She is a writer who loves classic rock, belly dancing and coffee-flavored ice cream. Ask Jennifer Miller who she is, and that is her reply.
"I would not say, 'I am an American, I am a Jew,' " the young author explained. "People are expecting you to fit in a broad category box."
In her first book, "Inheriting the Holy Land: An American's Search for Hope in the Middle East," Miller takes a fresh look at the dynamics of extremism and the sense of victimization in the region. Through the eyes of young people -- Israeli rap singers and soldiers, young Palestinian women and a construction worker -- she adeptly explores the background and the challenges of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Miller, 25, uses examples from popular movies to emphasize her points. "Force without diplomacy breeds alienation and destruction," she writes. "It's like Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker in 'Spider-Man': With great power comes great responsibility."
Americans have seen what enraged people are capable of doing when they feel they have nothing to lose, she writes. "As Americans we have everything to lose. If you've seen 'The Siege,' a movie with Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis, you know what I'm talking about. In it, modern-day New York is put under martial law after a series of suicide bombings assault the city."
Miller, the daughter of Aaron Miller, a U.S. negotiator who worked with six secretaries of state on the Arab-Israeli peace process, grew up in an affluent household in Chevy Chase. She loathed politics and shunned news about world conflicts. "All I aspired to was to be a suburban teenager," she said in an interview over lunch Wednesday.
In 1996, she first attended Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit camp her parents help run that brings together Israeli and Arab teenagers. Each summer, the youths meet at a facility in Maine and probe sensitive subjects they cannot discuss directly back home. Miller quickly realized how out of touch she was.
When the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred, the budding activist was moved to help the world find a way back from the brink.
"This book, and Seeds of Peace, is not about peace or naivete on my part," Miller said. "It is about the journey and about pragmatism. You put Israelis and Palestinians in a room and bring them together and make them confront their suffering, how their societies have made one another suffer. Almost immediately they are going to connect, and once that connection has been forged, you can talk about all the practical things.
"Seeds of Peace is a testament to the possibility of confronting who we are to find solutions. You don't give up your identity, but kids return more invested as Palestinians or Israelis who can be leaders in their societies."
Miller graduated from Brown University in 2002 and the next year traveled to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, where she looked up her bunkmates from the Seeds of Peace camp. She sounded them out after suicide bombings and killings, immersing herself in their contrasting worlds. She talked to angry Israeli settlers and slept in the homes of disillusioned Palestinian families. She visited the mother of a female suicide bomber and chatted with street boys in Ramallah.
"There was this hope and lack of hope, tremendous potential and tremendous obstacles, the lack of opportunity Palestinians blame on the occupation," she said.
She analyzed her own irritation with an Israeli woman she found fiddling with the door of the Cafe Aroma in Jerusalem. According to a sign on the door, the cafe was closed as a gesture of sympathy for the victims of a bombing at another cafe two days earlier.
"Later I wondered if I'd been too hard on this woman, who only wanted her caffeine fix," she wrote. "There were so many bombings. Life couldn't stop for each one."
Miller also sought out those her father had worked with, including Yasser Arafat, then the Palestinian leader, and former prime minister Ehud Barak. She asked them questions and then, in her book, exposed their failings, their inability to prepare their constituents for the compromises of peacemaking.
There are hilarious vignettes. She writes about her brother's letter to Secretary of State James A. Baker III asking him to fire their father, and about her father explaining baseball to Arafat and its relevance to the peace process. "Both had fairly low expectations for success," she wrote. "In baseball, if you hit safely four out of ten times, you were a veritable hero. Both were full of strikeouts and errors."
Miller's boyfriend, Jasper Speicher, said her time in the Middle East helped her to define her relationship with her own country and better appreciate its freedoms, despite its flaws. "It is one thing to grow up in an environment, but another to then go off and do your own thing, create something with that connection," said Speicher, who lives in Rhode Island.
The growing polarization among Americans troubles Miller. To explore that issue, she rode from California to Washington in May with Rolling Thunder, the Vietnam veterans group that converges on the Mall each Memorial Day on motorcycles. "I went on this trip to learn and to listen," she said.
"As I traveled, I realized I was making the same journey. I was forced to confront these issues of identity. But identities are fluid. When we are confronted with new experiences and new attitudes, we realize on what shaky ground we stand."