The Lemon Tree: an Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East
Author: Sandy Tolan
Pages: 268 plus bibliography and notes
Rating: 4 out of 5
Challenges: Middle East, POC
FTC Disclosure: I bought this book with my own money
Summary (from the back of the book): In 1967, Bashir Khairi, a twenty-five-year-old Palestinian, journeyed to Israel with the goal of seeing the beloved old stone house with the lemon tree behind it that he and his family had fled nineteen years earlier. To his surprise, when he found the house he was greeted by Dalia Eshkenazi Landau, a nineteen-year-old Israeli college student, whose family fled Europe for Israel following the Holocaust. On the stoop of their shared home, Dalia and Bashir began a rare friendship, forged in the aftermath of war and tested over the next thirty-five years in ways that neither could imagine on that summer day in 1967. Sandy Tolan brings the Israeli-Palestinian conflict down to its most human level, suggesting that even amid the bleakest political realities there exist stories of hope and reconciliation.
Review: I went into this book with really high hopes for a personal story. I was not ready for the amount of non-fiction-historical information that is contained in this book. I had read Mornings in Jenin recently and loved it; I was ready to feel the same way about this book, but didn't. Perhaps it was too much Middle-East-intensity in a row, perhaps I was just not in the right space for dense non-fiction... whatever the reason, I didn't love this book.
That said, I believe this book has great information, does a good job of staying neutral (and that is very difficult when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict), and is really well written. The research done by Tolan is impressive; he spoke with so many people on both sides of the conflict, read through scores of documents (see the bibliography and notes at the back of the book!), and does a great job of presenting a very detailed account of the Bulgarian Jews' experience during WWII, their move to Israel in 1948, and their side of the issue up to today. Likewise, the Palestinian experience is equally presented from the early 1900s through to the present day. For me, this was all just too much detail as I mentioned above. I was more interested in the personal stories of Dalia and Bashir.
The personal story is really interesting: how two families lived in the same house on the same land (land is a recurring theme in the book) and how their experiences and version of the conflict are in such contrast. It would be difficult for a reader of this book to not notice the more difficult road of the Palestinian living as refugees and under Israeli law. Bashir does not have an easy life at all, ending up in prison on a number of occasions. Tolan is careful about taking sides and doesn't ever say if Bashir is guilty or not.
The conversations between Dalia and Bashir are very interesting, though the book doesn't have enough of them for me. I loved reading about how the two of them viewed various major events in the conflict and how they see the conflict in general. Bashir wants the right of return for Palestinians and while Dalia understands that desire, she knows it means she and her people will have to leave for that to happen. How do you solve this dilemma? Obviously, that is the crux of the conflict and Tolan does not offer an solution, rather he puts both sides of the story out there for readers to take in and digest. That he did very well.
Other bloggers have loved this book and I think I would have rated it higher if I had been in a different space when I read it. My advice is to read this book as your source for the Israel-Palestine conflict, not as one of many books you read right in a row on the subject. Tolan is so thorough that this book will give you a lot of what you need. Just know there is more history than personal story.