Review of The General’s Son, by Steve Kowit in the San Diego UT

The author of this engaging and important memoir is a sixth-degree black belt who runs a thriving karate school in Coronado. He is also the son of one of Israel’s most notable generals and political dissidents, Matti Peled, a war hero who shocked Israel several decades ago by becoming a vocal peace advocate and a professor of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University.

The author’s mother seems to have been no less a remarkable figure: In 1948, after several hundred thousand Palestinian civilians had been forced to flee, never to be permitted to return, she refused to follow the example of her compatriots and expropriate the abandoned home of a dispossessed family. She is quoted many years later as explaining: “That I should take the home of a family that may be living in a refugee camp? The home of another mother…. I refused…. And to see the Israelis driving away with loot, beautiful rugs and furniture, I was ashamed for them. I don’t know how they could do it.”

Even as a young man, the author, a proud Israeli patriot, encounters a number of disquieting realities. Shortly after he is drafted in 1980, the members of his elite commando unit are instructed by their commanding officer to walk up and down the streets of Ramallah in the West Bank and “if anyone so much as looked at us, we were to… ‘break every bone in their body.’” At another point, the author recalls an Israeli naval commando casually describing how his unit would torture and drown Gaza fishermen “to teach the Arabs who was boss.”

But the author’s real journey of awakening comes after his beloved 13-year-old niece, Smadar, is killed by a suicide bomber on a Tel Aviv street. Smadar’s father, Miko’s brother-in law, begins devoting himself to the Bereaved Families Forum, an organization of Jewish and Palestinian parents who have lost children to the conflict, while Nurit, Smadar’s mother and Miko’s sister, begins speaking and writing about the need to stop the bloodbath — for which work, in 2001, she was awarded the Sacharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament.

Not long after Smadar’s tragic death, Miko, who had already moved with his wife, Gila, to the United States, finds himself at a Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group in San Diego, and among Palestinians for the first time in his life. There, to his astonishment, he finds Jewish and Palestinian-Americans laughing together and treating each other as friends and equals. From the Palestinians in the group, he tells us, “I heard stories of displacement and ruthlessness I had never imagined possible.”

Traveling between Israel and the United States, the author continues to learn unpleasant truths, and by reading Israeli historians such as Ilan Pappé and Avi Schlaim, he begins to understand that the exculpatory explanations for the Palestinian mass exodus of 1948 are largely a collection of myths.

 Miko and his Palestinian-American friend Nader Elbanna, a fellow Rotarian — a man who had grown up in a refugee camp in Jordan after his family had been forced to flee their home in the 1948 expulsion — begin giving talks to Rotary Clubs about the Israeli conflict and Palestinian dispossession. Eventually the two men raise enough money to buy a thousand wheelchairs, half of which they earmark for needy Israelis and the other half for needy Palestinians. By this point, the reader is not entirely surprised to learn that Israel resists permitting those 500 wheelchairs to reach a Palestinian hospital. After finally managing to deliver them, the two friends arrive at a checkpoint, where Miko is harassed and threatened with arrest and finally experiences for himself, “the humiliation thousands of Palestinians have to go through every day.”

Given the accumulation of such experiences, it should not be surprising that the author, a member of one of Israel’s most notable families, arrives at the conviction that genuine democracy for both Israelis and Palestinians is the only real solution to the conflict, and that Palestinians and Jews must “live in one state where we are completely equal in every way.”

For anyone wishing to understand the complex dynamics of one of the world’s most consequential and tragic conflicts, Miko Peled’s courageous, revelatory and compassionate memoir, “The General’s Son,” is likely to become required reading.

Steve Kowit is a well-known poet who teaches in the graduate writing program at San Diego State University.

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