The 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.
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 http://libraries.slq.qld.gov.au/home/services 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.
A map of Najd (Sderot) can be found at Palestine Remembered at http://www.palestineremembered.com/Gaza/Najd/SatelliteView.html)