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Book Review: The Lemon Tree

TL;DR: If you’re looking for an overview of the modern history of the Israel/Palestine conflict, this is an excellent place to start.

The Lemon Tree is a true story, written like a novel. It tells the story of Bashir Khairi and Dalia Eshkenazi, who were (and probably still are) dear friends. They met when Bashir visited his childhood home in Ramla in 1967. Dalia and her family moved into the house after Bashir’s family had been driven away in 1948 when Jewish fighters conquered Ramla. Tolan tells the story of the two individuals, Bashir and Dalia, as representatives of the Palestinian and Israeli people. I read this story as research for the book I’ve been working on, and Dalia and Bashir’s story could have been the backstory for the characters in my book. It confirmed for me that the story I’m telling in my book is plausible, at least. 

Right from the start–-in fact, before the story even begins–I got the sense I’m in good hands. Tolan provided “A Note on Spelling and Pronunciation”, which tells me not only that he did his research but also that he understands the political intricacies of the area. It’s difficult to do when you’re not native to the culture–but maybe a foreigner’s perspective worked to his advantage here. 

What I liked about this book is that it tells both sides of the story. It doesn’t gloss over the inequalities, and it doesn’t paint either side as victimised saints or violent extremists. It shows, in sensitive detail, how complex the situation in Israel/Palestine is.

While the book is a fantastic overview, the focus is on Dalia and Bashir (and their families and histories). Consequently, there are large, influential groups in Israel/Palestine that Tolan doesn’t even mention in the book, like Israeli Arabs (Palestinians who stayed in their homes under the Israeli state in 1948) or Orthodox Jews (some reject the Israeli state as vehemently as some Palestinians, for different reasons). I think part of what makes the situation in Israel/Palestine so complex is that there aren’t just two sides. There’s a saying (or maybe just my dad used to say it) that if you put five Israelis in the same room, you get six different political opinions. This book doesn’t consider various contradictory views on the conflict, both on the Palestinian and the Israeli side. That said, at 558 pages, including index and bibliography, it’s already quite the doorstopper, so I understand the reasons for focus.

Does this book provide new arguments for this centuries-old debate? No. There are no new arguments–the arguments I’ve heard since October 7th are the same ones I heard before the atrocities happened. But The Lemon Tree lays out the story of the Jewish and Palestinian people through the tale of two young people, Dalia and Bashir, and the history of the house in Ramla. It helped me understand the Palestinian side better, and I hope it will help my yet unfound Palestinian friends understand my side better.

My favourite quote comes from Dalia’s journal. “I am part of the problem because I came from Europe, because I lived in an Arab house. I am part of the solution, because I love.” (p. 369).

In summary, this book requires investing time, but if you want to understand why people in the Middle East are shooting at each other, it’s totally worth it. 

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