On Writing The Lemon Tree


On Writing The Lemon Tree

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.

Public response

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.”


The Lemon Tree: Further Questions

The Lemon Tree: Further Questions

Further Questions Suggested by the Author

Here is a more extensive list of questions suggested by the Author. 


a. (RG1) The book opens with the journey of Bashir and his cousins on a bus to their childhood homes in al-Ramla. What must have been going through their minds during that time? Can you imagine the internal dialogue in their heads, as they rode the bus, then walked around their old hometown? How would you have felt if you were Bashir, approaching the old home, and pressing the bell?


b. (RG2) Dalia’s very existence, and her arrival as an infant to Israel in November 1948, is the result of remarkable circumstances that combined to save some 47,000 Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust. What do you think the most important of these factors was? How much importance would you put on the actions of Dimitur Peshev, the parliamentarian, or Bishops Kiril and Stephan – and how much to other factors? Finally, the book (p. 43) describes Dalia as carrying “an extraordinary legacy” with her to Israel in 1948. What was that legacy?


c. (RG3) The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 is known as the “War of Independence” to Israelis, and the “Nakba,” or “Catastrophe,” to Palestinians. Chapter Four describes how Bashir’s family, and Dalia’s cousin, Yitzhak Yitzkaki, experienced the war. Take the point of view of Bashir, during the first several months of 1948, and tell the group how you experienced those times. Now, do the same with Yitzhaki, beginning with his overland trip on the Orient Express, his arrival in Jerusalem on New Year’s Day, and his subsequent participation in the Haganah.


d. Chapters Four (pp 66-69) and Five (pp. 80-85) describe the experience of leaving home, from the Khairis’ and Eshkanazis’ perspective. How were these departures, in the things that they carried and the things that they left behind, similar? How were they different? Can you imagine what must have been going on in the minds of Ahmad and Moshe, the fathers of each family, as they looked forward into the unknown?


e. Chapter Six describes the calamitous scenes of refugee life in Ramallah and Gaza in late 1948 and early 1949. At one point (p. 89) Bashir watches his mother sell off her gold, and experiences the shame of watching his proud father become increasingly destitute. How would this have shaped Bashir’s attitude, and his increasing devotion to the “right of return”?


f. Dalia was born three days after the United Nations voted, on November 29, 1947, to partition Palestine into two states – one for the Arabs, and one for the Jews. Eleven months later, she and her parents boarded the Pan York, bound for Israel. In this sense Dalia is truly a child of Israel. Describe through Dalia’s eyes a young and growing Israel – both in terms of the excitement her family felt to be literally building a new state and of the trauma so many immigrants brought with them, and Dalia’s efforts to empathize with them. How might this empathy have prepared her to meet Bashir years later?


g. Describe the different immigrant experiences of Dalia’s parents in the new land of Israel. Moshe (p. 121) is described as a “doer” who liked to exclaim, “if it doesn’t work for you, just cut it off like a pickled cucumber.” Solia, on the other hand, was increasingly seen by Dalia as an uprooted tree who couldn’t take to new soil. Can you imagine yourself into the outlooks of both parents?


h. (RG4) Bashir and his family kept their focus on the “right of return,” as promised by U.N. Resolution 194, as their exile extended into the 1950s, and then the 1960s. Why was this such a singular focus for Palestinians during this time? 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? Whatever your answer, what does it say about Bashir and the Palestinians that they remained focused on the right of return?


i. (RG5) Dalia describes herself as growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust (pp. 112-115). Even though her family, along with their fellow 47,000 Bulgarians, escaped these atrocities, she nevertheless experienced a young Israel as deeply traumatized. At the same time she grew up among a new community of Jews who were trying to re-form their identity. On pp. 118-120 a discussion of the Sabra, or “New Israeli Man,” describes a desire among many Israelis to “wash off that old Jew” and “stand tall for the first time.” 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? How great a role have these factors played in determining the attitudes of Israel’s citizens, its soldiers, and its leaders?


j. By 1956 Egypt’s charismatic president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, became a champion for many Palestinians who expected him to deliver them back home by force of arms. These expectations built ever greater, but even by the mid-1960s, Nasser himself (p. 125) expressed reluctance to engage Israel in war. As tensions built, however, war
seemed more and more inevitable, and Israel launched a surprise attack against Egypt on June 5, 1967. From the narrative in Chapter 8, especially p. 123-135, explain the various positions on what led to war. What was Israel’s position? What was Nasser’s – and was there a discrepancy between his public rhetoric and his private statements? How do the declassified documents from the LBJ Presidential Library, particularly the notes from cabinet meetings and CIA intelligence assessments, shed light on this buildup to war?


