The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East

It’s not uncommon for children’s authors of books on the Arab-Israeli conflict to try to present both sides of this thorny issue. Perhaps they want to help young readers to see how complex the conflict is. More likely, they hope to get their books into schools that mandate even-handedness.

But straining for balance rarely works. Authors whose books I’ve reviewed on this platform, (see Wishing Upon the Same Stars and Habibi), tend to shoehorn their own opinions into their characters’ mouths; the result is a lecture, not literature. 

Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree is different. For one thing, it’s not fiction. Despite the drama he infuses into recreated scenes from the past, Tolan interviewed his two protagonists for an NPR radio documentary and retells their stories faithfully. As he tells his young readers, he “didn’t make anything up.”

Inspired by an interest in “the human side of the story,” Tolan interviewed an Israeli and an Arab linked by one house. The Israeli, Dalia Eshkenazi, was born to Jewish parents in post-war Bulgaria in 1947; her family left the communist country for Israel, where they moved into the house built in al-Ramla/Ramle in 1936 by the father of Bashir Khairi, whose family was expelled by the Israeli army from that city in 1948, during the Israeli War of Independence.

Tolan attempts to present his subjects’ conflicting accounts in their own voices, doubtless edited for flow. Though the book seesaws between Dalia’s and Bashir’s stories (seamlessly woven together by historical context supplied by Tolan), it is neither dull nor pedantic.

That said, I can’t recommend it for school use, because Tolan omits critical information and context necessary for understanding Israel’s right to exist, and the Jews’ right to live in their land.

Myth and History

Like many revisionist authors, Tolan opens with the lie he grew up on: that the Arabs living in Palestine before the ’47-’48 war all ran away and that Israel didn’t expel any of them.

It is doubtless true that the Leon Uris Exodus myth dominated the airwaves from the 1950s through the 1970s, but that didn’t last. Following the Six-Day War, Israeli historians like Benny Morris began to dig into archives and examine the record of Israel’s behaviour in the War of Independence. They exposed cases in which Israel did indeed expel Arabs, and in which Israel’s record was less than pristine. This Young Readers’ Edition of The Lemon Tree came out in 2020, by which time Morris’ revisionist version of the history of the War of Independence,  The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, published in 1989, supplanted in 2003 by his The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, was old hat. So Tolan set out to debunk a narrative that no one has believed for years.

Tolan’s interviewees, Dalia and Bashir, first meet when Bashir and two of his cousins knock on her door in July of 1967, shortly after Israel’s lightning victory in the Six-Day War opened the border between Israel and the West Bank. Dalia invites them in, takes them through the house, and serves drinks in the garden.

Tolan reports Dalia’s reaction to this sudden confrontation with her house’s, and her nation’s, past: “Dalia thought, Finally I have opened a door that has so long been closed.” Bashir’s reaction, however, is resentful: “Should a person be a guest in his own house?”  But upon leaving, Bashir invites her to visit him in Ramallah, and the two continue their conversation, at irregular intervals, over thirty-eight years.  

By the end of the book, though Dalia never reneges on her Zionism, she feels called to accept some responsibility for Bashir’s family’s displacement. She makes a generous gesture towards compensation, donating her house as a kindergarten for Arab children.

For his part, Bashir moves from nonviolent judicial activism (he leads a lawyers’ strike against the authority of Israeli courts in the West Bank) towards radicalism. In 1969, he is imprisoned by Israel for fifteen years for terrorism and collaborating with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He acknowledges no responsibility for his own or his people’s violent contribution to perpetuating the conflict; to him, violence is justified as the only way to return to his old house and his “country.”

Tolan is sympathetic to each, never coming down overtly on either side.  But what is presented as symmetrical is actually not. As we follow Dalia’s progress, we notice that she is on a learning curve, while Bashir takes no steps towards understanding that, like him, the Jews have claims to the land he calls Palestine and Dalia calls Israel. Bashir is deaf to the Other:

“Okay, Bashir. I live in your home,” Dalia said finally. “And this is also my home. It is the only home I know. So, what shall we do?”

“You can go back where you came from,” Bashir said calmly.  . . “We believe that only those who came here before 1917” – the beginning of the British Mandate in Palestine—“have a right to be here. But anyone who came after 1917 cannot stay.” . . .

“Well, since I was born and came here after 1917, that is no solution for me! . . . I have nowhere else to go,” she said. ”I am staying here. The best thing is for you to live and leave us to live, too. We have to live together. We have to accept each other.”. . .

“You are living in a place that does not belong to you, Dalia. . . This is my country. We were driven out of it.”

