Imagine that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be settled by a misery contest. Each side would be able to pick its most tragic, catastrophic story to go up against the other, and the whole long history could be settled in one no-holds barred, mano a mano fight between two narratives. Who would the Israelis choose as their Achilles? What about the Palestinian Hector? For my money, I’d take one Holocaust survivor who first lost his family in the war, and then his only son to a terrorist attack, versus a Palestinian refugee from 1948 whose house gets struck by a missile, killing her entire clan.
I’m going to give Sandy Tolan, author of “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East,” the benefit of the doubt and assume that he did not intend to inspire this cynical scenario in my head. I’m willing to believe that he decided to tell the true story of Dalia Eshkenazi and Bashir Khairi and the house (and lemon tree) in Ramle that was loved by both their families as a way of recounting the conflict in as human a way as possible. Tolan surely meant to offer this narrative of intertwined lives and of the unlikely friendship between a dovish Israeli and a militant Palestinian as a way of pulling us up and away from the ultimately unanswerable and unproductive game of who has bled more. But he just kept dragging me back, perhaps inadvertently, against my own will and better judgment, to this essentially stupid question.
The story itself is so irresistible that it’s not surprising that some journalist eventually discovered it. The house with the lemon tree in its courtyard was built in 1936 by Ahmad Khairi, nephew of Sheikh Mustafa Khairi, who was the prominent and longtime mayor of al-Ramla, as it was known then. Like most of the residents of Lod and Ramle, the Khairis were forcibly expelled during the 1948 war (an event that even Rabin recounted in his memoirs as incredibly cruel) and became refugees first in Gaza and then in Ramallah. The traumatic uprooting affected most greatly Ahmad Khairi’s sensitive 6-year-old boy, Bashir, who vowed that one day he would return his family to their home.
Three months after the Khairis left their spacious stone house, the Eshkenazis moved in with their newborn daughter, Dalia. The family had escaped Bulgaria, where 50,000 Jews managed to narrowly avoid the full horror of the Holocaust because of a population that loudly protested what were already planned deportations to death camps. Once in Israel, the Eshkenazis encountered the normal difficulties of all new immigrant families. But they eventually purchased from the state the Khairis house, which was then considered “abandoned property,” and began to build a comfortable life in Ramle.
The real story, however, begins in July 1967, a month after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, when Bashir, now a lawyer in his 20s, decides to take a trip to visit his old home. He meets Dalia, at that time a university student, and she takes the unusual step of opening up herself and her house to him, of igniting a connection that that has lasted, presumably, until today.
This is no perfect parable of coexistence, however. Not long after Bashir’s first visit, he joins George Habash’s militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In 1969, he is arrested, tried and then sentenced to 15 years in jail for his role in a bombing at a Jerusalem supermarket in which two men were murdered. And he does not soften after his release. Instead he helps lead the first intifada, is eventually deported by Israel to southern Lebanon and joins his comrades in Tunis. The Oslo Accords return him to the West Bank, but he still moves in and out of jail, remaining an unapologetic believer in the one-state solution.
Meanwhile, Dalia never gives up on him. Even as Bashir’s militancy continues to slap her in the face, she seems to refill endlessly with empathy — “His reaction will not determine mine,” Dalia says. “I have free choice to think. I have free choice to act, in accordance with my understanding and my conscience.” In 1985, when her father dies and no one lives in the house with the lemon tree anymore, she decides to include Bashir in the discussion of the property’s future. It is her way of righting what she feels is the historical wrong of the family’s expulsion from the home they built. Since the house cannot be legally transferred back to the Khairis — something that Dalia actually contemplates — Bashir suggests turning it into a school for Arab children. This Dalia does, establishing Open House in 1989 as a preschool and coexistence center.
Bashir and Dalia are fascinating characters, and despite Bashir’s politically extreme politics they really do seem to care about each other — a unique connection worth recounting in its own right. Both articulate and sensitive, they serve Tolan as excellent conduits for telling the Israeli-Palestinian story. They are not the problem with this book.
If this were just a story about two people and their tortured relationship against all odds, there might be no reason to complain. But Tolan wants us to read Bashir and Dalia as representatives of their respective peoples. In fact, much of the book is loaded with a dry recitation of the conflict’s history (which will be tiresome to any moderately knowledgeable reader), with the two characters simply fleshing out the bigger story.
By placing them next to each other, he is also placing their two national narratives next to each other. And he does seem to want us to compare. How else can we read the juxtaposition of a chapter on the Holocaust that follows with one on the Naqba? On one page we have the Israeli minister of minority affairs, Bechor Shalom Shitrit, objecting to the expulsion of the Arabs of Lydda and al-Ramla, and on the next page the brave protestations of the Christian citizens of Bulgaria to the deportation of the Jews. Are we not supposed to hear the echoes? When Tolan describes the Khairis in 1948 arriving with hundreds of refugees in a Ramallah that has become a “depository of misery and trauma,” I wondered about the Eshkenazis. They would soon land in their own refugee camps in Pardes Hannah, crammed together with thousands of families, with no housing, Hebrew or definite future. Was this place, too, not a “depository of misery and trauma”?
There are many more examples, and not just ones in which the Arab Hector beats the Jewish Achilles. Also, the comparisons don’t always revolve around misery. What about who is more conciliatory? Who more spiteful? Who more connected to the land? It felt annoying and inappropriate for my mind to drift to these places, but who except the most robotically objective among us could avoid them in a book structured such as this one? I kept remembering a much maligned article that appeared in The New York Times at the height of the second intifada in 2002, in which a reporter lumped together the story of an 18-year-old Palestinian girl, Ayat al-Akhras, who had blown herself up in a Jerusalem supermarket, and one of her victims, Rachel Levy, 17. Like Bashir and Dalia’s story, it was an irresistible connection to make. Critics wailed at the time that it was wrong to draw any kind of equal sign between the death of the murdered and the death of the murderer. That wasn’t my distress. Mine was that these two girls each represented a unique tragedy, each a distinct kind of drama. One girl’s story did not illuminate the other’s. Entwining the narratives only seemed to undermine and politicize both. The same is true here.
The end of the book is not promising. It is 2004: Dalia and Bashir are now in their 60s, and she is pleading with him to show “that you really care and you really feel for my people. I have this need personally from you. From you, Bashir, who was born in my home. In your home. In our home.… Because that would make me feel so much safer. Then we could move on. We could create a single reality together.” Bashir never gives her what she wants.
But I was disheartened long before this moment. The pitfalls were obvious on the first page of the book. In a prefatory “Note on Spelling,” Tolan tells the reader that in order to resolve the problem of towns whose names are pronounced differently in Arabic and Hebrew, he will “use the pronunciation favored by the person through whose eyes the reader is seeing at a particular moment.” And therein lies the problem. Tragedy, like pronunciation, is individual. Tolan understands that you can’t possibly pronounce Ramle and al-Ramla in the same breath, so why can’t he see that it equally garbles these two sad stories to try and tell them as one?
The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East By Sandy Tolan Bloomsbury USA, 384 pages, $24.95 .
Gal Beckerman is writing a history of the Soviet Jewry movement, to be published next year by Houghton Mifflin.
Gal Beckerman is the Forward’s Opinion Editor. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “ When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, ” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Contact Gal Beckerman at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @galbeckerman