Hannibal Free Public Library

The Lemon Tree

Sandy Tolan

September 28, 2009

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan focuses on one small stone house in Ramla.  Built in 1936 by an Arab family but acquired by a Jewish family after the Israelis captured the city in 1948, this simple stone house has anchored for decades the hopes of both its displaced former owners and its new Jewish occupants. Tolan chronicles the unlikely chain of events that in 1967 brought a long-dispossessed Palestinian son to the threshold of his former home, where he unexpectedly finds himself being welcomed by the daughter of Bulgarian Jewish immigrants. Though that visit exposes bitterly opposed interpretations of the past, it opens a real, albeit painful, dialogue about possibilities for the future.  The contested stone house eventually becomes into a kindergarten for Arab children and a center for Jewish-Arab coexistence.

Having produced hundreds of documentaries and features for NPR, Sandy Tolan has reported from more than 30 countries, mostly in Latin America, the Middle East, the Balkans and Eastern Europe . He is the author of two books.  Interviews with the author may be downloaded from http://sandytolan.com/the-lemon-tree/interviews  

Discussion Questions:  

  1. The book opens with the journey of Bashir and his cousins on a bus to their childhood homes in al-Ramla.  How would you have felt if you were Bashir, approaching the old home, and pressing the bell?
  1. The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 is known as the “War of Independence” to Israelis, and the “Nakba,” or “Catastrophe,” to Palestinians.  Taking the point of view of Bashir, tell the group how you experienced the first several months of 1948. Now, do the same with Yitzhaki.
  1. Why was the U.N. Resolution that promised the “right of return” such a singular focus for Palestinians?  If it were you who had been displaced, would you also demand to return home, or would you, at some point, decide it would be easier to live in peace, if also in exile?
  1. Dalia is described as carrying “an extraordinary legacy” with her to Israel in 1948. What was that legacy?
  1. How much of a role do you think the Holocaust, and reaction to it through the crafting of a Sabra identity, played in the formation of Israel ’s national psyche?  Consider why Dalia describes herself as growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust even though her family escaped. At the same time, consider that Dalia grew up among a new community of Jews who were trying to re-form their identity.
  1. The emerging trust between Dalia and Bashir was shattered in February, 1969, when a bomb exploded in a Jerusalem supermarket, killing three people.  Describe Dalia’s state of mind during this time. 
  1. After Dalia’s parents died and Bashir is released from prison, why did Dalia get in touch with Bashir?
  1. At their meeting in the home of a Christian minister in Ramallah, Dalia offered to share the home in Ramla. What is the meaning of this gesture and the meaning of the agreement Dalia and Bashir forged that day?
  1. In 1988, near the beginning of the intifada, Bashir was deported to Lebanon . On the eve of his deportation, Dalia wrote an open letter to Bashir that was published in the Jerusalem Post. Weeks later, Bashir replied. What is your reaction to both letters?
  1. Bashir and Dalia finally meet again, in the midst of rising violence and political tensions, in Ramallah in 2004. They find that their political differences are as great as ever, but that their personal relations are as warm as ever. How does one explain that?
  1. Near the end of the book, on page 262, Dalia says, “Our enemy is the only partner we have.” What does she mean by that?

Questions adapted from:  Booklist and http://sandytolan.com