I hadn’t heard of the novel The Almond Tree and I shall now avoid it, having read Susan Abulhawa’s review. There is an insufferable cultural arrogance to Israelis and Jews who think they can create a Palestinian protagonist not only as the vehicle for their “art” but as a way to heal wounds between Israelis and Palestinians, as Abulhawa documents here.
That’s not to say that it can’t be done but it requires such an enormous act of political and cultural humility, as well as human empathy, that very few indeed appear to be capable of doing it. One fact alone condemns the Almond Tree’s author, Michelle Cohen-Corasanti. During the seven years of writing, she hired six editors: five Jews and one Christian fundamentalist. She apparently didn’t even think to find a Palestinian to assist her with the drafting of the character of Ichmad (an Israeli pronunciation of Ahmad!).
Abulhawa calls the novel an act of “pseudo-solidarity”, looking like it is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause while cloaking the story in “the framework of a neoliberal white supremacy”. Nonetheless, or more likely because of this, the book has been much praised and, it seems, is set to become a bestseller.
Abulhawa offers a great quote from fellow novelist Teju Cole:
The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege. … The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.
Abulhawa notes of one of the plot lines:
Ichmad, whose family is impoverished by Israel, is a math prodigy who studies on a scholarship in an Israeli university in Jerusalem. Aside from the fact that most Palestinians in the West Bank cannot enter Jerusalem, much less go to university there (on a scholarship, no less), the notion that the path to success is necessarily through the oppressor’s educational system is a typical supremacist assumption. It happens that even under the horrors and limitations of Israeli occupation, Palestinians have managed to build 26 institutions of higher education in the tiny enclaves of the West Bank and Gaza.
This seems to be a theme of the Jewish “White Saviour Industrial Complex”, as I noted a few years back in reviewing the film The Syrian Bride. Israeli film-maker Eran Riklis believed he could create the character of a realistic Druze woman, Amal, living under Israeli occupation in the Golan. As I wrote then:
Although the figure of Amal is an inspirational one, her ambitions for self-betterment are framed entirely in terms of the opportunities offered to her from her belonging to Israeli society. She has the chance for self-improvement, the film suggests, only because of the offer of a place studying at Haifa University, in “Israel proper”.
Conversely, the limitations placed on Amal are entirely derived from her membership of the Druze community, and the deadening hand of tradition. The obstacles thrown in her way come from her husband, who fears her behaviour will lose the family respect in the eyes of the rest of the community.
The film seems to forget that Amal, who demonstrates courage and independence from the opening scene in the film, did not learn these qualities in Israel but from from her life in Majd al-Shams, as a Druze woman living under a repressive military occupation.