Book Review: The Lemon Tree

Khairi's House at al-RamlaThe Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan is narrative non-fiction, meaning it tells a personal narrative of the people affected by the occupation of Palestine and does it in the context of the history of this unresolved conflict.

I found the stories in the book to be both deeply moving and hard to read because of the sadness and struggle faced by the Palestinian people involved.

It was moving also because of a Jewish person who reached out to the people her country had dispossessed. Central to the story are the lives of Basir Khairi and Dalia Eshkenazi which intersect at a house in al Ramla from which the Khairi’s were forced out during al Nakba, ‘the catastrophe’, in 1948. Tolan describes it thus:

“By the morning of May 19 (1948), al-Ramla’s fighters had pushed back the Irgun. The Jewish militia would count thirty men dead and twenty missing. ‘The people are in very low spirits’, read an Israeli intelligence report issued a few days later, ‘due to heavy losses and lack of success’.”

“The city’s defenders had prevailed. It appeared to be an unambiguous victory for the ex-mufti’s forces, the bare foot brigade, the civilian volunteer fighters of al-Ramla. Ahmad, however had had enough. It was too dangerous to let Zakia and the children stay in the city. Despite Sheik Mustafa’s pleas that no one should abandon al-Ramla, Ahmad would take no more chances. He hired two cars to take the family east, through the hills of Palestine to Ramallah. That trip in itself would be dangerous, Ahmad knew; though Ramallah was only twenty miles away, the roads were bad and pockets of fighting were erupting in unpredictable places. But staying would be more risky than leaving. In Ramallah it was relatively calm. The family could remain there until fighting subsided. (at p101).”

“Yet a month later after the loss of one of the town’s leaders the situation had become grave and the remaining family were expelled:

The morning of the July 14 was cloudless and extremely hot. It was the middle of July, the seventh day of Ramadan. Thousands of people had already been expelled from al-Ramla by bus and truck. Some like Bashir and his siblings, had left well before Jewish soldiers arrived taking temporary refuge in Ramallah. Others in the Khairi clan had remained in al-Ramla. ”

“Firdaws and her cousins, aunts, and uncles sat waiting at al-Ramla’s bus terminal. There were perhaps thirty-five in all, the khairis and their relatives, the Tajis. Sheikh Mustafa was among them.”

“With them they carried few suitcases, bundles of clothes and gold strapped to their bodies. Firdaws, the Girl Guide, had also packed her uniform and brought along her knife and her whistle. They had planned for a short trip, in miles and in days; they were certain they would be coming back soon, when the Arab armies recaptured al-Ramla.” (pages 113-114).


I quote these accounts here because it has often been claimed on the Zionist side that Palestinians left their villages voluntarily. The story of the expulsion is not restricted to al‑Ramla, it occurred across Palestine hence the name al Nakba (the catastrophe). I do not think the current situation in Palestine can be understood without intimate knowledge of what happened in 1948.

For example, in 1948 there was a Christian village not far from al-Ramla called Lydda, the Israelis now call it Lod.  Its people  were expelled by Zionist militia in brutal fashion. I won’t go into to details here; you can read them in The Lemon Tree. What is significant is that one of the people who was expelled from Lydda was George Habash who later became a leader of the Palestinian resistance. Such was his experience in 1948 that Habash would never accept a ‘two state solution’ because it meant that the people of his village (and those of other villages) would never be able to return. Similarly Bashir Khairi has never been able to go back to his house even though, in partnership with Dalia Eshkenazi, he has made his family home (depicted) an open house to help educate Arab and Jewish children.

The irony of Christian villages being routed by the Zionists is that it is often been claimed by Christians in the West, from the Crusades  down through history to the Iraq War (2004-2009), that such acts are justified in order to protect and save the holy land.  Yet in Iraq today it is Christians who have been persecuted and expelled as a direct result of the US invasion in 2003.

Rejection of this justification of occupation can be found throughout the history of the Palestinian resistance. It can be found today in Gaza where militants continue to fire rockets at Israeli towns which were formerly their own, Palestinian villages.

Take Sderot [spelt variously as Siderot and Sederot] an Isareli settlement just outside the Gaza strip and the subject of many media reports of rocketing.

The reports never say that Sderot is an Israeli settlement established in 1951 after the catastrophe (al-Nakba) on the Palestinian village of Najd, historic lands that date back many centuries.

The Lemon Tree speaks of many such villages, Al Ramla became Ramle in Israeli hands, Lydda became Lod, and so on.