k. The Six Day War is universally considered Israel’s greatest victory and the most devastating defeat in the history of the entire Arab world. Dalia described it as nothing short of a miracle; Bashir had the horrifying feeling of history repeating itself. Imagine first that you are Dalia in early June, 1967; then that you are Bashir. Can you describe the emotional state of each of them, as word of Israel’s victory came? (See especially pp. 137-141.)


l. After the Six Day War, Bashir and his cousins arrived at the doorstep of Bashir’s old home (pp. 144-48), where Dalia and her parents now lived. Imagine that you are Dalia when you hear the bell and come to the gate, to see three Arab men – the enemy – staring at you from across the gate. They ask you for permission to visit the home. What do you do, and why?


m. Now imagine that you are Bashir, in the moment when you are waiting for Dalia’s reply, after you’ve asked her to see inside your childhood home. What is going through your mind? And when she says yes, and that he should “feel at home,” how does this feel? Walking around the house, seeing your old room, seeing the lemon tree – how do you imagine this experience?


n. After the cousins left the house and went back to Ramallah by bus, Bashir felt “aware of a new burden resting like stones on his chest” (p. 148). What was that burden?


o. A few months later, Dalia repaid the visit of Bashir by visiting him in Ramallah. Describe the journey, both physically and emotionally, that Dalia took as she rode into the West Bank and then walked up the steps into Bashir’s home. What must it have taken to get her into that place?


p. Describe the encounter between Bashir and Dalia in Ramallah (pp. 154-63). If you like, two people in the discussion group can role-play, reading verbatim from their conversation (especially pp. 158-163). In either case, describe the respective positions both young people stake out – Bashir, in the injustice of his family’s dispossession; Dalia’s, in the love for Zion and the need for the Jews to have a safe haven.


q. After Dalia’s visit, and much debate within himself, Ahmad Khairi decided to visit the home he had built in Ramle. He was met there by Moshe Eshkenazi. Two fathers of the same house faced one another across the transom. During this visit, Ahmad, who was going blind, asked to be taken to the lemon tree. Moshe guided him there, plucked some lemons, and gave them to Ahmad. What is your reaction to this encounter between the two fathers?


r. (RG6) The emerging trust between Dalia and Bashir was shattered in February, 1969, when a bomb exploded in a Jerusalem supermarket, killing three people. Bashir would later be convicted of complicity in the bombing and sentenced to fifteen years. Is your own view of Bashir transformed by the description of these events? How is this tempered, if at all, by the accounts of his torture and imprisonment? In the meantime, Dalia cuts off all contact with the family. Describe her state of mind during this time, and her own ambivalence about contacting Bashir.


s. (RG7) After Dalia’s parents died, and Bashir got out of prison, Dalia did indeed get in touch with Bashir. Why? Describe her evolution from being “zealous in the defense of Israel” (p. 180) to meeting Bashir at the home of a Christian minister in Ramallah. At that meeting, Dalia offered to share the home in Ramla. What is the meaning of this gesture? What is the meaning of the agreement Dalia and Bashir forged that day?


t. (RG8) 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 (pp 200-203). Weeks later, Bashir replied (pp. 216-220). Describe your reaction to both letters. If you like, two people from the group could read the letters for the entire group.


u. For many years after he met Dalia, Bashir kept a secret, hidden in his pocket. He finally revealed the secret in his 1988 letter to Dalia. What was that secret, and how do you think it affected his view of Israel, war and peace, and himself?


v. In 1996, Bashir returned from exile to be with his family in Ramallah. He had mixed feelings about his return, in large part because he did not believe the Oslo process would deliver a just peace. Why? (See Chapter 12, pp. 223-29.)


w. In 2000 Israeli and Palestinian leaders met with President Clinton and others at Camp David (pp. 234-39). There are widely varying interpretations of why the summit collapsed. Describe it from Ehud Barak and Israel’s point of view, and then from Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians’. How would you explain the collapse?


x. (RG9) Bashir and Dalia finally meet again, in the midst of rising violence and political tensions, in Ramallah in 2004 (256-262). 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?


y. (RG10) Near the end of the book (p. 262) Dalia says, “Our enemy is the only partner we have.” What does she mean by that?

