The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East
Posted on March 16, 2010
Notes: Brand New from Publisher. No Remainder Mark.
In 1967, Bashir Al-Khayri, a Palestinian twenty-five-year-old, journeyed to Israel, with the goal of seeing the beloved old stone house, with the lemon tree behind it, that he and his family had fled nineteen years earlier. To his surprise, when he found the house he was greeted by Dalia Ashkenazi Landau, a nineteen-year-old Israeli college student, whose family fled Europe for Israel following the Holocaust. On the stoop of their shared home, Dalia and Bashir began a rare friendship, forged in the aftermath of war and tested over the next thirty-five years in ways that neither could imagine on that summer day in 1967. Based on extensive research, and springing from his enormously resonant documentary that aired on NPR’s Fresh Air in 1998, Sandy Tolan brings the Israeli-Palestinian conflict down to its most human level, suggesting that even amid the bleakest political realities there exist stories of hope and reconciliation.
Sandy Tolan is the author of Me & Hank: A Boy and His Hero, Twenty-five Years Later. He has written extensively for magazines and newspapers, and has produced dozens of documentaries for National Public Radio and Public Radio International. He was a 1993 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and an I. F. Stone Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where he teaches international reporting.
A Church and Synagogue Library Association Rodda Award Nominee
In 1967, Bashir Al-Khayri, a Palestinian twenty-five-year-old, journeyed to Israel, with the goal of seeing the beloved old stone house, with the lemon tree behind it, that he and his family had fled nineteen years earlier. To his surprise, when he found the house he was greeted by Dalia Eshkenazi Landau, a nineteen-year-old Israeli college student, whose family fled Europe for Israel following the Holocaust. On the stoop of their shared home, Dalia and Bashir began a rare friendship, forged in the aftermath of war and tested over the next thirty-five years in ways that neither could imagine on that summer day in 1967. Based on extensive research, and springing from his enormously resonant documentary that aired on NPR’s Fresh Air in 1998, Sandy Tolan brings the Israeli-Palestinian conflict down to its most human level, suggesting that even amid the bleakest political realities there exist stories of hope and reconciliation.
“A graceful, compassionate and unmuddied presentation of Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lives of an Arab and a Jew, strangers who forge a connection and a reconciliation while never veering from their passionate desires for a homeland.”—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Quite simply the most important book I’ve read for ages . . . a handbook to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a narrative that captures its essence through tracing the connected lives of two extraordinary individuals. Literally the single work I’d recommend to anyone seeking to understand why the conflict remains unresolved, and why it continues to dominate the region.”—Time
“The affecting story of an unlikely truce, even a peace, between Palestinians and Israelis in contested territory. The symbolic center of radio documentarian Tolan’s latest could not be simpler: In an old garden in the town Arabs call al-Ramla and Jews Ramla (neither name to be confused with the West Bank town of Ramallah, 20 miles away), a family cultivated a lemon tree that provided shade and refreshment for many years. When the Khairi family left al-Ramla, driven out in the Israeli War of Independence-a time Palestinians call Nakba, ‘the catastrophe’—a family of Bulgarian Jews took over the property, which, as far as they knew, had been ‘abandoned.’ Drawing on interviews and oral histories, Tolan reconstructs the stories each family, Khairi and Eshkenazi, told about their respective displacements, the lands they left behind, those who died and were born. His book begins with the arrival of three young Palestinian men in Ramla shortly after the Six Day War; stopping at houses they had once lived in, they asked the new inhabitants whether they could step inside to see them. Only one woman, a Tel Aviv university student named Dalia Eshkenazi, assented. ‘She knew,’ writes Tolan, ‘that it was not advisable in the wake of war for a young Israeli woman to invite three Arab men inside her house’; yet she did, and from that simple act, a sort of friendship evolved, even as events made Dalia more resolute in her defense of Israel and turned the oldest of the men, Bashir Al-Khairi, into a freedom fighter—or terrorist, if you will—in the Palestinian cause. Through broad sweeps of narrative going back and forward in time, Tolan’s sensitively told, eminently fair-minded narrative closes with a return to that lemon tree and its promise of reconciliation. Humane and literate—and rather daring in suggesting that the future of the Middle East need not be violent.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Tolan captures the Arab-Israeli struggle in this story of a house and the two families, first Palestinian and then Jewish, who successively lived in it. Members of both families came to know one another and to seek dialog between Arabs and Jews. This wonderful human story vividly depicts the depths of attachment to contested ground. An excellent choice for general readers.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“The title of this moving, well-crafted book refers to a tree in the backyard of a home in Ramla, Israel. The home is currently owned by Dalia, a Jewish woman whose family of Holocaust survivors emigrated from Bulgaria. But before Israel gained its independence in 1948, the house was owned by the Palestinian family of Bashir, who meets Dalia when he returns to see his family home after the Six-Day War of 1967. Journalist Tolan traces the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the parallel personal histories of Dalia and Bashir and their families—all refugees seeking a home. As Tolan takes the story forward, Dalia struggles with her Israeli identity, and Bashir struggles with decades in Israeli prisons for suspected terrorist activities. Those looking for even a symbolic magical solution to that conflict won’t find it here: the lemon tree dies in 1998, just as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process stagnates. But as they follow Dalia and Bashir’s difficult friendship, readers will experience one of the world’s most stubborn conflicts firsthand.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
5 thoughts on “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East”
I’m not surprised that people can get along without fighting all the time. Most people are reasonable most of the time. They do not have to fight interminably.
