Book Review

Tolan, Sandy.  The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East (New York: Bloomsbury) 2007.

When teaching classes on the Middle East the most difficult subject to teach about is the Israel-Palestine relationship.  At the heart of any discussion, students want to know who is to blame and how do we solve the problem.  The simple answer to this is I don’t know.  Both sides have their share of the blame.  The best thing I have found so far to help explain the conundrum is the Lemon Tree.  Sandy Tolan tells the true-life story of two people, one Jew and one Palestinian, who became part of each other’s life.  Along the way he explains in fine detail the struggle between the two people.  He does not have answers either, but we at least can understand each side better. 

The Lemon tree tells the story of the Khairi family, an important Palestinian family in Ramallah.  In 1948, they were forced from the home they built by Israeli soldiers during the Israeli War of Independence and became refugees along with thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank.  At the same time the Eshkenazi family, a Jewish family after having survived the Holocaust in Bulgaria made the trip to Zion.  They were excited to be part of the Zionist movement which created a land for people who did not have a land and promised them the security they have craved for so long.  When they arrived in Israel they were sent to Ramallah and given a nice home to make there.  One of the features the young Dalie Eshkenazi remembers when she arrived was the lemon tree in the back yard.  She grew up in the house never really questioning who owned it before her or why, as she was told, the previous family would abandon it. 

Everything changed for Dalia while she was home from college and there was a knock at her door.  Standing in front of her were three Palestinian young men.  One of them was Bashir Khairi, who along with his two cousins had come to see his home after nineteen years. As Dalia allowed them in, she would not only start a new friendship but a new journey of discovery that would open her eyes to the treatment and hardships of the Palestinians. 

Each would try to explain to the other their story.  Bashir’s only dream was to return to his home and his land, while Dalia’s was to have a land and security.  The problem was both could not have their dream a reality at the same time.  Bashir would go one way and become part of the resistance of Israel and would spend over 17 years in and out of jail.  Dalia would try to understand his struggle, but also struggle herself with his possible role in what she saw as terrorism, but Bashir saw as freedom.

The story of Dalia and Bashir brings a humanity and a face to this difficulty and help shed a light on the struggle of those having to deal with the problem every day.  When speaking with Bashir’s family Dalia thought, “It is either us or them? Dalia thought.  Either I live in their home while they are refugees, or they live in my house while I become a fugitive?  There must be another possibility.  But what is it?”

The Lemon tree needs to be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the Middle East.  Tolan writes the book like a novel but does not take license on the characters feelings.  The book is thoroughly researched and honestly one of the best books I have ever read on any subject.    

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