On Writing The Lemon Tree
In Search of the Story
In early 1998, I set out for Israel and the West Bank in search of a surprisingly elusive story. Despite the forests of newspaper stories and miles of videotape documenting the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, precious little light had fallen on the human side of the story, the common ground between enemies, and genuine hopes for co-existence.
My assignment came on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the first Arab-Israeli war — known as the War of Independence to Israelis, and the Nakba, or Catastrophe, to Palestinians. I wanted to explore how this event, and the history that followed it, was understood by ordinary Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land.
I needed to find two families linked by history in a tangible way.
I spent weeks reading Israeli military history, Palestinian oral history, and scholarly treatises looking at the roots of the conflict. I traveled from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, from Ramallah to Hebron to Gaza, digging for the human story that would move beyond the heartbreaking images transmitted from the region.
I encountered many dead ends and broken leads. But then I came across something real. It was the true story of one house, two families, and a common history emanating from walls of Jerusalem stone on the coastal plain east of Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Through a single house, and the lemon tree in its garden, lay a path to the histories, both separate and intertwined, of the al-Khairi and Eshkenazi families, and to the larger story of two peoples on one land. This promised to be not simply a recounting of decades of pain and retaliation; as I began interviews with Bashir Khairi in Ramallah and Dalia Eshkenazi Landau in Jerusalem, I quickly saw I would cross new landscape, to the twin hearts of the story.
Like many Americans, I grew up with one part of the history, as told through the heroic birth of Israel out of the Holocaust. The mother of one of my schoolmates had lived in Anne Frank’s neighborhood, and got out of Amsterdam in a harrowing journey, just in time. I knew of Israel as a safe haven for the Jews. I knew nothing about the Arab side. For millions of Americans, Jew or Gentile, it was the same. They too were raised with the version of Middle East history as told in Exodus, Leon Uris’s hugely influential mega-bestseller, first published in 1958, then made into a movie starring Paul Newman. In Uris’s engaging novel, Arabs are alternately pathetic or malicious, or perhaps worse: In Exodus, they have little real claim to their land: “If the Arabs of Palestine loved their land, they could not have been forced from it – much less run from it without real cause.” But as generations of historians, Israeli and others, have since documented, and as Dalia and Bashir recounted to me in their own words, the actual history of the two peoples’ relations is far more complex, not to mention richer and more interesting.
Seeds of the book: A radio program on “Fresh Air”
The story of Dalia and Bashir was first broadcast as a special 43-minute documentary for NPR’s Fresh Air, and the response was overwhelming: Though I’ve reported from more than 30 countries over the last 25 years, the feedback I received from that single program was greater than every letter or call I’d received on every story I’d ever done, put together. Clearly the story had awakened a desire for a deeper narrative, one that would penetrate beneath the headlines and the endless cycles of repeated history, and explain how we got to this hard, difficult place. The Fresh Air program also won numerous awards, including an Overseas Press Club Award and a United Nations Gold Medal Award.
Seven years later, after countless hours in archives and on the ground in Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Bulgaria, the seed of a radio documentary had grown into The Lemon Tree, and the response to the book, and to a series of public talks and readings I’ve done in the months that followed, has again been astonishing. As I’ve traveled from San Francisco to Milwaukee, from Detroit to Los Angeles to New York to Boston to Seattle, I’ve been moved to see how this story of one home and two families creates an opening for a deeper, sometimes painful exchange about the past, and the future.
Not everyone is comfortable hearing the story of the other. A talk show host on Arab radio said he was sick of hearing the story of the Jewish love for Israel; a woman in Los Angeles chastised me for telling the story of the Arabs of a “non-existent ‘Palestine.’”
Most people, however, have responded to the story of the “Other” with passion and courage. In Seattle, as the C-Span cameras rolled, an Arab man stood up to tell his family’s story, as Jewish members of the audience listened intently. In Milwaukee, a Jewish mother rose to say her son was on his way to Israel, and had decided to visit Dalia as the result of the book. In Gloucester, Massachusetts, a lifelong supporter of Israel said this was the first talk about the subject of Israel and Palestine that he had not left feeling angry. In San Francisco, an Arab native of Ramla spoke up during a Jewish book fair to say that The Lemon Tree reflects the history of her own family, and that understanding can only come from a recognition of each other’s history.
The key to this openness, I think, lies in the interweaving narratives: when someone sees his own history represented fairly, it opens up the mind and heart to the history of the Other. I’ve received countless emails since the book’s publication. Each week I receive messages from people who say, essentially, now I know that this struggle is all about; or, they see their own experience in the story of Dalia and Bashir; or, they have for the first time recognized the humanity of the other side.
As notices come in from across the U.S. telling me of book clubs and new reading groups forming to discuss The Lemon Tree, I’m hopeful that the human story beneath this “intractable” problem will show that it may not be so intractable after all. As Dalia says, “our enemy is the only partner we have.”