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Monday, April 21, 2008

Book Discussion: The Lemon Tree

Today at the Berwyn Public Library, we discussed The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan. This Nonfiction title begins in 1967 as three young Arab men sneak back into Jewish Israel in order to see the homes they were forced to abandon in 1948. The men had no luck at the first two homes, but at Bashir's former home, the one with the lemon tree planted by his father, a young Israeli college student, Dalia, opens the door and lets the young men in. So begins a dialog between the two which continues despite bombings, exiles, and imprisonments. Tolan tells Dahlia and Bashir's stories, recounts their histories, and explains the minutia of the conflict from the 1930s to the present day.

The main theme of Tolan's book is an encouragement of mutual witness and empathy for the story of the "other." Our group was most impressed by this point. We were all awed by Tolan's ability to be fair and tell both sides of the conflict. Many people in the group expressed how difficult it was, until recently, to hear the Arab side of the story. This also led to an interesting discussion about how much easier it is for Americans of European descent (like our group participants) to identify with the Jewish perspective because of our shared cultural backgrounds. A book like this was appreciated for its ability to let the reader into the Palestinian history and perspective in a way that they had never experienced before.

A large potion of our discussion focused on how "uplifting" this book was or was not. Many participants felt drained by the seemingly endless cycle of violence and how it perpetuates itself. The Lemon Tree is marketed as a hopeful story of the power of dialog between enemies; however, despite their willingness to stay in touch, Bashir and Dalia are never able to bridge the chasm of their ideological differences. One participant brought up the Northern Ireland conflict as an example of hopefulness. She never thought she would see an end to that conflict, but time and continued dialog was able to bring peace.

We also talked about the dialog model as having other applications. For example, a participant thought it would work well as a way to deal with race issues in America. This led to talk of using this book as a teaching tool in high schools. Today's students will be tomorrow's leaders, those who may be able to solve this conflict, a conflict which all present agreed began because America and Great Britain did not handle things properly back in 1948.

We also spent a great deal of time discussing how humans always persecute each other. A few participants were disheartened by all of the wars and killing done in the name of all religions over the entirety of human history. One person mentioned the book You Don't Have to be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism by Bruce Hirschfield as a starting point for ending this cycle.

As you can see, we had quite a discussion. Although I brought this discussion guide with me, I barely used it.

There are many readalike options for those who enjoyed The Lemon Tree. There are a lot of nonfiction books about this specific conflict which one can find here. However, I would also suggest books about examples of dialog amidst war such as Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time in which the author builds schools in rural Pakistan.

In fiction, there are also many paths to follow. Books by Amos Oz, who is mentioned in The Lemon Tree and The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer are clearly tied by subject, but other titles, as varied as Half a Yellow Sun and The Quiet American are readalikes based more on the theme of our discussion title.

Finally, I would also like to suggest Joe Sacco's extraordinary graphic novel Palestine, now with an expanded edition. This work is a series of illustrated interviews with Palestinian refugees.


Catherine Uible Morgan said...

Hi, Becky! I'm in a book discussion that is discussing the Lemon Tree and appreciated reading about your group's reactions and especially the other books referenced. Hope you don't mind if I link to your review in our Cafe Libri online discussion.

Becky said...

No Problem. That's why I post the notes from our discussions, so everyone can share. Glad we could help.

Bob said...

I just finished it. I read my step-daughter's copy; it was required reading in her Catholic high school. It left me drained. A historic context may be that to the winner go the spoils. The Ottomans won it then lost it to the British in war. The British looked the other way as the Israelis won/took it from the Palestinians in the '40's and finished the job in the '60's. Like the Irish Troubles, a solution will have to address everyone's issues. I hope they all get tired of the killing sooner rather than later.