pleasant confines a bucolic retreat from the reality of their everyday life. "Even if Seeds of Peace gives its graduates a greater sense of individuality," Miller acknowledges, "their national identities can still trump their personal allegiances to each other."

And even those campers whose experience inspires a genuine commitment to peace are nevertheless subjected to war. Consider the case of Asel Asleh, a 17-year-old Israeli Arab described by many of his Jewish bunkmates as a model camper, who returned to Maine for several summer sessions and kept in touch after returning home. At a protest rally during the first week of the second intifada in October 2000, Asleh, unarmed, was shot and killed by Israeli troops. Since then, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, 654 Palestinian minors have been killed by Israeli forces, and 117 Israeli minors have been killed by Palestinians.

Seeds of Peace offers its campers a valuable sanctuary, and its mission to empower young leaders-to-be with the tools for coexistence is inspiring. But for the generation that inherited this conflict after the collapse of Oslo, reality is a darker place. Withdrawal from Gaza notwithstanding, Israel's suffocating grip on the occupied territories continues to sow hatred among Palestinians, not hope. With American approval, Ariel Sharon is establishing the demographic realities that will prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. As West Bank settlements continue to expand and construction on the security barrier proceeds apace, Palestinians are being separated into enclaves. If their aspirations for a peace agreement are dashed, and if the conditions of daily life show no signs of improving, at some point the children weaned on the second intifada may very well launch a third. Should that day come to pass, their Israeli counterparts will be ready and armed to the hilt.

On some level Miller may know that the situation is likely to get worse before it gets any better. But she is ill-equipped to document this sad truth, much less to hold those in power accountable. Her moralistic "quest through the Holy Land" lacks the tragic sensibility her subject requires, and her optimism seems to betray a shallow worldview. She clearly regards Seeds of Peace alumni as heroes and projects onto them the ability to reconcile their competing national struggles. Unfortunately, she overstates her case.

Still, a summer in Maine may not inspire these campers to commit to a life of nonviolent struggle, but it can help them shake off some of the fears and prejudices they've carried since childhood. Likewise, Miller's "search for hope in the Middle East" may not have yielded a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but at least it gave her a stronger sense of self, newfound appreciation for American power, and a passport stamped in Gaza.

By Mark Sorkin

Mark Sorkin is on the editorial staff of the Nation.

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