The Lemon Tree: Confronting conflict, striving for peace

Our church book club read The Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tolan, in January. The book tells the true story of the decades-long interaction between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman who share a sense of place – a home in the city of al-Ramla.

As usual, my dad started reading the book first – I had put off reading this book about a troubled conflict that I know little about in favor of a few easy-to-solve mysteries. One day my dad commented that he was going to stop reading The Lemon Tree. “It’s just so sad,” he said, “and there is no solution.” I’m not sure he was true to his word about abandoning the book, but his comment reminded me that I had better confront reality and start reading the book.

The story

The Lemon Tree explores the relationship between Dalia Eshkenazi and Palestinian attorney Bashir Al Khayri. In July 1967 Bashir travels to al-Ramla and the home from which his family was exiled in 1948. Dalia, a young college student whose family now lives in the home, meets Bashir at the door and allows him to visit her home and to see the lemon tree Bashir’s father planted long ago. Later Dalia visits Bashir’s family, and the life-long discussion between two unlikely friends begins. Their views are never fully reconciled, but trust and understanding grow throughout the years. Many years after their first encounter they establish a center for peace and coexistence among Israeli Arabs and Jews in the house with the lemon tree.

The history

Tolan provides a detailed historic backdrop for the relationship between Dalia and Bashir.
We learn how Dalia’s Bulgarian family immigrated to Israel in 1948 and how families like the Eshkenazis populated Palestinian towns and homes. We learn of the Khayri family’s long history in Palestine and their abrupt exile from their ancestral home. We see their painful walk to a camp in the city of Ramallah and subsequent lives filled with want and longing for home.

In our book-club discussion, several people voiced their frustration with the extensive historical information about the Zionist movement, the Israeli War for Independence (or the Catastrophe, as it was known to displaced Palestinians), the six-day war in 1967, and various political events that came after it. It seems as if each act of violence produces a corresponding violent act, over and over again. Tolan’s meticulous documentation of the conflict shows us the human consequences of each act of violence – over and over again. Dalia is often consumed with fear of Palestinian attack; Bashir faces torture, prison, and long separations from his family as a consequence of political activism.

The stalemate

My sense is that after meeting Bashir, Dalia recognizes that a terrible injustice was done to the Palestinian people; it is up to her generation to confront that injustice. The injustice of the occupation is Bashir’s focus in life; he insists that his family’s land and the home his father built will be returned to him someday. Bashir tells Dalia that her people should return to where they came from, but Dalia already lives where she came from: She came to the house with the lemon tree when she was an infant, and there is no going back. Even these two friends who have known only one place in the world cannot resolve the twin issues of freedom for the
Palestinian people and self-preservation for Jews in Israel.

Peacemaking in Palestine and Israel

The day after our book club discussion of The Lemon Trees, our church welcomed a guest speaker on Peacemaking in Palestine and Israel. Presbyterian minister Dr. Fahed Abu-Ackel is the son of Palestinian Christians. (Most of us were not aware that Christian Palestinians were displaced along with Muslims.)

Dr. Abu-Ackel gave us his perspective on Zionism and the need for peace in Israel. When questioned about what we can do to further peace, he said that we must have steadfast hope, we must pray, and we must act to let Palestinian Christians know our concerns. When questioned about the political solution, Dr. Abu-Ackel said that the answer is to establish one secular government in Israel. Several members of our congregation pointed out that Israelis, even those sympathetic to the plight of displaced Palestinians, are not likely to accept a solution that would dissolve the Jewish state. Others suggested that until the cycle of violence ends, the Israeli government is not likely to consider a secular state. I didn’t feel Dr. Abu-Ackel had a clear response to these comments, perhaps because there is no clear answer.

Biases in the story

One criticism of The Lemon Tree is that it is biased toward the Palestinian perspective, and that same bias seemed built into Dr. Abu-Ackel’s talk. Dr. Abu-Ackel suggested that we Americans have embraced the Israeli side of this story – the building of a Zionist state from the ruins of the Holocaust in Europe – and we need to educate ourselves on the Palestinian perspective.

I’m not sure I agree entirely that Americans are completely unaware of the plight of the
Palestinians. Many of us, like my dad, see the problem but no clear solution. Whether or not the book is biased, it presses one point upon us: No matter how much we would prefer to turn a blind eye to the sad stories of history, citizens of the world must confront those stories if we want peace to prevail.

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