When my wife and I were vacationing in Cyprus, Israel and Jordan, we met a fellow-Canadian tourist who told us of attending an author’s reading in Jerusalem of The Lemon Tree. We were intrigued, and bought a copy of the book in Jerusalem.
The story starts in 1967 with three young Palestinian men knocking on a door in the Israeli town of Ramla. The house had been built by the family of Bashir, one of the young Palestinians, and his father had planted a lemon tree in the backyard. His family had been forced to leave Ramla in early 1948. They are greeted by a young woman named Dalia, whose family moved into the house shortly after her birth in 1948.
The book tells the stories of Dalia and Bashir, as well as their families. It captures much of the history of the state of Israel. It tells of how a friendship develops between Dalia and Bashir, and how that friendship, successful to a degree and never romantic, reflects the broader tensions between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. “They were enemies, and they were friends.” The house has two histories. It is the only home that Dalai has ever known. It is also the first home that Bashir knew, and that he clearly continues to long for.
Dalia was born in Bulgaria, and the story tells how the Bulgarian Jews narrowly escaped the holocaust. Many of them, including Dalia’s parents, immigrated to Israel at the time of Israel’s independence, and were given home in villages vacated by Palestinians. Dalia knew very little about the history of her home until she met Bashir.
Bashir spent the next part of his youth in Gaza, where he lost some of the fingers of his right hand in an explosion. He became a lawyer, and as an adult, he and his family lived in Ramallah in the Israeli occupied West Bank. He was an organizer and actively involved in the liberation struggle of the Palestinian people. In 1969, he was accused of involvement in some bombings in Israel as a member of the outlawed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and spent time in jail. That added some obvious tension to the relationship, but didn’t stop Dalia’s efforts to seek him out, including visits to Ramallah and getting to know members of his family.
The last meeting between Dalia and Bashir recorded in The Lemon Tree was in Ramallah in 2004. Dalia said to Bashir ”We couldn’t find two people who could disagree more on how to visualize the viability of the land. And yet we are so deeply connected. And what connects us? The same thing that separates us. This land.”
In 1991, Dalia partnered with Michail, an Arabic representative on the Ramla City Council, to do something for the Arab population of Ramla and to provide a place where Arab and Jew could meet. Today, the house, now known as Open House, serves as a kindergarten for Arab children in Ramla and a centre for Arab-Jewish coexistence.
The Lemon Tree is based on detailed interviews with Dalia and Bashir, and Tolan has been a stickler for historical accuracy. I found it useful to read his extensive source notes accompanying each chapter. In The Lemon Tree, he aspires to provide an objective perspective on one of the most controversial issues of our times. I believe he is very successful in that regard and the book is worth reading for that, among other, reasons.