Yitzhak Rabin, the Noble Prize winner, wrote in his diary soon after Lydda’s and Ramla’s occupation:

“After attacking Lydda [later called Lod] Ben-Gurion would repeat the question: What is to be done with the population?, waving his hand in a gesture which said: Drive them out!. ‘Driving out’ is a term with a harsh ring… Psychologically, this was on of the most difficult actions we undertook.” (Soldier Of Peace, p. 140-141).”

A list and videos of the towns ethnically cleansed during al-Nakba can be found at Palestine Remembered.

The other story
The Eshkenazis’, Bulgarian Jews who had fled Europe in 1948, were placed there under the Zionist resettlement program and their baby daughter, Dalia, grew up there wondering whose house she was living in. So the Khairis became stateless as a result of the setting up of the Jewish state of Israel. In an attempt to resolve the conflict Dalia and Bashir agreed to set up an Open House for young arab children in the Khairi family home that had been occupied by the Eshkenazis since 1948.

The book intertwines the personal lives of these protagonists within the larger history of the struggle of the Palestinian and Jewish people. The book is fully referenced with endnotes, bibliography, and interviews at the back.

This is a book for people who wish to understand the struggle and particularly the importance to the Palestinian people of ‘the right to return’ to their villages – something yet to be offered by the United Nations, by the international courts, the political process inside Israel, Oslo, Camp David and the many other half hearted attempts – but increasingly is demanded by the people themselves, a cry that is only recently starting to be heard by the broader community.
Details: The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan Transworld Publishers 558 pp 2007 maps ISBN 9780552155144

Availability of the book
I had some trouble getting hold of this book. It is supposed to be available from a range of bookstores like QBD and Dymocks. However they do not stock the book.

I overcame this by ordering it from my local bookshop, The Avid Reader at West End Brisbane. Their price was also cheaper than Dymocks.

Public Libraries
The book like a number of others should be available in libraries (Brisbane City Council, Shire, State, Uni, Schools) but currently is not. These libraries abound with books on the holy land but are lacking in such important narratives as this one.

As one librarian put it ‘we know the stories of the conquerors but not of the conquered’. Her claim was that few such stories are written in English as mostly would be in Arabic. A claim that libraries can no longer rely upon to justify their purchasing bias.

A list of public libraries can be found at but only the Sunshine Coast library (QSCL) has a copy of the book.

Public Library Services at Cannon Hill have ordered a meagre two copies.

I have put in a request for the state library to acquire the book. I think that others should do likewise in their local libraries and seek out information about this important history.

Ian Curr
February 2009

All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 by Walid Khalidi (Editor)

A map of Najd (Sderot) can be found at Palestine Remembered at

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Lemon Tree

  1. George Galloway says:

    Needless Obstacles On The Road To Peace..

    Feb 23 2009
    by George Galloway

    MY Winnebago would nae go, go and so if your columnist is walking with a stoop, it’s the result of nights spent sleeping in the front seat of a car.

    I’m in Algeria, a land which had to sacrifice a million martyrs to overthrow French colonial rule and which knows a thing or two about occupation and resistance, which will account for the mass welcome by thousands of well-wishers on the route so far.

    Read More

    For other progress reports …

    Convoy in historic border crossing
    Convoy Update —23.00 (GMT) Tuesday 24th February 2009

    It has been a long drive across the hills of Bouira,Borj Bouareridj and Setif. The same warm welcome and generosity was shown by the Algerian crowds.

    Rabah, Palestinian tells me that they stopped for some Algerian Merguez (Sausages), the man refused to get paid and filled their van with bottled water and drinks.

    Read More

  2. Cracks appearing in the Jews-only democracy says:

    [Editor’s Note: I wonder if these articles below shed any new light on Israel? Logically, Israel is opposed to peace, its very nature is to be at war with the Arabs. There can be little room for a peace movement in Israel. What did exist in the past (in the 1950s & 60s) existed because Israel chose a social democratic facade, so there was room for a Peace Now movement.

    In the same way the US has chosen a liberal facade now with Obama.

    But its very nature is to be militarised and imperialist.

    The ‘New Profile’ people have no profile except through symbolic acts. Does this change anything for Israel? This is what the articles may be trying to say.

    People say that 9/11 changed the course of American history. Is this true? The twin towers changed Iraqi history, yes. 9/11 changed Afghani history. But did America change its nature? I think not. At least not in the same way that ‘the Blitz’ changed Britain or the relentless bombing of Germany at the end of World War II changed German society.

