By Vacy Vlazna
Jewish American, Michelle Cohen Corasanti’s The Almond Tree should be retitled, The Normal Tree, because, as Shahada, the tree is witness, since 1947, to the normal daily atrocities by the Israeli occupiers of Palestine, and mainly because the author’s overall purpose is the normalisation of the illegal occupation through the turning of every Palestinian cheek.
Once upon a time, in this silly saccharine fairy tale, there were two brothers Ichmad and Abbas; the GOOD Palestinian who owes his good fortune to the Israelis and the BAD Palestinian who resists Israel’s violent occupation.
Both brothers are victims of Israeli atrocities but the author chooses different paths for them. The GOOD brother, sadly like many diasporan Palestinians, takes the path of least resistance i.e. do nothing except take care of one’s own. The BAD brother takes the path of political and armed resistance on behalf of all his people.
The exemplary brother, for his compliance with the Israeli status quo, is rewarded with the fulfillment of the American dream; a prestigious university career, holidays on private beaches in Costa Brava and The Hamptons, shopping in Paris, buying convertible Mercedes for nephews, putting family through university and the ultimate reward- a Nobel prize. Just goes to show where collaboration with Israel can lead even if the price is one’s loss of soul.
Ichmad as a child is loving and generous of soul. However as an an adult, he an insufferable Americanized snob. He idealizes his dead Jewish American wife Nora, “my Jewish angel with golden hair” (like the author), and is ashamed of his second wife, Yasmine, an ignorant Palestinian from his village; feminists of the world will be thrilled to know that it is Yasmine’s cooking that eventually passes her off as an acceptable wife though she will always be in the shadow of Nora’s brilliance, beauty, intelligence, humanitarianism, activism, courage, creativity, education. etc etc ad nauseum.
Later, with unadulterated Yankee hubris, Sir Ichmad, after 50 years of estrangement, rides into Gaza to save his inferior brother, “It was strange to see Abbas and his family in their worn-out clothes eating off china with silverware and crystal water goblets.” but even he, like the American government, is powerless against Israel’s merciless control of Palestine.
Typical of the fate of antagonists, the BAD brother, apparently ‘blinded by hatred’ ends up a ‘crippled old man’ living in an overcrowded squalid mudbrick house in Gaza, the most dangerous place on earth- serves him right the author implies. Palestinians beware.
Abbas and Mama are pitted (even along racist lines being darker skinned) against Ichmad and his father, Baba; “She’s actually proud of Abbas.’ How could she be proud of him for belonging to a party that believed violence was necessary for liberation?”
Ichmad is an irritating pathetic protagonist and is truly his father’s son. Baba is the epitome of self-effacing deference to Zionist Might. His litany of forgiveness, echoed by St Ichmad, bears no relation to the activist philosophy of non-violence which presumes action to right injustice or the reconciliatory efforts of Palestinian and Israeli activist such as The Combatants for Peace. Ichmad and Baba are arch-passivists (not pacifists) in the face of tremendous injustice.
In spite of Ichmad’s family disasters under Israel’s brutal occupation from 1948-2010… the prosperous family orange orchards stolen, the extended family forced into refugee camps, his little sister Amal blown to pieces in an Israeli minefield, another little sister, Sara dies during Israeli home invasion, his father tortured and imprisoned for 14 years for nothing, his family impoverished, himself and siblings doomed to child labour, two houses destroyed, his younger brother permanently and painfully maimed by a Jewish settler, his wife crushed by an Israeli bulldozer … Ichmad eclipses the patience of Job and the forgiveness of Jesus with his sickly sweet saintliness.
And one would be forgiven for thinking that Ichmad must have fallen into an self-induced political coma over the 62 years of Palestinian oppression that included the 1967 war, the establishment of the PLO, the Yom Kippur War, the Lebanon war, the 1st and 2nd Intifada’s, Oslo, Camp David, the coup against Hamas, the Annexation Wall, expansion of illegal settlements on stolen land, civil war in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, the tens of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, the millions of destroyed olive trees, the demolition of thousands of homes, and the never-ending tears and grief for the murdered, maimed, hungry, cold, unemployed, traumatised, trapped Palestinians. In his words, “The last thing I wanted to do was talk politics.”
