"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Lemon Tree (book review) -- Israel/Palestine Issues

A friend who is now working with people in the West Bank and Jerusalem recently recommended The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan so I went to the library and checked it out. The author portrayed this region's recent history in such a way -- and with human faces -- that, at times, I found myself imagining that I lived there and experienced those events for myself. Many times I was struck with how sad the situation was and how little I knew about it previously. The author gave me a much better understanding of both sides as he presented Dalia Eshkenazi's story of how she came from Bulgaria with her Jewish family and ended up living in the Khairi house and Bashir Khairi's story of how he came to be part of the resistance, fighting for the Palestinians' right of return after his family was expelled from al-Ramla. The two met when Bashir went to visit the house his family had left when he was six, and Dalia, a young woman at that time, allowed Bashir and his cousins to tour it. A friendship formed and the two kept in touch somewhat despite nearly a quarter of Bashir's life being spent in Israeli prisons. It was interesting to hear these two discuss their points of view. Two things that stand out from those talks -- one from Bashir when he politely asked Dalia why she and the other Jews could not simply go back where they came from (meaning Europe). The other from Dalia when she pointed out that the longing for the land that the Palestinians taught their children was similar to what the Jews felt towards their ancient land for the centuries that they were in exile.

From this book I saw how Arab nations turned on Arabs. I was amazed when I read how King Hussein from Jordan asked for Israeli air support in its fight against the Palestinians (aided by the Syrians) when the Palestinian guerrillas fought the Jordanians on "Black September" (Palestinian word for that event.) Shocking was when I read how Ariel Sharon allowed
Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen into two Palestinian refugee camps where men, women and children were killed during a quest for revenge. The book said Israel even "launched night flares to illuminate the militias' search" (pg. 204)! Just from this one incident, I better understand why my Arab friends sat in disbelief and anger when United States President George W. Bush referred to Sharon earlier this year by saying: "My only regret is that one of Israel's greatest leaders is not here to share this moment. He's a warrior for the ages, a man of peace, a friend. The prayers of the American people are with Ariel Sharon." Bush got the "warrior" part right, but "man of peace" for the one critics dubbed "the Butcher of Beirut"? Hmmm.

I digress. Some other time I may share more of my thoughts concerning this current Israel, but for now, let me finish by sharing some other things from the book.

I learned about the formation of several Palestinian resistant groups including the PLO and Hamas which is often in the news when we hear about terrorist organizations on this side of the world.

A few ideas and notable quotes that stood out to me in this book include the following:

"Arthur Ruppin, a founder of Brit Shalom, declared: 'I have no doubt that Zionism will be heading toward a catastrophe if it will not find common ground with the Arabs.' The spiritual father of coexistence was Martin Buber, the great religious philosopher from Vienna, who had long advocated a binational state based in part on 'the love for their homeland that the two peoples share.'" (pg. 84)

"For the Sabra, the Holocaust survivors often represented the shame of Jews going like sheep to the slaughter . . . the phrase Never again was not only a promise by Jews not to repeat the past; it indicated a desire, rooted in shame, to distance themselves from the image of the victim." These Holocaust survivors were referred to as "difficult human matter," "human dust," and "an agricultural worker charged with turning [them] into productive farmers advised colleagues: 'We must understand who we are working with . . . a community of rejects, of pathetic and helpless people.' [Emphasis in original.]" (pg. 119) Perhaps and hopefully, these things were said as mere observations of the sad state of the Holocaust survivors and wasn't intended in a derogatory manner. It is hard to tell tone of voice from the written word. I am giving David Ben-Gurion and the others the benefit of the doubt.

From exile in the West Bank, "Fathers demand their sons seek the safety of higher education in Cairo or London; one son, a young man named Bassam Abu-Sharif, asked his father: 'What is a PhD when we have no country?' He did not want to be 'an eternal foreigner, a landless, homeless, stateless, shamed, despised Palestinian refugee.' Later Bassam told his father, 'I would rather be in prison in my own country than be a free man in exile. I would rather be dead.'" (pg. 142) Speaking of that: "In the eighteen years following the Israeli occupation in June 1967, an estimated 250,000 Palestinians -- or 40 per cent of the adult male population -- had seen the inside of an Israeli jail." (pg. 181)

"At the core of Dalia's faith was the conviction that personal dialogue was the key to transformation . . . 'If national interest comes before our common humanity,' Dalia said, 'then there is no hope for redemption, there is no hope for healing, there is no hope for transformation, there is no hope for anything!'" (pg. 176)

From 1987-88 events -- "Five weeks earlier, Gaza and then the West Bank had exploded in demonstrations against Israel's rule. For twenty years, Palestinians living in the Israeli-controlled territories had seen nearly every aspect of public life dictated by an occupying force. Israelis determined school curriculum, ran the civil and military courts, oversaw health care and social services, established occupation taxes, and decided which proposed businesses would receive operation permits. Though the Israelis had allowed the formation of some civil institutions, including trade unions and charities, by the mid-1980s the 1.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza seethed under occupation. Israelis controlled the land the Palestinians lived on and guarded access to the streams and aquifiers running through and beneath it. They could arrest and imprison Gazans or West Bankers under shifting laws and military regulations not subject to public review. For twenty years, resentment and resistances had built up, and by late 1987, it had reached a point of explosion." (pg. 192-3)

Dalia's reflections of the house she lived in with her parents was very interesting. She wrote an open letter to Bashir that was published in the paper so Israelis could read it as well. She included how "it was very painful for me, as a young woman 20 years ago, to wake up to a few then well hidden facts. For example, we were all led to believe that the Arab population of Ramla and Lod had run away before the advancing Israeli army in 1948, leaving everything behind in a rushed and cowardly escape. This belief reassured us. It was meant to prevent guilt and remorse. But after 1967, I met not only you, but also an Israeli Jew who had personally participated in the expulsion from Ramla and Lod. He told me the story as he had experienced it, and as Yitzhak Rabin later confirmed in his memoirs." Dalia mused, "My love for my country ... was losing its innocence .. some change in perspective was beginning to take place in me." (pg. 200-1)

One time when Bashir and his family came to visit Dalia while she was in the hospital on bed rest, her husband, Yehezkel, made this interesting statement: "Why do you think Israelis are afraid of you? We are not as afraid of the entire Syrian army with all its weaponry as we are of you. Why do you think that is? . . . Because you are the only ones who have a legitimate grievance against us. And deep down, even those who deny it know it. That makes us very uncomfortable and uneasy in dealing with you. Because our homes are your homes, you become a real threat." (pg. 211)

OK.... I think this is plenty long for a book review!


JAB said...

might have to pick up this book. Thanks for the review!

Susanne said...

NOT that I think a big book scares you (LOL) but literally 1/3 of the book is notes on the main text. So it's really only about 270 pages of the actual account. I found it an interesting way to learn of the current Middle Eastern history. It made me better understand a LOT.

And if you thought my review was a bit pro-Palestinian compared to Israel, it's because I feel you can find the pro-Israel side very easily in America. The Palestinian side doesn't seem to warrant much attention. I'm not saying the Palestinians are saints, but definitely the Israelis are not as great as some make them out to be. I think we need to be fairer in America and learn of BOTH sides.

If you read the book, I'd be interested in hearing what stood out to you if anything.

Thanks for your comment.