After a month of Katyusha rockets in Haifa and bombing raids on Beirut, it's easy to lose hope that the peoples of that contested terrain could ever enjoy anything approaching peace -- today's ceasefire notwithstanding. Then along comes Sandy Tolan's new book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, and offers just a glimmer of possibility.
Tolan's story spotlights two families with ties to a single house in Ramle, midway between Jerusalem and the coast. It was home to a Muslim family until the Israelis forced the town's Arabs to leave in 1948; six months later, a family of Jewish Bulgarian refugees moved in. Their experiences form a microcosm of the conflict, and Tolan alternates skillfully between their individual tales and the historical context in which their stories unfold.
As the story opens, the Six Day War has just ended, and a young man named Bashir journeys from the West Bank to see the home he left behind as a child. There he finds Dalia, just a few years younger than he, who has long wondered about the people who lived in the stone house before her. Beginning with that meeting, they build a friendship that waxes and wanes over the following decades. As they welcome each other into their houses and drink tea together, they gain more mutual understanding than their political leaders have achieved in decades of shuttle diplomacy and peace talks.
That dual vision -- an empathy that can maintain one's own loyalties and beliefs, while simultaneously recognizing the validity of another's point of view -- has been a scarce commodity in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Israelis, whose ancestors nursed an allegiance to the Holy Land through a 2000-year diaspora, deny that Palestinians could still care for their land after a six-decade absence. Palestinians insist that Jews return where they came from, even if they were born in Israel.
Empathy and broad-mindedness require us to admit the possibility that our adversaries hold a piece of the truth, too. One tragedy of the current episode in the conflict is that the recent wounds make it harder for each to acknowledge any rightness in the other.
This book shows that fearless, person-to-person communication can erode such barriers. It's painful at times, and proceeds with fits and starts, but over time, the two protagonists change through their honest relationship with each other (albeit one more profoundly than the other). In a world guided by people, myriad incidents of people changing can add up to worldchanging.
Thanks for this item, which points out that understanding and compassion are just as crucial for changing the world, as any new eco-gadgets or technological breakthroughs.
There are a bunch of us out there who believe that all the world's problems will be WAY easier to address and solve, if people can learn to cooperate, listen, understand, and have compassion for each other.
There are many wonderful programs dedicated to helping individual Israelis and Palestinians come to understand each other. The Compassionate Listening Project (www.compassionatelistening.org)is one example.
Other groups are working on training people in listening, dialogue, understanding, and compassion. Some resources include:
- the Center for Nonviolent Communication (www.cnvc.org)
- the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (www.ncdd.org)
- the Co-Intelligence Institute (www.co-intelligence.org)