For The Someday Book

Book Review: The Lemon Tree

Posted on: January 7, 2012

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan, Bloomsbury, 2006, 364 pp.

Many, many thanks to my friend Caela for recommending this book. It was great preparation for my pilgrimage to the Holy Land in just a few short weeks, and the story was so compelling that I couldn’t put it down.

The Lemon Tree is the true story of two individuals, their families and their personal, intertwining history with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict over the last century. Bashir Khairi is a Palestinian Muslim who was six years old in 1948, when his family was forced to leave the house his father had built and the land that had been their heritage for centuries. Dalia Eshkenazi is the daughter of two Bulgarian Jews who survived the Holocaust. She and her parents were among the first Jews relocated from Europe to the newly-formed nation of Israel. Dalia was eleven months old when she came to Israel, and she and her parents took up residence in the vacated family home of Bashir Khairi.

The story begins in 1967, shortly after the Six Day War, when Bashir has the opportunity to visit his hometown for the first time in 19 years. With his two cousins, he makes his way back to the town of al-Ramla. They ring the bell of Bashir’s family home, and Dalia answers and agrees to let them in. What unfolds, across the next 40 years, is a friendship and compassionate conversation through the ugliness of war and violence. Bashir remains active in the Palestinian resistance, refusing to let go of his just claim to return to his family home. He spends a quarter of his life in prison as a result. Dalia is unrelenting in her commitment to Israel, her claim to the house, and the need for a Jewish homeland. Yet the two develop a personal respect and admiration for each other that survives their differences and gives cause for hope in the terribly painful conflict in this small patch of land.

Sandy Tolan is a journalist who writes their story with an informality that makes it feel like reading a novel, but a depth of historical information that teaches as the story unfolds. He traces each family’s history back several generations, and then unfolds the story of Dalia’s and Bashir’s lives with care and detail. He lays out the history of the land, the violence and insecurity on both sides, failed attempts at peacemaking, and the realities of occupation with a matter-of-fact approach that honors the sincerity and depth of the conflict on both sides. The story creates in the reader a desire for both Dalia and Bashir to have their way, to meet the just demands of both, but that is impossible. The needs of one conflict with the needs of the other, so the path of forward seems unfair and unclear. In his telling of the personal and political history, Tolan honors the just claims of both sides and both perspectives, and does not try to mediate or take sides.

The central symbol of the book is a lemon tree, planted by Bashir’s father in the back yard of their family home. It is a symbol of the future (turned past) that has been taken away from them, of the home that they long for, and of all that one kindhearted citizen can offer—the gift of lemons from the tree, not the tree itself or the ability to return to the home where it sits.

The Lemon Tree is a fascinating, compelling read, and a great way to gain familiarity with the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. There is no resolution, but in this book there is always hope.

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1 Response to "Book Review: The Lemon Tree"

[…] was thrilled to discover Sandy Tolan was writing another book about life in Palestine. His first, The Lemon Tree, was so compelling, and the story so fascinating, I couldn’t wait to read Children of the […]

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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