The Middle East: A Land of Two Peoples

Sunday, June 25, 2006

It all sounds highly improbable: A young Palestinian lawyer named Bashir Khairi boards a bus in Jerusalem barely a month after the Six-Day War in the spring of 1967 and travels to see the stone-block home from which he was expelled as a boy in 1948. He knocks on the door of his ancestral home in Ramle, outside Tel Aviv. A young Israeli woman opens the door. Dalia Eshkenazi is the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Bulgaria. "This was my father's house," says Bashir. "And I lived here, too." Dalia instantly understands. This Palestinian wants to see his house -- her house. After a moment's hesitation, she invites him inside -- into their house.

This is the compelling premise of Sandy Tolan's extraordinary book The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East (Bloomsbury, $24.95). It may sound like fiction, but Tolan -- a former producer of NPR documentaries who now teaches journalism at the University of California, Berkeley -- uses this encounter to convey a sweeping history of the Palestinian-Israeli conundrum. It is a deeply personal story, and needless to say, there is no happy ending. This is, after all, the Middle East.

Bashir will spend nearly two decades in Israeli prisons, convicted in an Israeli court of association with acts of terror carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical leftist group. He admits only to "resistance" and is deported, allegedly for his role helping to organize the first intifada. Dalia becomes a housewife and mother -- and, like all Israeli mothers, she has to cope with fears that her son may get on a bus someday and fall victim to random terror.

And yet, over four decades, Bashir and Dalia remain in contact and carry on a poignant dialogue. They correspond and occasionally visit each other. In Tolan's narrative, they become emblems of an all-too-human intransigence. Bashir cannot relinquish U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, which resolves that "the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so." And Dalia -- though she turns the house in Ramle into a kindergarten for Palestinian children -- cannot accept that measure, which she believes means bartering with the Jewish character of the Israeli state.

Two peoples, one land -- and yet Bashir and Dalia remain friends, and this fact leaves the reader with a sliver of hope for some kind of peace in the distant future. Tolan's narrative provides a much-needed, human dimension to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he also skillfully weaves into this tale a great deal of history, all properly sourced. Despite the complex and controversial nature of the story, this veteran journalist has produced a highly readable and evocative history. ?

Reviewed by Kai Bird, who spent his childhood in the Middle East. He is the co-author, with Martin J. Sherwin, of "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer," which won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for biography.

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