Monday, May 01, 2017

Book Review: Lemon Tree 1

This spring the Monday reading group read The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. There were a number of Mondays that I had to miss for one reason or another, so I want to back-blog through the book to finish up.

I actually blogged chapter 3 already. So here are some notes on chapters 1 and 2:

1. The book again is the true story of two families, one Palestinian and one Israeli, both of whom lived in the same house in al-Ramla at different times.

The author, Sandy Tolan, started this story in 1998, the fiftieth anniversary of what the Israeli's call their War of Independence and the Arabs call Nakba, the "disaster." The goal is to weave two stories together, one from the point of view of the Arabs who had lived in the house with the lemon tree and the other from the perspective of the Israelis who lived in the house after the Arabs fled.

2. Chapter 1 tells of how three young Arab men traveled in July 1967 from Ramallah in the West Bank to the house of their childhood in al-Ramla, Israel. This was just after the Six Day War, when Israel had taken East Jerusalem from the Arabs. They walked across what had only recently been a boundary to a West Jerusalem bus station. Bashir, the main Arab person in the story, had only been 6 years old when his family left al-Ramla in 1948.

The main Israeli character is a woman named Dalia. She had been born in Bulgaria and her family had thankfully escaped the death camps of the Nazis and had emigrated to Israel in the aftermath of World War II. She believed that Israel had recovered its land by divine destiny. When these three young men returned to their old home--now her home--she was home on break from Tel-Aviv University.

In Dalia's version of the story, the Arabs had fled like cowards, with their hot soup still steaming on the table. Meanwhile, on his bus ride, Bashir contemplated Arab cities that were spared because they collaborated with the Israelis. Then here was Qastal, where a famous Arab commander fell in 1948.

Chapter 1 ends with Bashir arriving at his old house, with Dalia inside, and he about to approach the door.

3. Chapter 2 flashes back to 1936, when Bashir's father built the house and planted the lemon tree. At that time, in the aftermath of World War I, the British administered Palestine. That year, Palestinians produced hundreds of thousands of tons of barley. Bashir's father owned the movie theater in town.

An increasing number of Jews had migrated to Palestine after the British Balfour Declaration of 1917, a declaration that aimed to create a homeland for Jews in Palestine. In 1936, there were some kibbutzim around and about 352,000 Jews to the 900,000 Arabs. Emigration had accelerated because of Hitler in 1933. Despite limits the British put on Jewish immigration, many, many Jews were smuggled in illegally.

The Jews in Palestine generally spoke Arabic. There was some interaction as Jews came to Arabs for some services, and the Arabs went to Jews for others.

4. But as the Jewish population increased, the Great Arab Rebellion began. Calls for a Jewish state seemed increasingly threatening to the Arabs there. A rebellion was launched to try to force the British out of Palestine. The leader of the rebellion, Sheikh al-Qassam, was hunted down and shot dead.

A tit for tat between Arabs and Jews began, and the British began to crack down. But by the end of 1936, the Arab rebellion died down as the British promised to address fears of a Jewish domination and a Jewish state. After the investigation, the Peel Commission, the British report suggested that Palestine be partitioned into two states.

Ben-Gurion, the great voice within the Jewish community, argued for the recommendation. Some Arabs would be relocated east and the Jews would have a homeland around Tel Aviv. The Arabs rejected it, wanting a single, majority Arab state. The Arab Rebellion broke out again, and the British cracked down on it with severity.

5. In May, 1939, a White Paper suggested a single independent state with more severe restrictions on Jewish immigration and some concessions to Arab demands, not least the abandonment of the idea of a Jewish state. But the leading Arab in exile rejected it. By 1940, the British had strongly dis-empowered the Arabs because of the rebellion.

During WW2, there was relative calm...

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