Sunday, September 17, 2006


"The Lemon Tree" by Sandy Tolan

Very few in the West can honestly claim to have been able to appraise the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an objective point of view that takes into account nothing but the facts. In all fairness, until quite recently, it has been tricky to find complete information that was not deformed and manipulated by heavy ideological filters. Surprisingly, that same claim can be made for many who live in the heart of the land itself, neighbours to an “enemy” who has a destiny that is entwined, but without an idea of who this “enemy” is and what motivations drive him.

Our beliefs and any actions we might take regarding the conflict are influenced by the version of the story that was made available to us, often without our being aware of how simple it is to distort facts, and usually out of good faith, we in the West have accepted almost entirely the veracity of the version that is dominant in our society. Not going into all the reasons behind the monolithic embracing of the Israeli narrative, we Westerners are only now beginning to see the holes in the thesis that Israel is the home of the “good guys”; that it is just a small, weak country formed from Holocaust survivors who had built an island of democracy and sanity in a sea of blind Arab anger. In part, this is the effect of identification with those who we perceive to be similar to us and who we think share our same values. Perhaps we never took the time to look at the conflicting versions of the same events and stopped to ask ourselves why the narratives are so dramatically different. It boils down to a question of ignorance or indifference. It is possible that the key to coming to a resolution of the conflict will only happen when we are able to suspend our “automatic affiliations” and look objectively at what has actually taken place.

Let’s work at eliminating the bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors. Let’s blow away the fog of catchy phrases that have substituted reality and let’s actually begin to view the events as they have unfolded. Doing this, we will soon realise that this conflict is not mysterious, endless and irresolvable. It is much simpler than what we have been led to believe. First, it is not a religious war. Second, the populations involved are not simply acting out a script drawn up for them by the inevitable hand of destiny. These people can act as individuals, can change their reality in some way, and society itself can be changed by their will and actions.

Most importantly, there are not two histories, there is only what actually took place. The history of Palestine-Israel can be traced in a series of events that has been documented unlike few other national histories. There are thousands upon thousands of eyewitness accounts and an impressive body of tangible evidence and proofs that repeat over and over again the many events that have shaped the Middle East. What is striking is the fact that while on the Palestinian side the events have never been forgotten, in fact, it is uncanny how closely they mirror the bulk of the forensic evidence, and on the Israeli side, these event have been obscured, denied or deformed by the entire society. Most Israelis (admittedly) know nothing of the events that see Israel in the role of the aggressor, and they seem to ignore what life is like for the Palestinians their own State controls. Any Palestinian aggression is interpreted as coming out of a vacuum, from the irrational hatred they believe Arabs have towards Jews. This deception is at the core of the incomprehension. It is quite amazing to hear how so many Israelis claim that they have “always” been against the occupation (of Gaza and the West Bank), even though perhaps a few years ago they may “always” have been convinced that occupying Palestinian land in the West Bank and creating major settlements was a necessity in order to create a buffer zone for security purposes. It’s not inconceivable to imagine that one day Israelis might take a look around them and say that they “never” felt threatened by the Palestinian Right of Return, and that they “always” thought that living in a unified, democratic State together with the Palestinians was the only just solution to satisfy the equal and conflicting claims.

If that thought is going slightly too far, at least in the meantime we have a book that goes farther than most in presenting an accurate history of Palestine-Israel to a general public. Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree is a very good work of intelligent journalism. Due to its original format, I believe it is an important book that can give a deeper awareness to anyone who wishes to gain deeper understanding of the problem and a hope that there is indeed an acceptable solution.

The Lemon Tree tells the true story of a Palestinian family and their vicissitudes following the creation of the State of Israel. It also tells the true story of a Bulgarian family that inhabited the house the original owners were forced to leave. The focus on the human aspect offers refreshing insights into the depth of feeling that the “other” possesses. The perspective of viewing the same events through very diverse pairs of eyes is an effective one. Rather than take away a sense of “objectivity”, seeing the two narratives side by side increases our comprehension of the events themselves and clearly illustrates how people are affected by all that happens around them, and consequently, have the reactions they do. The humanity of the protagonists allows us to come near to their fears, desires and beliefs. It need not imply a sacrifice of historical accuracy.

The author’s attempts to present the episodes in a readable narrative are quite successful. It is not long before we start to know and care about the details that were important to the people he presents to us. The intensity of some feelings and the importance of symbols are tangible. The individual and collective memories are never obscure or irrelevant matters; they are central to the issue.