The Lemon Tree: More Excerpts From Letters

The Lemon Tree: More Excerpts From Letters

More Excerpts from Letters

“The Lemon Tree” is my favorite book, it has a profound effect upon me when I sit down and read a couple chapters. I like reading  just a chapter or two and then reflecting upon the events that they covered.  The lives of both Dalia Eshkenazi and Bashir Khairi, their families, the relationships between them along with the events of the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict are so compelling they can’t help but touch the readers’ very souls.  

- John S. Hancock, Concord, New Hampshire


After reading Sandy Tolan’s well written book, The Lemon Tree, lemons will never taste the same to me. The story of the lemon tree helped me see history in a new light. I saw pain, tragedy and hope of two peoples, sharing same home, same land, and same destiny. Newspapers, politics, history books, told me one side of the story. I grew up as a Jew in Israel learning the story of our peoples from history books. The sixty years of history I believed in were shattered after reading the book. The other, the “enemy,” suffers as much as we, the Jews, did. In fact, there are no winners or losers, no victories or defeats. There are only individual human beings who suffer. The book is written both as a novel and a historical document. Two people, an Arab and a Jew, tell personal narratives that center on the lemon tree, creating an authentic historical portrayal of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In this book, sour lemons have the potential of bringing people together, when both sides can see the human part in the “other” and perhaps sweeten the flavor of the fruit.

- Rivka Ben Daniel, Los Angeles


I rarely write to authors about my opinion, but after reading The Lemon Tree I am compelled to do so. My wife and I are supporters of Israel however your book was one of the most disturbing experiences we have both had. We were never blinded to some historical omissions and knew much about the acquisition of land in Israel-Tom Segev did an excellent job in some of his works. But by your putting it on a personal level of the two families involved made the situation much more comprehensible. It was impossible to not have compassion and understanding for the other side of the issue…  I do compliment you on your meticulous work which sticks to historic facts and avoids finger pointing in either direction.  

- Peter Dunner, M.D. Potomac, Maryland


…your book vivified and humanized the Palestinian – Israeli situation as none has. It informed and fascinated me. Many, many thanks. Please write another.

- Helen Flaherty, Dublin, CA


I picked up The Lemon Tree at DC’s Politics and Prose and couldn’t put it down…Even though I was raised Jewish, I really didn’t have a good grasp of many of the issues that have been fueling the conflict in the Middle East, and you did a terrific job of providing that background, along with the personal stories of the two families that really gave it poignancy. I didn’t know about so many of the Bulgarian Jews escaping the Holocaust either. Your book left me wanting to know more…Keep up the great work…

- Dorie Hightower,  Silver Spring, Maryland


…I loved reading The Lemon Tree. You talked about how you were raised with an appreciation for the Jewish story but without similar Arab sensitivities. Conversely, I grew up in a country which… censored movies and magazines to eliminate any words, actors, politicians, or historical figures who/which were Jewish …Being a progressive liberal thinker I have tried to leave my learned biases behind. But I have never had the historical framework … to develop the understanding necessary… Reading The Lemon Tree left me finally without blame for either side and with sympathy and pride in both people’s plights.

- Lori Madany Lowes, Michigan


The narrative flows beautifully, simultaneously gripping both the heart and mind. Your descriptions of place and encounters are so rich that I could see the landscape, smell the lemon tree, and feel almost as if I were listening in to the different conversations.

- Sarah Anne Minkin - Berkeley, CA


The Lemon Tree is an agent of change. It is the stimulus to provide Americans with a better understanding of what both sides are trying to protect and why.

- John Bukowsky – Seattle, WA


Today, my neighborhood book club discussed the book. We all agreed that you presented information none of us had known before – such as the Bulgarians saving “their” Jews…. I thank you from my heart for this perspective … thank you, Sandy Tolan, for one of the BEST BOOKS I have ever read in my life. I am a 65-yr-old reader with a degree in English who never watches TV& reads a lot!

- Mary Helen Ellet – Smyrna, GA


…fabulous insight on the Arab-Israeli issue…a fair and balanced touch on that sensitive matter…and unbiased reading to the facts.

- Ashraf Abdoun – Sydney, Australia


…non-fiction at its best. A well-written, objective historical review of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict leads to a story of how an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man become life long friends. ..While reading Dahlia’s letter, I felt as if I had written parts of it myself; her words expressed my own thoughts. …Thank you for The Lemon Tree.

- M. Zivin – Skokie, IL


A group of U.S. women in Cairo, Egypt just finished discussing your book….Thank you for a wonderful book that led our discussion of the present situation both in Israel and the entire region. It is nice to know that small steps between people of goodness can make a difference.

