From the President



  Books, Film, & Music



  My Response

  Letters to the Editor

  From the Editor

  Contact Response

  Submit Footnote

  Submit Letter to Editor

  Address Change

  Back Issues

  Response Home

  SPU Home

Autumn 2006 | Volume 29, Number 4 | Features

The Lemon Tree

In the Heart of the Middle East, an Unlikely Friendship Plants Seeds of Hope

If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be distilled into a brief conversation between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Arab, it might take the form of the following unscripted exchange in an old 60 Minutes television report.

The Israeli being interviewed, a Jewish woman from the United States who had immigrated to Israel, exclaimed, “I’ve solved my problem!” It was a personal statement, but she was clearly speaking for millions of Israeli Jews who viewed the estab-lishment of Israel as the answer to their centuries-old problem of persecution and statelessness. Nearby was a young Palestinian man serving as an Arabic interpreter. Spontaneously, he interjected, “But you gave me yours!” Also a personal statement, he was just as clearly speaking for millions of Palestinian Arabs who felt that the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine left them persecuted and stateless.

What if an entire book could be crafted around the core dilemma expressed in that exchange? What if the reader could be drawn fully into the lives of two peoples who share so much linguistically, religiously, geographically, ethnically, and historically — and who, most importantly, share the experience of great suffering? What if the two stories could be told, not as separate and irreconcilable, but as one tale, generating symmetry of understanding, empathy, and hope?

I have been waiting for such a book ever since I started teaching the history of the Middle East more than a quarter-century ago. The Middle East will never disappear from the headlines, and my students’ lives will continue to be influenced by events in this region even as their decisions will impact the lives of people living in the Middle East. How can I as an instructor prepare them for an increasingly interconnected world? I ask myself this question each time that I prepare to teach “The Rise of Islamic Civilization,” “Modern Middle East,” or the required sophomore-level Common Curriculum course “The West and the World.”

Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006) is the book I have long been waiting for. It is a stunning achievement, a book entirely of nonfiction that grabs and holds the reader like a great novel, a book that is both educational and inspirational. In the Israeli town of Ramla is a house with two tales to tell.

When Palestinian Arab Ahmad Khair built the modest stone structure in 1936, he also planted a lemon tree to grow along with his young family. Khair’s son Bashir was only 6 years old when the entire family fled their home during the 1948 Arab- Israeli war, becoming refugees on what we now refer to as the West Bank. Shortly after al-Ramla (the town’s Palestinian name) was incorporated into the newly established state of Israel, the Eshkenazis — a family of Bulgarian Jews who had barely escaped the Nazi Holocaust — came into possession of the Khair house. Dalia Eshkenazi, 1 year old at the time, grew up in the shade of the lemon tree and as a girl wondered about the house’s former occupants.

The personal connection between the two central characters, Dalia and Bashir, began on a hot July day in 1967. Ironically, the dramatic expansion of Israeli-controlled areas during the 1967 Six-Day War offered Palestinians who had been dispossessed in 1948 the chance to visit their former homes in Israel for the first time in nearly two decades. Bashir and his two cousins approached his childhood home in Ramla/al-Ramla with trepidation, not knowing what kind of reception they would receive.

“I was wary,” remembers Bashir. “Should I knock forcefully and risk intimidating the people inside? Or knock softly and risk that the people would not hear me?”

Alone at home, Dalia, a 19-year-old student, answered the door and had every reason to be suspicious of the three Palestinian strangers when they asked if they could visit her house. “I felt, wow, it’s them. It was as if I’d always been waiting for them.” If she allowed them in, what would she be inviting? Dalia chose to ask the strangers in, and in doing so, opened the door to a friendship and an unforgettable story.

The Lemon Tree grew out of a radio documentary that Sandy Tolan produced for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of the declaration of the state of Israel. The radio documentary wove together the voices of Bashir and Dalia speaking to each other. Tolan’s challenge as an author was, in his own words, “to retain the simplicity and tone of the documentary while simultaneously writing a history book in disguise — and making it feel, all the while, like a novel.”

The result is a prose masterpiece based on exhaustive research in primary and secondary historical accounts, newspaper clippings, published and unpublished memoirs, nearly a dozen archival collections around the world, and, above all, personal interviews. Chapter 5 alone is based on interviews with more than 50 people.

