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The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew and the Heart of the Middle East

An Interview with Sandy Tolan

May. 21, 2008
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Ten years ago, when Israel was celebrating it’s 50th anniversary, Milwaukee-born journalist Sandy Tolan set out for Israel and the West Bank too seek out the human side of the Arab-Israeli conflict. What he discovered was a literal embodiment of the common ground between the two sides: a house with two different histories residing side by side. In his 2006 book The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew and the Heart of the Middle East Tolan sets down the true story of the house—once the ancestral home of a Palestinian family and later inhabited by the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Tolan talks to us about his book.

How did you come to write The Lemon Tree?
I was actually searching for a story that would kind of capture both narratives—both Israeli and Palestinians. I think like a lot of people I grew up with the Leon Uris exodus narrative which is the story of Israel out of the birth of the Holocaust but not a story in which the Arab side. What I see even today, 60 years after [the birth of Israel] is that people are celebrating the War of Independence but not acknowledging the history of an entire other side—where that same time is known as the “Nakba” or catastrophe, so I wanted to find a story that would encapsulate both narratives in one and that was in 1998 on the 50th anniversary.

Was it difficult to remain objective?
I think my main goal was to really give witness to both sides as a journalist. I grew up on the Leon Uris story. I was also married to a Palestinian for eight years. But during that time I was also consultant to oral history department of HolocaustMuseum so it was kind of in my fiber to give witness to both sides…

Ten years on do you think Americans still have this one-sided view of the conflict?
I think less so. I think there’s been significant growth of understanding of both sides, in particular the Palestinian side since that was the side that was so little understood. But even when President Bush went to address the Knesset it was pretty clear he was just standing with one side and the other side was barely mentioned, and their own tragic history not acknowledged with even one word by the president. There’s certainly still a fundamental lack of understanding of what happened to Palestinians and how we got ourselves into the situation and how we might go from here.

How about the media’s role in presenting the conflict?
I think it’s been mostly unhelpful. I think it reinforces the uber narrative. There are many wonderful exceptions: great journalists who are working for our mainstream newspapers … bear witness to both sides but it’s breathtaking how little the suffering of 1948 by the Palestinians is reflected. We know the history of the Holocaust—we have to know that history—but we don’t understand that the Nakba is as much a part of Palestinian identity as the Holocaust is to Israeli identity. Not to equate those two events, but simply to say those two events are equally influential on the politics and identity of both people.

What kind of reception has the book received?
Well it’s been the most satisfying part that came out of this…I’m doing appearances at a synagogue in Cleveland, an event sponsored by a Jewish organization in North Hampton and yet I’m also doing the Arab American national museum in Dearborn Michigan and I’m also doing the Islamic society in Milwaukee…I did an event the other night in Massachusetts in a church and a YMCA in Massachusetts and a Quaker-sponsored event in Oak Park Illinois…the ecumenical quality of this is so gratifying because it means that people can come to the story from different perspectives and essentially feel safe in knowing that their side of the story is told and that maybe they can open up to the other side. That’s mainly why I wrote the book. I think what I really tried to do is I tried to give an honest history of each family and to a large extent of each people and because these histories are juxtaposed and live side by side I think people feel that if they can recognize their own story they can turn and open up to the story of the other.


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