Ellis Shuman

A Palestinian Tale Told by a Jewish American

Questions and answers with Michelle Cohen Corasanti, author of The Almond Tree – a story of Palestinian life under Israeli rule with hope for a better future.

I previously posted a review of The Almond Tree, which is being described by some as a Palestinian version of The Kite Runner. The book tells the story of a Palestinian man who grows up under Israeli rule yet despite repeated tragedies, learns to build a better life for his family through education and cooperation with Israelis.

Although possibly difficult for Israelis and Jews everywhere to read, The Almond Tree should be required reading for all as when there is understanding of the other side, peace can be achieved.

One of the things that make The Almond Tree unique is the fact that it was written by a Jewish American woman. I couldn’t help but wonder what her motivation was for writing the book, and what she hoped its publication would achieve.

Recently I had a chance to talk with author Michelle Cohen Corasanti and ask her questions about her amazing novel.

Q: Can you give me some information about your background?

Michelle Cohen CorasantiMichelle: I’m a Jewish American. After graduating from yeshiva, I went to Israel in high school with our rabbi’s daughter and lived there for 7 years. Although I came from a Zionist family, I really knew next to nothing about Israel or the conflict. To be honest with you, at 16, I thought Palestinian was a synonym for Israeli and referred to the Jews who lived in Israel before 1948.

I was so upset to witness the situation and I wanted to do something to help advance peace. I did my BA at Hebrew University and MA at Harvard both in Middle Eastern Studies and then law school. Back then, I didn’t know of any way to help.

Fast-forward 15 years. I read The Kite Runner and realized a writer can reach into readers’ hearts and so I wrote The Almond Tree. You should understand that I have very strong Jewish values. The quote from Rabbi Hillel has always remained in my head: “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another. That is the whole Torah. The rest is only commentary.”

Q: Where did you get the inspiration for The Almond Tree?

Michelle: When I was at Harvard, I met an Arab from Israel who was doing his post doctorate jointly with his Israeli professor and a Nobel Prize winner and I saw how strong we could be if we focused on our commonalities to advance humanity instead of on our differences.

The Almond TreeThe Almond Tree is a fictional story about one man’s life and I chose to focus on the glimmer of hope that I saw rather than the years of darkness because I think we will all benefit if we can try and remember the beautiful values Judaism teaches. The Almond Tree isn’t about being Palestinian or Israeli. It’s about being human. You may think I’m naïve, but I refuse to say there’s hatred that can’t be overcome so I won’t even try. History has shown us that it can. Look at South Africa.

My book doesn’t advocate hatred. It advocates peace and love and that there’s a better way. I don’t give the political solution of whether there should be one or two states or the status quo. All I try to do is create empathy and appeal to Jewish values.

Q: Would you consider your book as being pro-Palestinian?

Michelle: In order for there to be peace, American Jews and Israelis need to understand the Palestinian narrative of the conflict. I don’t believe my book is intended to tell the Palestinian narrative. The Almond Tree simply describes the conditions of Ichmad (the main character) and his family between 1955 and 1965, while living in a village in the Triangle under Israeli military rule. Later in the book, The Almond Tree briefly describes the conditions in Gaza in 2009.

I think the Jewish people need to try and understand the Palestinian perspective and narrative and realize how strong we could be if we worked together.

My book isn’t about being anti-Israeli. It’s about helping Israel help itself. If we learn to celebrate differences and focus on our commonalities we can advance humanity. We all belong to the human race.

Q: How has the Jewish community responded to your book?

Michelle: The ones who have Jewish values and have read my book respond to my message because they care for the Jewish people and understand that there’s a better way. There are some, mainly 60 years and over, who refuse to read my book. I don’t understand that at all.

The Almond Tree is meant to spur dialogue among Jews. I wrote the book mainly for audiences that care about Israel. I didn’t write it for a Palestinian audience. Ichmad is driven by guilt. Need I say more? People from all sides of the conflict are supporting the book.

In the book, I am trying to step into Palestinian shoes and see the situation as best as I can from a Palestinian perspective. I, myself, am not a Palestinian Muslim male.

If all Palestinians and Israelis saw the world through the same eyes and in the same way, the situation on the ground would be different.

About the Author
Ellis Shuman made aliya to Jerusalem as a teenager, served in the IDF, was a founding member of a kibbutz, and now lives on Moshav Neve Ilan. Ellis is the author of ‘The Burgas Affair’ – a crime thriller set in Israel and Bulgaria; ‘Valley of Thracians’ - a suspense novel set in Bulgaria; and 'The Virtual Kibbutz' - a collection of short stories. His writing has appeared in The Times of Israel, The Huffington Post, The Jerusalem Post, Israel Insider, and on a wide range of Internet websites. Ellis lived with his wife for two years in Bulgaria, and blogs regularly about Israel, Bulgaria, books, and writing.