“Well, you realize it is also my country,” Dalia insisted.

“No, it’s not. It’s not your country. You stole it from us.”. . .

“You are leaving us in the sea,” she finally said. “So what do you propose for us? Where shall we go?”

“I’m very sorry, but it is not my problem” (pp. 103-104).

Tolan fails to draw attention to the disparity between these two approaches or to the inaccuracy of the “stolen land” accusation.

He also endorses the myth of Arab-Jewish harmony in the pre-Zionist period:

[F]or the Khairis, as for many Arabs, the Jews had always been part of Palestine. They bartered with one another for wheat, barley and melons at al-Ramla’s market, and people from both groups worked as engineers and conductors for the Palestine railroad that passed through town. Arab laborers worked in nearby Jewish fields, and Jewish farmers brought their horses into al-Ramla to be shod.

Wealthy Arab residents of al-Ramla traveled to the city of Tel Aviv to have their suits cut by Jewish tailors, their fezzes cleaned by Jewish dry cleaners, or their portraits taken by Jewish photographers. At the school attended by Ahmad and Zakia’s daughters, many of the girls’ classmates were Jews. “They all spoke Arabic and were Palestinians like us,” one of the daughters recalled decades later. “They were there—like us, part of Palestine” (pp. 16-17).

But this myth of primeval harmony is belied by historical accounts, as outlined by Israeli journalist Ben-Dror Yemini:

In 1834, the Jews of Safed were targeted in a mass looting lasting 33 days in which men were beaten and women were raped. In 1847, a century before the Partition Resolution, there were riots against the Jews of Jerusalem, fueled by the spread of a blood libel. According to British historian Tudor Parfitt of the University of London in his comprehensive study of The Jews of Palestine, 1800-1882, “Jews and other dhimmis were frequently attacked, wounded, and even killed by local Muslims and Turkish soldiers. Such attacks were frequently for trivial reasons.” The testimony . . . reflects the hostility Jews faced in nineteenth-century Palestine.

During the First World War, the Ottomans issued an expulsion order against the Jews of Tel Aviv-Yafo (and hundreds of Jerusalemites), followed by the looting of their homes.[i]


A reader would be hard-hearted indeed not to be touched by Tolan’s account of the family’s expulsion from al-Ramla. Under blistering heat, on July 14, 1948 —

A line of humanity moved slowly up the hills in the waves of heat. The refugees bent forward under the sun, tumbling over rocks, thorns, and sharp wheat stalks cut short from the recent harvest. . . .

Tolan’s account of what families abandoned in their flight is poignant:

They left their fezzes and galabias, balloon pants, spare keffiyehs, sashes and belts. They left their spices for makloubeh, grape leaves in brine, and the flour for the dough of their date pastries. They left their fields of wild peas and jasmine, passiflora, and dried scarlet anemone, mountain lilies. . . . “White crusts formed around everyone’s mouths” and “[a] woman gave birth on the ground” (pp. 35-36).

Reading this, a young reader will, of course, condemn the Israeli army for forcing such suffering upon the Arabs. But why were the residents of al-Ramla (and Lydda, a nearby city to the southeast) expelled by the IDF? Tolan doesn’t tell us, but at this juncture in the hostilities, Lydda and Ramle controlled the road to besieged Jerusalem. As historian Benny Morris explains in his Righteous Victims, “The IDF’s major effort . . . [Operation Dani, was] geared to clearing Arab-held sections of the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem road . . . which again meant taking on the Arab Legion. . .  . Jewish Jerusalem was still felt to be in jeopardy. Moreover, the Legion’s occupation since mid-May of the towns of Lydda and Ramle, some ten miles north of Tel Aviv, was regarded as a threat to the city.”[ii]

Young readers won’t know that the residents of the Old City of Jerusalem, whose families had lived there for multiple generations, were suffering shortages of food and water; indeed, it is doubtful whether they will grasp what a “strategic” stretch of road is. Understanding the larger picture, including that Jordan had ethnically cleansed the Old City of its Jewish population in May 1948, is necessary to restore balance and fairness to Tolan’s narrative.   And if ethnic cleansing was the motive for the expulsion of the Arab residents of Lydda and Ramle, as implied here, why do both cities house sizable Arab communities today – 30% of Lydda and 24% of Ramle?

No Right of Return

Tolan also takes at face value Bashir Khairi’s insistence that expelled Arabs have a right to return to their old homes:

The right of return originally advocated by Count Bernadotte was enshrined by the United Nations in December 1948. UN Resolution 194 declared that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practical date” (p. 63).