Meanwhile, Cohen Corasanti has the BAD Abbas serving tirelessly for decades alongside Israel’s enemy, George Habash, the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who masterminded armed struggle and aircraft hijacks:
“When we hijack a plane it has more effect than if we killed a hundred Israelis in battle,” Habash told the German publication Der Stern in 1970. “For decades world public opinion has been neither for nor against the Palestinians. It simply ignored us. At least the world is talking about us now.” (Grace Halsell, WRMEA)
According to WWII propagandist, Richard H. S. Crossman, “[t]he way to carry out good propaganda is never to appear to be carrying it out at all.” A fiction writer is not limited to real names, so Cohen Corasanti’s purposeful choice of names plays on the reader’s prejudices.
Ichmad means ‘highly praised’, ‘constantly thanking God’; Abbas means ‘stern’ ‘austere’; ‘lion’; Nora means ‘light‘ and ‘Justice’ is the name of Nora’s Jewish friend; Justice’s husband and Ichmad’s Israeli professor /fellow Nobel laureate is Menachem Sharon.
For every Palestinian, that name would have criminal connotations; ‘Menachem’ is Begin’s first name. Menachem Begin, once head of Zionist terrorist group, Irgun, responsible for the King David Hotel bombing, later became Israel’s prime minister. His comment on the Deir Yassin massacre gives an insight into his moral vision, “The massacre was not only justified, but there would not have been a state of Israel without the victory at Deir Yassin.” (New York Jewish Newsletter in October 1960)’
And ‘Sharon’ is a reminder of Israel’s hero, Gen. Ariel Sharon the accomplice butcher of the Sabra and Shatila massacres and the rabid champion of illegal settlements; “Everybody has to move, run and grab as many (Palestinian) hilltops as they can to enlarge the (Jewish) settlements because everything we take now will stay ours…Everything we don’t grab will go to them.”
And so, according to a tried and true method of effective propaganda, these names with their positive and negative connotations affixed to characters, are incessantly drummed into the reader’s mind.
By the by, Professor Menachem Sharon was the very same military commander that viscously beat up Baba in the presence of the terrified 12 year old Ichmad. It borders on the miraculous how forgiving a scholarship at the Hebrew University can make a person. Eventually, the staunch freedom fighting Abbas’ fierce objection to collaborating with the enemy buckles when the scholarship carrot is held up for his grandchildren, “He told me he hoped one day his grandchildren could study in the United States.” Deus ex machina strikes again.
Then again, studying in America is more pragmatic than maintaining the hope of studying in universities in a free Palestine.
I found Cohen Corasanti’s exploitation of Rachel Corrie’s death morally obscene. Ichmad’s Jewish wife, Nora, is crushed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to prevent his family home from demolition. The Israeli driver is implicitly excused – because Nora loses her footing and falls under the machine (oops!) and – the house was to be demolished because bad brother Abbas “was involved with a terrorist organisation.”
Rachel Corrie, however, was cold-bloodily murdered by the Israeli bulldozer driver, a soldier, who along with the State of Israel, was reprehensibly exonerated by an Israeli judge in August 2012.
Ichmad’s unquestioning gullibility makes him the perfect apologist for Israel’s indefensible war crimes;
“I became more determined than ever to get Abbas out of Gaza after finding a YouTube clip that showed an expert on white phosphorus explaining how it had been used in Gaza by the Israelis. The Israeli military had been air-blasting the white phosphorus shells, allegedly trying to create a smokescreen near the Jabaliyah camp, the most densely populated place on the planet. But the expert explained that the day on which they attempted this was so incredibly windy that a smokescreen couldn’t be created. Instead, the flaming pellets rained down on this highly populated civilian area.”
Damn that wind.
For all the author’s professions of sympathy and rights for the Palestinians, essentially The Almond Tree underscores Orwellian lessons: collaboration is advantageous and resistance is futile; collaboration is warm and fuzzy and resistance is hatred and terrorism; the Israeli soldiers are human beings and Palestinians should take war crimes and crimes against humanity on the chin; Israel is the victim of Palestinian threat to its security,
“Israel wants security before it can make peace.’ ‘Peace brings security. Security doesn’t bring peace.’ I thought of the Dalai Lama’s words which hung in Justice’s foyer. It went something like ‘If you want to experience peace, provide it for another, and if you want to feel safe, cause another to feel safe.’”
Once having mastered the book’s lessons, all remaining stubborn Palestinians will cheerfully pack up, merrily hand over their keys to Israel, then gleefully dance the dabke all the way to the Nobel Valhalla in Stockholm.
– Dr. Vacy Vlazna is Coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters. She was Human Rights Advisor to the GAM team in the second round of the Acheh peace talks, Helsinki, February 2005 then withdrew on principle. Vacy was coordinator of the East Timor Justice Lobby as well as serving in East Timor with UNAMET and UNTAET from 1999-2001. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.