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At 23, Jennifer Miller is at first glance diminutive and unassuming. On the subject of Israel, however, her demeanor quickly takes on a more animated and charged tone. Miller's breakout book, Inheriting the Holy Land, has been noticed by international political figures from Mahmoud Abbas to Shimon Peres. Even Elie Wiesel was quoted as saying that â€œMiller's personal story will contribute greatly to the new atmosphere of d tente in the Middle East.â€
So how does a recently graduated college student take on all the accolades? It helps that Jennifer Miller's background is heavily steeped in Israeli politics, dating to her grandparents who were active in the Zionist movement (and actually worked alongside Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir), and that her father worked in the State Department and was instrumental as a negotiator in the Oslo and Camp David peace summits.
Her mother, incidentally, helped found Seeds of Peace, a camp committed to empowering young Israelis of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish descent by giving young adults the fundamental tools to become leaders. This impressive list of family credentials in no way serves to undermine Miller's own accomplishment. Inheriting the Holy Land is a book which stands on its own merit.
Miller's personal quest for answers is what led her to devote a year of her life to studying something of which she knew very little, namely Israeli culture and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
â€œI wanted to write about how the conflict affected young people and to investigate what was being taught in schools. I also wanted to know more about the experience of being conscripted into the Israeli army,â€ Miller explained in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
To address her questions, Miller spent her time interviewing and visiting with former Seeds of Peace campers, as well as meeting with prominent and controversial politicians like Muhammad Dahlan. As a young, female journalist immersing herself in foreign cultures, Miller never found her sex or her youth to be an obstacle. â€œIf anything it was easier. I reminded most of these men of their daughters or granddaughters, so it was easy for them to open up to me.â€
WHAT DID PRESENT complications for Jennifer was her trip to Gaza. While visiting, she met with settlers and stayed at a refugee camp. Her experiences there not only answered some of her personal questions, but transformed her opinions of the settlers. Confronting her biases and challenging her comfort levels were lessons she had been instilling in her campers for years, and yet she had never tested herself until that fateful trip.
â€œI realized I would be doing a disservice to both myself and this book if I didn't give those voices a chance.â€ Meeting with the settlers, â€œshowed the humanity and complexityâ€ of their situation. It was an experience that Miller held on to when she first saw footage of the disengagement. Her understanding of the political and cultural situation there allowed her to assess the impact of the disengagement differently, with more awareness.
As for the differences in Israel and Palestinian cultures, Miller calls attention to the strong emphasis on national identity. While both cultures stress nationalism, Palestinian culture more actively encourages younger generations to identify as a group, rather than as individuals. As a counselor and someone committed to Seeds of Peace, Miller is quick to point out that the purpose of the camp is to teach these children how to function as individuals who are then able to go back and be members of their nations with the tools they have acquired.
â€œThere is a misconception about Seeds of Peace. It's not so much about peace as it is about confrontation a constructive and positive confrontation takes place, in which campers learn to appreciate the diversity in their perspectives and become self-empowered. It's less about encouraging peace, and more about creating leaders.â€
If there's one thing that Miller wants people to take away from her book, it's that it is in no way meant to serve as a polemic about the necessity of a two-state solution. If Inheriting the Holy Land teaches anything, it's the importance of dispassionate decision making and strategic long-term planning.
â€œOnly when both sides start mutually understanding one another's plight can we move towards some sort of peaceful coexistence.â€
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