More to the point, Dalia and her family are living in the house Bashir's father had built for his family in the 1930s in al-Ramla, Palestine, about 12 miles south of Tel Aviv. Most of the town's Arabs left or were driven out during and after Israel's War of Independence in 1948.
After June 1967's Six-Day War, Bashir and two cousins return to al-Ramla to see the the town they'd left as children. With some trepidation, Bashir knocks on the Eshkenazis' door. Dalia, who's alone in the house, smiles and welcomes in three strangers, three nervous-looking Arab men. This profoundly moving moment seems to embody all the emotional power of Abraham welcoming the three strangers before his and Sarah's tent in the book of Genesis.
Dalia's instinct to trust ("'As soon as I saw them,' she remembered, 'I felt, Wow, it's them. It was as if I'd always been waiting for them'") enables the whole narrative of The Lemon Tree to take shape and then to teach. Tolan's meticulously researched and balanced book is as good a primer on the roots of Israeli-Palestinian conflict as we're likely to get, especially because he uses Dalia and Bashir's stories to make sure the reader doesn't forget the authenticity of the dreams and grievances nursed by both sides. The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has asked all its members to read The Lemon Tree this year. At St. John's, some of our once and future pilgrims, including Monica Swanson, had done so already. We eagerly took up the challenge and are now halfway through our study.
One thing most of us won't be able to do when we're done is participate in the popular ritual of identifying the Middle East's moment of original sin. There are far too many choices -- antisemitism, Zionism, the Balfour Declaration, the Arab uprising in the 1930s, the failure of Palestinians to accept partition, the Six-Day War, Arab terrorism, West Bank settlements. Tolan hasn't touched on it yet and may not, but if we're scripturally inclined, if we like we can go all the way back to God's mischievousness in giving Canaan to Abraham and his followers even though people lived there already.
If you're stuck in an intractable problem or bruised relationship, if everyone's pointing fingers and no one can decide who's really at fault, what do you do? Friends remind me that often there is a right and wrong, there should be a winner and loser, there must be judgment and punishment. But increasingly it seems as though we're apt to demand judgment too hastily, give up too quickly on dialog and relationship, and resist acknowledging our own accountability.
Thankfully, Dalia and Bashir avoided such temptations. In chapter nine, Tolan recounts their first three meetings, two in al-Ramla and the third when Dalia persuades a friend to drive her to Ramallah so she can reciprocate Bashir's visits.
It's January 1968. The Israelis have just let him out of jail, where they'd interrogated him about the strike he organized among his fellow Palestinian attorneys. He's a potential Palestinian fighter, she's serving in the IDF, and they disagree completely on the recent history of their peoples. On paper, they have nothing in common besides their humanity. As Dalia tells Tolan later:
[T]his was an amazing situation to be in. That everyone could feel the warmth and the reality of our people meeting, meeting the other, and it was real, it was happening, and we were admiring each other's being, so to speak. And it was so tangible. And on the other hand, we were conversing of things that seemed totally mutually exclusive. That my life here is at their expense, and if they want to realize their dream, it's at my expense.Tolan continues:
Each had chosen to reside with the contradiction: They were enemies, and they were friends. Therefore, Dalia believed, they had reason to keep talking; the conversation itself was worth protecting.A preachment indeed to families, communities, Americans, and the Christian church from the front lines of the world's most difficult political conflict.