One House, Two Families
Allan Solomonow is Director of the Middle East Peace Program in the Pacific Mountain Region of the American Friends Service Committee. The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan (Bloomsbury, 2006).
Anyone looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can have her vision clouded by the chaos of events, conflicting political opinions, and emotions. The people on the ground disappear: both Palestinian and Israeli realities are obscured by the confusion of events, news, analysis, blame, and obsession.
The Lemon Tree has a new, refreshing approach to this confusion. It is an impartial, meticulously researched, highly readable recreation of the history of two families, one Palestinian and one Israeli, living through three generations of the conflict.
Originally, The Lemon Tree was a widely acclaimed radio program produced for National Public Radio by Sandy Tolan, now a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism. When I heard it in 1998, it greatly moved me. It left enough of an impression that when Professor Tolan asked me to review the manuscript before publication, I agreed.
Two families, the Khairis and the Eshkenazis, were successive owners of a house in the city of Ramle, not far from Tel Aviv. It was built in 1936 by Ahmed Khairi, who planted a lemon tree in its central courtyard. The tree meant a great to deal to his son Bashir Khairi, who was born and raised in the house and then expelled with his family in 1948. It also meant a lot to Dalia Eshkenazi, the daughter of Bulgarian immigrants fleeing the Holocaust, who came to Palestine in 1948 and were given the house.
In 1967 Bashir, by then a young Palestinian lawyer, traveled to Ramle to visit the home he barely remembered. There he was welcomed by Dalia, and they and their families got to know each other. The two remained in contact over a period of forty years, even while their views and allegiances remained completely opposed. One memorable moment in The Lemon Tree comes at the end of a conversation between Bashir and Dalia, their last meeting, in which they faced the fact that their needs were “…totally, mutually exclusive (but)…Each had chosen to reside within the contradiction: They were enemies, and they were friends. Therefore…they had reason to keep talking: the conversation was worth protecting.” Bashir was jailed by the Israelis, sentenced to seventeen years in prison, and subsequently deported. Eventually, Dalia and her husband left their home, turning it into “Open House,” a kindergarten for Palestinian children.
Sandy Tolan brings to life the histories of Bashir and Dahlia as they explore dialogue and gradual transformation. He reverses the usual political focus, using the personal and intimate as tools to understand the politics. These individuals are framed by a selective but careful recounting of their historical background, which provides needed context, linking their stories to overarching political narratives. Tolan’s previous research prepared him to deal with a wealth of information, drawn from a broad spectrum of historical sources. He emphasizes that The Lemon Tree, even with its dramatization of events, is not a work of fiction. Reading his excellent, 67-page long List of Sources (just one of his appendices), it is clear that he went to great lengths and depths in interviews of family members, and historical and family records. Students of history will be intrigued by his account of pre-partition Palestine, by brief descriptions of the clashes between the Zionist and non-Zionist movements in the 1940s and of the Soviet Union’s rejection of a binational state, and by the deconstruction of Camp David 2 by former Clinton advisor Robert Malley and scholar Hussein Agha.
Tolan’s is a sensitive effort to portray two families’ struggles, and to convey the dignity and humanity of each individual. The vivid personalities of family members, the casual use of Arabic and Hebrew words, colorful descriptions, quips, and comments all make it easy to sympathize with the main characters. And many of the book’s delights are unexpected: a quotation by Ottoman sultan Bayazid II about what fools the Spanish were to drive out the Jews at the time of the Inquisition; the passenger list (including 54 of the Eshkenazis) on the Pan York, a refugee ship; how the Palestinians were let down by the Arab states in 1948, and, later, how the world’s view of Palestinians was altered when Israel occupied even more of their lands in 1967. These are all reminders of just how much information is available to those determined to find or remember it.
Finally, The Lemon Tree illustrates the Palestinian and Israeli narratives, and shows how inextricably tied they are. For some this is heresy, for many others it is the long overdue beginning of doubt, reflection … and honesty. The Lemon Tree is honest enough to remain politically ambiguous and does not propose a happy ending. On the personal level, it is fresh and heart-warming, with a hint of hope. The real lemon tree died. But the home, now Open House, remains. We are left to fill in the blanks.