    There is mention of Ashkenazi women in the articles about the ‘New Profile’, the Israeli protagonist in ‘The Lemon Tree’ (the book) was called Ashkenazi. Come to think of it I am going to put the articles here under the review of the Lemon Tree. Ian Curr, May 2009]


    Of the police investigation into Israeli feminist and social activist organisation New Profile, co-founders Rela Mazali & Ruth Hiller explain, “I’d like to say clearly that I don’t think persecution of New Profile is (or will be) severe or extremely frightening… I see it, however, as a unique and important opportunity to open up people’s eyes to the much more severe, frightening and brutal reality of Palestinians’ persecution, ‘simply’ (and sadly) because in this case it is ‘respectable’, middle class, (some) middle-aged, Jewish, Ashkenazi women who are being targeted. In this case, the targets look credible and are not suspect ‘by definition’ because of their ethnicity/nationality/skin color/accent.”

    “Clearly, it’s not New Profile that they’re worried about. New Profile is an easy, visible scapegoat through which they hope to sow fear and intimidate future draft resisters, whom they stigmatize as ‘shirkers’. The state has declared a war against the many thousands who openly resist or dodge the draft and refuse to place their bodies, their minds, their morality at the disposal of vision-less politicians.” New Profile, which acts for the civil-ization of society in Israel and against the exaggerated and destructive influence of Israeli militarism on civilian life, provides legal aid and social support to young people desiring not to do military service, both for political and personal reasons.

    The New Profile Movement notes at “These recent acts confirm what we have been contending for many years: the militarism of society in Israel harms the sacred principles of democracy, freedom of expression and freedom of political association. One who believed that until now criminal files were conjured up “only” for Arab citizens of Israel saw this morning that none of us can be certain that s/he can freely express an opinion concerning the failures of society and rule in Israel.”

    At Gideon Levy writes: “Locking up three and a half million Palestinians in the occupied territories and denying them basic human rights has already undermined Israel’s pretention of democracy, but now dangerous cracks are appearing in our Jews-only democracy.” He continues, “Those who are silent now should not be surprised if one day they wake up and see the police outside the home of a poet whose message is forbidden.”

    At Deb Reich writes: “Many Israeli youngsters are deeply troubled about being forcibly conscripted into an army of occupation that rules brutally over 3.5 million disenfranchised neighbors… New Profile evolved to counter that reality with dialogue groups, presentations, exhibitions, one-on-one counseling, printed literature, a web site, etc. All of that is designed to provide an internationally accepted human rights context for the dilemmas faced by IDF conscripts– a countervailing voice to the dominant military madness.”

    “Consider this”, Deb Reich states, “Is a society on a permanent war footing really the sort of home that Jews fleeing pogroms in Europe were seeking in Palestine? Is the success of Israeli militarism so without flaws that no public debate on its merits is indicated?” And Reich continues: ”Power is only sustainable long-term when you parcel it out, as the women of New Profile know very well. They walk their talk very consistently. However long it takes to see real change around here, I know who I’m betting on.”

  3. Ray Bergmann - a review says:

    A Shared Israeli-Palestinian History

    I borrowed Margot Salom’s copy of “The Lemon Tree – The true story of a friendship spanning four decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict” by Sandy Tolan and I have just finished reading it. The need to have over 100 pages for the Bibliography and Source Notes to back up 300 pages of narrative recognizes the combat of propaganda narratives that anyone writing on four decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to contend with in dealing with the history of this sliver of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

    Sandy Tolan has made a very important contribution to a shared history that needs to be comprehended by both Israelis and Palestinians to realize fruitful co-existence in that land.

    Here are 300 pages that deserve to be read and re-read by all people affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in my opinion the paragraph that needs most of all to be gone back to again and again is the February 2002 appeal by Yasser Arafat published on the op-ed page of the New York Times, declaring that

    ‘the Palestinians are ready to end the conflict’ and have a ‘vision for peace … based on the complete end of the occupation and a return to Israel’s 1967 borders, the sharing of all Jerusalem as one open city and as the capital of two states, Palestine and Israel. It is a warm peace,’ Arafat added, ‘but we will only sit down as equals, not as supplicants; as partners, not as subjects; as seekers of a just and peaceful solution, not as a defeated nation grateful for whatever scraps are thrown our way.’

    Whether for those who insist on two independent states or for those who insist on those states being federally linked bi-nationally, here is clearly the only vision of the path to a truly fruitful co-existence that has yet been expressed.

    Regardless of all the ‘facts on the ground’ created by Israel’s settlement program in the West Bank including Jerusalem, this ‘vision of peace … to end the conflict’ expressed in just one paragraph must become ‘as frontlets between the eyes’ for all responsible statesmen on both sides.

  4. Going Home says:


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