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?”
Almost two decades later, in July 1967, Bashir, now a young lawyer living in exile in Ramallah in the West Bank, took advantage of the recently opened borders to visit the home he’d been expelled from nineteen years earlier. This journey, Tolan writes, “was the breath, the currency, the bread of his family, of nearly every family he knew. It was what everyone talked about, all the time: return.” When Bashir rang the bell, Dalia could have turned him away, as did the Israeli living in Bashir’s cousin’s old home, which the men had visited earlier that day. But Dalia opened the door and let Bashir in. So it was that Bashir Khairi and Dalia Eshkenazi, now a college student, would meet and begin a remarkable friendship that has lasted to this day. Bashir, a nationalist activist, would go on to spend much of his adult life in prison after being convicted of taking part in the bombing of a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969, which killed three Israelis, and for being a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (charges he always denied). Dalia, for her part, was changed by that fateful knock on her door, her eyes opened to a past that had been purposely obscured by her elders, to the injustices visited upon her home’s previous occupants. She would never waver in her belief in Zionism and the justness of the Jewish State, just as Bashir would never waver in his belief in the right of his people to return to their land and in a single democratic state for Arabs and Jews in all of Palestine. But both, in their meetings, debates and letters over the years, would come to recognize the humanity and essential decency of the other.
Tolan is a magnificent storyteller. The Lemon Tree reads like a novel, with its reconstructed conversations and imaginings of characters from decades past. And yet not a single element is fictional; Tolan interviewed hundreds of people for the book and has painstakingly reconstructed what was said from their memories, cross-checking with others whenever possible and traveling all over Israel, Palestine and Bulgaria to chase down the smallest details. He has also immersed himself in the historiography of Israel-Palestine; folded naturally into the personal narratives is the story of the national conflict. Yet Tolan doesn’t overwhelm the reader with historical detail, saving this for the endnotes–a gold mine of resources for those who wish to explore the subject further.
These are bleak times in the Middle East. Gaza, strangled by an Israeli-American blockade, is increasingly riven by internal chaos, while West Bank Palestinians are confronted each day by new additions to a prison wall seemingly designed to destroy any possibility of a sustainable community, let alone independence. In its war against Hezbollah this summer Israel carried out a monthlong bombing campaign that pulverized much of Lebanon’s infrastructure and killed more than 1,000 people, mainly civilians, while the Jewish state endured the longest sustained attack on its soil since its founding, with Hezbollah rockets turning hundreds of thousands of Israelis into temporary refugees. The Lemon Tree doesn’t pretend to offer solutions; and yet the relationship and mutual respect of its two protagonists, and the surprising fate of the house at the heart of the story, suggests that reconciliation is at least possible. As Dalia says in a letter to Bashir, “the use of force will not resolve this conflict on its fundamental level. This is the kind of war that no one can win, and either both peoples will achieve liberation or neither will.”