In 1948, in what Israelis call the War of Independence and Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, some 700,000 Palestinians–more than half the Arab population–were driven from their homes into exile. The dispossession of the Palestinians by the Zionist movement, representing a people who had suffered centuries of persecution in Europe, continues to haunt the Middle East, influencing events far beyond the Levant. The story of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and its present-day reverberations has been told from almost every conceivable angle. Rarely, however, have the competing narratives of individual experience been set forth so poignantly as in Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree.
Tolan’s story is woven from two intertwined lives, one Palestinian and one Jewish, around one house–“the house with two histories.” Bashir Khairi was a child of 6 when, in July 1948, he, his family and almost all the citizens of the towns of al-Ramla and Lydda were forcibly expelled from their homes by the Israeli army. It was the single largest such eviction of the war, numbering 30,000-50,000 Palestinians, ordered by the newly declared state’s prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and orchestrated by a young lieutenant colonel named Yitzhak Rabin (who, after signing the Oslo Accords with the PLO more than forty years later, would be assassinated by a Jewish extremist). The Khairis, like their neighbors, were forced to leave behind everything but what they could carry on foot–the house of white Jerusalem stone, built to specification by Bashir’s father a decade earlier, along with most of its furniture, clothes, food and other belongings, as well as the lovingly tended garden in back, with its lemon tree.
At the same time, Moshe and Solia Eshkenazi and their infant daughter, Dalia, were preparing to leave their home in Bulgaria to make a better life in Israel. Five years earlier the Eshkenazis, along with the rest of Bulgaria’s 47,000 Jews, had narrowly escaped annihilation at the hands of the Nazis. Under King Boris III, Bulgaria had in 1941 joined the Axis powers, and by 1943 it had agreed with Germany to the secret deportation of the country’s Jews to Treblinka. But Bulgaria’s Jews were saved–at almost the last minute, as they had already been ordered to pack a few belongings and wait at schoolyards all over the country–thanks to the courageous efforts of a few Jewish activists and their gentile allies, including leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and some members of Parliament, who were outraged at the orders and threatened to reveal them to a wider public they were confident would also resist.
Although the country’s Jews suffered harsh restrictions under the fascist government, the overwhelming majority survived the war. Even so, after it was over, Zionism beckoned them to a new life in Palestine, away from a harsh Communist regime and postwar scarcity, away from a continent that had almost exterminated them. For many of these Bulgarian Jews who made aliyah in 1948, “the journey to Israel represented a return after two thousand years of exile.” Israel welcomed the Eshkenazis, settling the young family in the newly conquered town of Ramla, where they found a spacious stone house to move into, one with a lemon tree in the backyard. When Dalia was growing up, she often asked about the previous owners. Her elders and schoolteachers told her that the Arabs simply ran away–that they “preferred to leave,” as one textbook put it. She accepted what she was taught, but “Why, she wondered, would anyone leave so willingly?”