The history of the conflict is condensed in the clearest of manners, which would be extremely useful to the neophyte. The author presents the information without weighing the reader down in minutiae which risks interrupting the flow of the narrative. In fact, there is not a single footnote in the text itself, but even the smallest of details has been checked for accuracy. All of the information is contained in a 70-page-long appendix in fine-print (which in itself makes for fascinating reading) and an extensive bibliography, which touches practically every important text written on the subject. What is extraordinary is that in a user-friendly format, all the noteworthy events are mentioned. The political scenario, population movements, military operations, assassinations, acts of terrorism, summits, legal aspects and so forth are presented with extreme clarity and precision. Little to nothing has been left out, so the reader is allowed to consider historical events in their context. There is a segment on the Clinton-Arafat-Barak talks that is extremely interesting, with details that are fascinating, fully verified and quite surprising. Tolan’s presentation of this event is the best I have yet read and it alone makes the book a very useful document.

The leitmotif of the book is a sentiment of nostalgia. There is no denying that the love of the homeland is sincere. There is the pain of separation from beloved landscapes that is evident even in the pining that the Bulgarian mother expresses for Bulgaria, there is a longing for the clock to turn itself back.

The main protagonists, Dalia Eshkenazi Landau and Bashir Khairi agree that the time has come for their people to be liberated. Bashir, like 40% of the male Palestinian population, has been imprisoned many times in Israeli jails, often without charge. Each time, it did little more than reinforce his sense of the injustice that his people was undergoing and further the love of his land. Dalia realises that it is unfair that the Palestinians were forced to leave their land and homes so that Jews could move in. She wishes to return the home she grew up in to its original owners, but the law of Israel forbids her from doing so. She too is trapped in the paradigm of two peoples forced to live separated but whose blood was pumping from the same heart. This leads to the reflection as to whether the Israelis, in denying the Palestinians their possessions, right and self-determination have obtained what they wanted for themselves. They live neither in peace or security. Dalia recognises and feels responsibility for many of the crimes that were committed to allow the creation of the Jewish State, yet, oddly enough, she remains a dedicated Zionist. She acknowledges the injustice, and wishes personally to make reparations, but she does not feel that it is appropriate to extend that request to others to do the same.

Bashir, a lawyer, is aware that the demands made by the Palestinian people to the Israeli State are steeped in legitimacy and are supported by international law. The book has the merit of presenting to the public at large two concepts that are all but unheard of outside those who closely follow the issue: the Right of Return and the concept of a single democratic State that is home to all the people laying claim to Palestine-Israel as their homeland, be they Jew or Palestinian. Bashir, like most Palestinians, including most prominent ones, believes that exchange is not an option. There may never be a truly fair and equitable solution that will do justice to those who have suffered, but a viable solution that will allow the two populations to coexist in the place they consider home is an idea to consider before giving up all hope. Dalia mentioned the story of King Solomon where she stresses that the true mother surrenders her baby. I personally always wondered if the king was so wise in even proposing such a thing; the true mother could very well have allowed the sword to sever the baby in two, simply to not permit the other from raising the child. We all know maternal instincts are far from automatic. If using this metaphor, we can draw only one conclusion, that at any rate, no baby survives if he or she is severed. The Holy Land, the Homeland, the Promised Land, under whatever term it is considered, can only survive if no one da
res sever her in pieces. Since no one is willing to abandon her, sharing her is the only option. May the wise king rest in peace.

Dalia admits that Israelis are raised to be suspicious of Arabs. As a matter of fact, unlike most others in her place may have done, as a teenager she welcomed Bashir into her home without hesitation. She does not like to come off as a “good” Israeli, yet she realises that Palestinians have only known the Israeli as the oppressor and usurper. Despite the fact that she agrees with the interpretation of most of the events, she still refuses the moral solution of the Right of Return or even of a unified State. She is not critical of Zionism, and she does not see it as an oppressive force. I cannot figure out a single valid reason why she maintains that there is something good about Zionism, when the results of it are before our very eyes. Taking the land of Zion from another people is simply unethical and it allows a vision of colonialism to be masked as a demographic solution to a humanitarian problem. The enormous ethical and practical problems inherent in it were contemplated even in the days when it was not practiced but merely theorised, and no cultural Zionism has ever been possible, grounded as it is in the realpolitik of populating a land already inhabited by another group of people. Yet, her gesture is coming from a good place, her humanity, and perhaps that is the place we have to keep looking if we want to see a change in heart that will bring about a change in practice.

For more information or to order the book,


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