Relations between Germans and Jews were terrible in the 1930s and 1940s. Of course, this was an asymmetrical situation. Jews, being a minority, had to support minority rights. Germans did not have to do any such thing, and in this case, their society did not. Still, most of the time, most people are reasonable, and today, relations between Germans and Jews are vastly improved.
Relations between Arabs and Jews have been bad for some time, for the same reason. Jews, being a minority, need to support minority rights. But Arabs do not need to do this, and their society has been doing something else instead. Still, even in the midst of the war that such a policy has generated, there are plenty of Arabs and Jews who enjoy good relations with each other. We ought not be surprised by this.
What we ought to be on the lookout for are those who do imply that people ought not get along, or who simply demonize entire nations. Yes, some nations have indeed been aggressors, but that does not justify demonic characterizations of them. And needless to say, the fact that some nations have primarily been victims of aggression does not justify demonizing them either.
In this book, we are treated to the supposedly surprising fact that some people do try to get along. As I said, I am not too surprised. And we are encouraged not to demonize entire nations, and I like that. But we ought to be speaking out strongly against those who are precluding peace today, and I think that by not doing that, the author is part of the problem.
Sandy Tolan is being reasonable when he quotes the Israeli lady as saying that peace is going to require Acknowledgment, Apology, and Amends. I think it will indeed require all of this. But they are both wrong to imply that what is needed is a false confession, an apology, and amends from the Israeli victims of Arab aggression. I think we need to be aware of the fundamental problem in this conflict if we’re going to end it. And that problem is and has been intolerance by many Arabs of human rights for Middle Eastern Jews. Tolan avoids confronting that problem, and by doing so I think he is helping to make matters worse.
In this book, the Arab says that there is a natural “right of return.” Again, I think there should indeed be something akin to such a right. Namely, I think that all people, including Jews and Arabs, should indeed be permitted to bid for and buy property in what they see as their favorite lands. But no people ought to have a right to destroy the country they choose to move to, as countries are likely to defend themselves, whether we say they have a right to do so or not.
In this book, the Jewish lady argues in favor of a two-state solution. Maybe she’s right. But I doubt it. Few people really want to have two small states. If this were tried, the Arab state would probably exist only to destroy the Jewish one. And that would not be good for anyone. I do think people could find a better solution than this if they actually wanted to.
Meanwhile, the Arab argues for a binational state. But I doubt that this would work either. That concept has been tried, and it failed. Jewish rights could not be protected in 1939 to 1948 primarily because Israel did not yet exist. That is why Israel does exist now. The threats to Jewish rights have not gone away, so I think that a binational state would just result in much more misery.
What solution do I suggest? Well, I think we ought to start by simply calming down, taking a deep breath, realizing that Israel is a small nation, and not overdramatizing the conflict. The next step ought to be to insist on truth, not propaganda, as a means to figure out what to do. We humans thrive on truth. After that, yes, acknowledgment, apologies, and amends would help quite a bit. And after that, given that peace is in fact good for both sides, we could finally let those who live in the region figure out how to get along, rather than cheering for both sides to prolong this unfortunate situation.
There is plenty of material in this book that is indeed worth reading. And it does, for example, show the intransigence of some of the Arabs for whom peace would surely be of at least some value. And, yes, occasionally I am generous and give more stars to a book that may not deserve them. But I just can’t bring myself to do that for this particular book, which I feel has a huge fundamental problem.
Rating: 1 / 5
this book is asymmetrical warfare: a ludicrous spinfest that rewrites history by simply omitting all inconvenient facts.
Rating: 1 / 5
What’s missing from this bitter, trashy novel is the part of the story that belongs to 1 million Jews from Arab lands, all of whom were chased from their homes with nothing but the shirts on their backs.
In thousands of cases, these Jews died trying to escape from their oppressors–the Arabs and Muslims of the Middle East and Iran. What’s also missing from this trashy novel is that fact that half of Israel’s population is made up of those Jewish survivors (and their heirs) of Arab and Iranian persecution in lands that they cannot ever safely visit again, no matter what.
Not only did they lose everything, but they managed to rebuild their lives in a state that welcomed them, when the rest of the world turned a blind and uncaring eye. That state, God bless her, is Israel. I’ll probably die before we ever see an NPR reporter tell that truth, in a novel or anywhere else.
Rating: 1 / 5
This is a deeply flawed, biased , and even dangerous book as it has a veneer of credibility. Some aspects of history are accurate and the beginning of the book presents some almost balanced ,parallel views of what happened to the lives of two families who inhabited the same house after the War of 1948 . However,at the end of the book, the author lapses into a slanted polemic that is strongly biased toward the Palestinians. Throughout, the author recounts the imprisonments of S. Khairi the Palestinian protagonist as though he is an innocent , wrongly imprisoned by the Israelis. Real details of his work in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian and its terrorist activities are not provided, and would be instructive . The authors selective inattention to detail is deplorable. Don’t waste your time reading this book.
Rating: 1 / 5
Pretending to be just a reporter, pretending to be balanced, what he really does present a partial picture for the purpose of disparaging Israel. Of course many readers will love this, because dishonestly trashing Israel is trendy on the left these days. Alas, as for actual insight, or helping us move towards solutions in the region, this work work is a major step backwards.
Rating: 1 / 5