When she was a child, Jennifer Miller often was late for school, but her excuse was about as good as they come: Her ride was involved in high-level diplomatic talks.
Miller, 25, is the daughter of Aaron Miller, longtime adviser to the State Department on Arab-Israeli affairs. She grew up in a hothouse of Middle East policy. As a child she used to carpool with Sarah Indyk, whose father, Middle East scholar Martin Indyk, has been an assistant secretary of state and two-time U.S. ambassador to Israel. When the Millers went to pick up Sarah, the elder Indyk “used to hang over the car window for 10 minutes, and we’d be late for school,” Miller said, a hint of residual annoyance in her voice.
For a long time, Miller distanced herself from her father’s preoccupation with the Middle East. “My relationship [with the region] was really just apathetic, at times bordering on antagonistic,” she told the Forward.
But in her teenage years, Miller was bitten by the bug. Amid the swirl of family friends who worked for the State Department or were otherwise involved in Middle East politics, someone offered her a chance to be a counselor at Seeds of Peace, a summer camp that brings Palestinian and Israeli children to Maine to splash in the water and hash out their differences.
Suddenly she found herself profoundly engaged in Arab-Israeli affairs. The result is her new book, “Inheriting the Holy Land.”
Part travelogue, part memoir and part political history, it covers much ground — from Seeds of Peace (where her father has served as president since leaving the State Department in 2003) to a visit with Palestinian teenagers in Ramallah, from an examination of some Israeli and Palestinian schoolbooks to a visit to Yasser Arafat’s compound.
“During my senior year of college [at Brown University], I wrote a novel for my honors thesis about Palestinian and Israeli” teens, Miller said. “I was shopping it around, and I found an editor at Ballantine Books who said, ‘I really like it. You’re a great writer, but it would sell much better as nonfiction.’”
And indeed, Miller’s book is about as close as one can get to a marketer’s dream. The book jacket is peppered with praise from a virtual Who’s Who of the modern Middle East: Madeleine Albright, Queen Noor of Jordan, Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas.
Miller insists that securing all these bigwigs was not her father’s doing.
“I actually do know Queen Noor and Madeleine Albright,” Miller said. “But not through my father. At Seeds of Peace we would honor all these world leaders, and I was lucky enough to have the honor of presenting the speech for the American delegation and able to present them with awards.”
However she got to them, Miller was able to interview a stunning list of Middle East experts for her book, including Peres, Abbas, James Baker, Benjamin Netanyahu, Colin Powell, Ehud Barak and even Arafat — a collection that would make even a seasoned New York Times reporter’s mouth water.
The heavyweight roster notwithstanding, Miller keeps the book simple: The first characters to whom we are introduced are a right-wing Jewish teenager and a Palestinian boy who meet at Seeds of Peace. Throughout the rest of the book their sincere — but tenuous — friendship resurfaces. It is Miller’s attempt to steer clear of politics and delve into the personal that makes “Inheriting the Holy Land” unique. Even if she doesn’t agree with individual points of view, each character gets his or her due.
“When I first started the book, I was very, very skeptical of the settlers and the settler movement,” Miller said. “For a long time I avoided going to the West Bank.” She finally decided to spend a weekend in the settlement of Tekoa, where she met kind, warm people who challenged her preconceptions.
While walking through the streets of Ramallah, she met a group of Palestinian teenagers filled with nothing but hatred for Israel. The more she listened, the sadder she grew. But then, at their conversation’s end, the teens asked if Miller could help them get to the United States, where “the streets are clean and safe.”
“That’s what they want,” Miller said, a note of optimism returning to her gentle voice. “That’s why I ultimately believe there’s hope.”