Tolan provides 65 pages of source notes meticulously documenting every detail of the book. The extraordinary nature of this accomplishment gradually grows on the reader. This is a book that can be trusted, an important consideration when dealing with subject matter complicated by so much emotion and exaggeration on all sides.

The Arab-Israeli conflict touches everyone deeply; whether you are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, it goes to the heart of your identity. Having lectured to diverse audiences on the subject for many years, I can attest to the minefield that the author ventured into when he chose to write this book, a minefield in which the careless choice of a word can blow up in one’s face at any moment.

After opening with the initial encounter between Bashir and Dalia, the book then moves back to the year 1936 — the beginning of the Palestinian Revolt against the British, which coincided with the building of the Khair home — and traces the evolving Middle Eastern context during the early 1940s. The scene shifts to the nightmare of Nazi-occupied Europe, where Bulgarian Jews, including the family of Dalia Eshkenazi, narrowly escaped being deported to the death camps in the north and then prepared to immigrate to British-controlled Palestine following World War II. The author next moves us back to al-Ramla during those same years, skillfully connecting the family histories of the Khairs and the Eshkenazis to the historical forces that were buffeting Europe and the Middle East during and after World
War II.

Tolan tells the stories of both families during the all-important year 1948, in which the “miracle” of the Zionist War of Independence corresponds to the “nightmare” of the Palestinian Nakba, meaning “catastrophe.” The chapters continue to work in tandem, brilliantly illuminating the family stories and national stories of Israelis and Palestinians during the decades leading up to the first meeting between Dalia and Bashir.

Beginning with their meeting at the door of the house with the lemon tree, the personal relationship between Dalia and Bashir evolved over the course of four decades and is woven into the narrative. The twists and turns in this relationship are full of surprises better left for the reader to discover. Suffice it to say that Tolan masterfully escorts the reader through an epic story of war and peace, despair and hope, that has captured the world’s attention for more than half a century.

The book brings to life the complex relationship between Bashir and Dalia in all its confusion, frustration, and pain. There is no cheap sentimentality or shallow wishful thinking. The hard realities are faced head-on, both by the main characters and by the author, which makes reading this book a truly educational experience. When all the suffering, despair, violence, and mutually incompatible demands have been confronted, Dalia and Bashir remain two human beings who treat each other with respect, who refuse to give up on the future, and who cultivate the seeds of hope in their own hearts while planting new ones in ours.

Read this book for yourself. More importantly, read it for your children and your grandchildren — and then pass it on to a parent, a sibling, a pastor, or anyone else you truly care about.

I have just begun to explore the possibilities for using the The Lemon Tree as a learning experience in the classroom. Students feel understandably overwhelmed by the history of the second half of the 20th century, especially when they have only a week or two to touch on it in a course such as “The West and the World.” This book will focus their attention on a region and an issue that have been central to global history during the 20th century. I believe its powerful stories of human suffering and human perseverance will engage them and inspire them. And I hope it will place future headlines in a context that will help students not only understand the history but also work for reconciliation.

I plan to ask my students to compare the experiences of Dalia and Bashir and then to branch out and look for similarities and differences between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The differences are easy to detect, as Dalia and Bashir would be the first to admit. Opening themselves to the similarities requires effort, insight, humility, courage, and faith.


—By Don Holsinger, spu Professor of History
— Photo by getty images

Send This Page Send-to-Printer

Back to the top
Back to Home


Beyond Intellectual Mastery
President Philip Eaton offers a more complete view of education: Learning is “a bigger story than our own little pieces of intellectual mastery.”

Advising Future Physicians
In 2006, SPU achieved a 100 percent medical school acceptance rate through its unique, longtime approach to “shepherding” premed students.

A “Determined Quiet”
Alumna of the Year Lora Jones ’43 proves one person can change the world. Her life exemplifies ardent faith through war, life on a prison farm, and faithfully preaching the gospel.

Fiction on a Small Canvas
A new volume celebrates the best in Christian short stories — and leads off with a creation of SPU Adjunct Professor Mary Kenagy.

Goodwill Goalkeeping
Star soccer player Marcus Hahnemann ’93 wins fans in Europe, and represents America in the 2006 World Cup.

My Response
Principal and SPU doctoral student Karol Pulliam considers the classroom implications of John Medina’s 12 brain rules.

Copyright © 2006 Seattle Pacific University. General Information: 206-281-2000