Saturday, August 23, 2008

My review of The Lemon Tree in the Dallas Peace Times

This summer the Dallas Peace Times invited me to write a review of Sandy Toland's 2006 book, The Lemon Tree, and I was happy to do it. You can find the review at this web link:

It's a big pdf file, so scroll ahead to page 9. You can also go to the archived newsletters and click on July 2008:

I'll put the text here too:

The Lemon Tree – An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan (2006, Bloomsbury Publishing).

I have been recommending Sandy Tolan’s book, The Lemon Tree, since its publication in 2006. I was completely engrossed reading the book, and I will continue to urge everyone interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to discover its fascinating story. The Lemon Tree offers a remarkable witness to the power of empathy and reconciliation.

In 1988 someone gave me a photocopy of “A Letter to a Deportee,” an opinion piece that outlined the friendship between two people - a Palestinian and an Israeli - who each grew up in the same house in Ramle, Israel. The Lemon Tree expands that story, detailing the history of Jews and Arabs in Israel through the experiences of the two families. It provides a unique lens for seeing the events of the region from 1936 to 2005.

My bookshelf is full of books about the lands of Palestine and Israel and that pivotal struggle between their people. The Lemon Tree is different. I hope everyone who reads it can be as willing as these two people to explore the truth behind they myths they were taught and the personal experiences that color their understanding.

Dalia Eshkenazi Landau, whose family came to Israel from Bulgaria, calls it a “strange destiny” that linked her family with that of Bashir Khairi, Palestinian refugees living in Ramallah. Their connection revolved around the house in Ramle (Al Ramla in Arabic) built by Bashir’s father, where Bashir lived until the family fled before the advancing Israeli army in 1948. Dalia’s immigrant family moved into the house a few months later, and she grew up there.

Toland’s book details the background of each of the families: the Khairi’s prominent position in Al Ramla, the Eshkenazi’s breathtaking escape from the Holocaust, and the unbelievable misery of Palestinian refugees.

The entire Arab population of Al Ramla was forcibly driven from their homes. The expulsion order came from the top of Israeli military command. The city was sacked and its citizens – judged to be about 30,000 - sent east by bus or on foot. The Khairi family and all the others from Ramle and Lydda believed they would be allowed to return to their homes in a matter of weeks. That never happened, and readers learn that it was never intended. European immigrants sent by bus to Ramle found an empty city.

The key meeting of two children of these events took place 19 years later when Bashir was allowed to travel to Ramle. He approached his family’s house and rang the bell. Dalia answered the door. His approach and her openness led to the dialogue which has lasted almost 40 years.

The house itself is a central character in the story, and as we read we come to know its contours, its garden and symbolic lemon tree. We long for a solution that will allow everyone to enjoy its beauty and peace and somehow translate into a larger peace for the region and all the people.
Dalia wrote, “The house with which our childhood memories were connected forced us to face each other.” She went on, “I appeal to both Palestinians and Israelis to understand that the use of force will not resolve this conflict on its fundamental level. This is the kind of war that no one can win, and either both peoples will achieve liberation or neither will. Our childhood memories, your and mine, are intertwined in a tragic way. If we can not find means to transform that tragedy into a shared blessing, our clinging to the past will destroy our future.”

The relationship was always warm but never easy. While Dalia learned Bashir’s history and the truth about her own, she struggled with his absolute commitment to the right of expelled Palestinians to return to their homes. Bashir sought to understand but could not accept Dalia’s sense that the house in Ramle and the land of Israel are truly home to her as well.

While Dalia and Bashir have not succeeded in reconciling their ideological positions, they decided to share their home with a purpose. Bashir sought to bring joy to the Arab children of Ramle. Dalia’s dream was a center where Jews and Arabs can engage in reconciliation, seeking justice and loving-kindness. Now Open House is a preschool for less advantaged Arab children and a community center.

Open House provides a witness as solid as the stone house to the power of dreaming together in spite of differences that cannot be completely healed, division brought about by real and telling life experiences.

When I visited Open House several years ago, I traveled to Ramle with a couple of my oldest Israeli friends, zionists who came to Palestine 15 years before Dalia’s family. They live today on rural land that once belonged to neighboring Arab villages. The ironies and dissonance of the Israeli/Palestinian story never cease.

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Here are some more links to info about The Lemon Tree:

"Frontline" -
NPR's All Things Considered, Books -
NPR's Fresh Air -

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