- Carol Wichman – Cairo, Egypt


…perhaps… the only possible way that there can be change….is to continually affirm for ourselves the humanity of the Other. My 15 year old daughter and I have been talking about this…that it must be a conscious choice, and that it must require extraordinary personal resources like courage, honesty, determined compassion, thoughtfulness … It is important to know about individuals who have made this choice. Thank you!

- Kristi Adler – Bellevue, WA


… very informative and at the same time filled with emotions with the just right balance not to be overly sentimental. And still, it made me cry and made me smile. A wonderful reading journey during a very unfortunate time when once again the tanks are on the move and skies of Lebanon and Northern Israel are filled with jets and rockets and thousands are forced to leave their homes and their trees. Your book has given me and reinforced the hope that one day peace finally prevails in this troubled region and people of all nationalities, religions, and races would embrace each other in love and harmony. I thank you very much for that.

- Farzad H., Irvine, CA


… a remarkable book. I couldn’t put it down. It left my heart aching. I cannot look at Israel in the same way as I did before your book.

- JW – Oregon

The Lemon Tree: More Blog Discussions

The Lemon Tree: More Blog Discussions

More Blog Discussions

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The stories of Dalia and Bashir and what becomes of the house with the lemon tree are gripping, and Tolan fills in historical detail without bogging down readers or losing sight of the bigger picture. Tolan also manages to maintain an impartial tone throughout the book.  

- Let evening come by Deb Baker


Tolan skillfully weaves significant historical and political events, from the first intifada to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, into the personal context of Dalia and Bashir’s families. This makes for compelling reading throughout.

- The Book of Mev by Mark Chmiel


poignant…an amazing story

- Moorish Girl


If you want to know more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this book is a great place to start. It weaves history and politics into a narrative that makes the reader care about the people involved….If you read only one non-fiction book this year, make it “The Lemon Tree.”

- A Texas Lutheran’s Voice for Mideast Peace


The strength of this book lies in the meticulous telling of the feelings and the histories….In the paperback edition, 264 of the 362 pages constitute the narrative while the remaining third contains a bibliography, source notes and an index. …No longer do I feel totally ignorant about why Palestinians are so angry. Thanks to Sandy Tolan, I get it.

- Thinking Out Loud


One of the incontestable virtues of this remarkable book is that Tolan enters fully sympathetically into the lives of two people, with completely different philosophies, who are the moving forces in the book.

- Dr. William Long


“…phenomenal… I had no idea how much I didn’t know until I listened to this [audio book]. Highly recommended.”

- BestBooks


“This is a magnificent book. Unflinching, unsentimental, even brutal at times – but also tremendously uplifting.”

- Just Books


“This is a story of compassion, grief and hope. Reading this book has moved me deeply and I wish that there would be more Dahlias and Bashirs to heal the wounds of hatred.”

- Bookends: Book reviews from the Colorado College Library


“…a razor-sharp insight into the minds and hearts of people we have learned to hate but who we ought to understand, because they’re really us, looking back in a mirror.”

- Zachdegrassi


“The Lemon Tree is a brave book… an excellent primer on the vagaries of the Israel/Palestine conflict. I recommend it to any and all.”

- A Modest Construct


“… In a time during which the conflict is reaching a head yet again, I finally find myself able to read the headlines and finally understand what is going on. For anyone else seeking some education in this regard, I HIGHLY recommend this book.”

- Fun with Dead Trees


“it’s easy to lose hope… Then along comes Sandy Tolan’s new book, The Lemon Tree, and offers just a glimmer of possibility.”

- World Changing


“I would recommend The Lemon Tree to everyone looking for a taste of history and reality in the Middle East… It indeed occupies the top spot on my list for books about Israel/Palestine.

- Peace be with you


The story is compelling enough on its own, but Tolan interjects history throughout that I found illuminating and helpful.

- Signpost Village


…After reading The Lemon Tree I have a far greater grasp on the history of the conflict and the viewpoints of both sides. … highly informative and very, very sad…, if you’ve ever wanted a broader background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I highly recommend the book.”

- Pesky Apostrophe


“… we get to know quite personally two people (Bashir and Dahlia) who are both caught up in the conflict, but who are also active agents in trying to further their respective causes…We aren’t talking about abstract principles or faceless groups, we are talking about two individuals who claim the same piece of land as their home… I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.”

- As I Please


The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan…True, tragic and calculated to make the most apathetic person realize a need to engage in more solidarity work and not to keep being fobbed off by those who say “ah but you see it’s too complex ”

- Helen Mikas in Berlin

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