“Enshrined?” Hardly, since UN General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding. Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz’s The War of Return cites this claim as “[o]ne of the greatest sources of sustenance to the Palestinian attachment to return,” but it is spurious:

There is no international law that requires Israel to allow Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to Israel. In addition, no treaties or binding UN resolutions were violated by Israel’s expulsion of Palestinians during the 1948 conflict and none provide a right of return for Palestinian refugees.”[iii]

This goes for all refugees, not just the Palestinians. For example, the 2.5 million Sudeten Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II never claimed a right to return to their former homes. The Palestinians are no different.

Terrorism Unexamined

Although Tolan neither minimizes Bashir’s collaboration with the PFLP nor erases his justification of terrorism: “Bashir, like most Palestinians, believed there was only one way the land would come back to his people. Force expelled us from our land, he reasoned, and only force will get it back,” he observes (p. 74). He presents Dalia as beset less by outrage than by a sense of betrayal by someone she saw as a friend: “Had she befriended a terrorist?” she asked herself in 1969 upon learning that Bashir was suspected in a Jerusalem supermarket bombing engineered by the PFLP, the terrorist group responsible for numerous airplane hijackings (p. 108).

For his part, Tolan never exposes the repellent ideological underpinnings of the PFLP, including its revolutionary Marxist-Leninist ideology and its determination to wipe out Israel.

International Perspective

Arab-Palestinian displacement, which garners more media attention than the displacement of Uyghurs, Yezidis, Syrians or Kurds, should rightfully be assessed in light of other displaced populations of the twentieth century.  Ben-Dror Yemini has charted the displacement of a dozen ethnic groups over the twentieth century.  With the possible exception of Greek Cypriots, Palestinians suffered the least.

The most severe case was the expulsion of Armenians by the Turks, with a death toll of 90% out of 1.7 million deported. Turkish persecution led to a death rate of 60% for Greeks and 50% for Kurds. Non-Arab Sudanese suffered a 40% death rate.

In comparison, out of approximately 700,000 Palestinian refugees, only 1.8% were killed.  As Yemini notes, “On any scale comparing transfer, ethnic cleansing, and population exchanges in modern history, the Israeli-Arab conflict would be towards the bottom of the list in terms of magnitude. . . . Israel was far less brutal or lethal than any other combatant in the blood-drenched twentieth century.”[iv]

Which makes me want to ask Tolan, “Why single out this conflict for study, rather than, for example, the plight of the Yezidi population of Iraq, or the Uyghur population of China?” If the answer isn’t, “Well, this one’s about Jews, and that’s what interests readers,” then what is it?

As for Bashir’s family, there was an alternative:  Make a new life for yourselves in Ramallah, instead of nursing a grievance and taking up violence to achieve a quixotic goal.

Dalia put it well when she said to Bashir, “The best thing is for you to live and leave us to live, too. We have to live together. We have to accept each other.” But Bashir rejected that option.

Bias Redux

Despite a valiant effort to project balance in the body of his book, Tolan lets his hair down in the Afterword:

Since Dalia and Bashir last saw each other, in 2005, multiple wars have devastated Gaza, killing more than 3,200 Palestinian civilians, including more than one thousand children, mostly killed by Israeli air strikes. During the same time, twenty-nine Israeli civilians died from Hamas rocket attacks launched from Gaza. None of those were children. Yet, despite the dramatic disparity in casualties, throughout Israel, and in the media, Palestinians are often portrayed as the aggressors, and Israelis, the victims (p. 165).

If media critiques have done anything during the current Gaza war, they have shone a light on the unreliability of   Hamas’s casualty figures, and especially on the proportion Hamas assigns to women and children killed. But in any case, the morality of a war is not decided by body count. The Allies killed at least 35,000 innocent French civilians in the Normandy Invasion; that didn’t make the Allies the bad guys and the Nazis the good guys. Tolan also misreads the media landscape. Hamas’s strategy of hiding behind human shields to maximize civilian casualties has worked, and Palestinians are consistently seen as the quintessential victims, Israelis as the aggressor.   

Because students will come to The Lemon Tree with little background, the book can’t be read without guidance. A teacher who understands the full history of the conflict will be hard to find. If a student wants to read The Lemon Tree, I recommend coupling it with Noa Tishby’s Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth. The Lemon Tree can’t stand on its own as an exposition of the Middle East conflict for young readers.


[i] Ben-Dror Yemini, Industry of Lies: Media, Academia, and the Israeli -Arab Conflict, pp. 128-129.

[ii] Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881 – 2001, p. 239.

[iii] Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf, The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace, pp. 181-182.

[iv] Yemini, pp. 76-79.

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