Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Sandy Tolan on His Book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East

In this interview, Sandy Tolan talks to Alexander “The Engineer” Lim, host of AuthorStory by alvinwriter.com, about his book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East.

“The idea of reaching out to someone else who’s not like you and seeing what’s possible, I think, is a powerful message for our time.” ~Sandy Tolan

Sandy was a big fan of the Green Bay Packers, and his childhood fantasy was to be an announcer for that team. As he grew up, however, he became interested in covering issues and telling stories in the voice of the people telling them. He then became a freelance journalist, traveling to such places as Latin America and the Middle East, and has been to the latter region twenty times in the past two decades or so. Sandy is particularly interested in the way indigenous people are connected to their land, as well as the way outside forces have competing claims for such land, giving the example of the Navajo people being forced off their land because a profitable seam of coal lay beneath it. He is also particularly interested in how the lives of those who should have benefited from the natural resources in their lands actually being impoverished, and along the way learned a lot about power and the abuses thereof.

Sandy is also a professor, teaching journalism in the University of Southern California, and for him, the draw of doing so is teaching the next generation the tools of storytelling, so they can share the stories that they come across in the best way possible. He notes that he comes from the school of journalism that is all about “narrative non-fiction,” which is essentially telling a real-life story while sticking to the rigors of good journalism, such as accuracy and fairness. Sandy believes that, if one cannot tell a story well, one’s work will blend with the background, so to speak. He also mentions that humans, as social animals, have always loved to tell stories, which connect us with fellow humans as well as create empathy and understanding.

Where the present situation between Israel and the Palestinians is concerned, Sandy remarks that the basis of the conflict is that of control over land, rather than over religion. The conflict is a relatively modern one, and it has its roots in the 1890s, when the political Zionist movement was formed, and whose leader main leader and movement’s founder, Theodor Hertzl, campaigned for a Jewish homeland, as Jews weren’t particularly welcome in Europe. He considered several different places, such as Uganda, Argentina, the Sinai Peninsula and Alaska, but the popular choice became that of Palestine, which was then under British rule. Impetus for Jewish settlement in Palestine was given by the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which stated that Jews have a right to their own homeland, in Palestine. Jewish emigration to Palestine then increased over time, particularly after Hitler’s oppressing the Jews, and tensions began to rise, as the Palestinians didn’t, after all, want to be expelled from the land that they had lived in for generations. When the state of Israel was created in 1948, the Palestinians, expectedly, resisted living as a minority in a Jewish state. This was what sparked off the First Arab-Israeli war, which ended with 750,000 Palestinians being driven out of their homes and towns; and it was this which well and truly began the high state of tensions that exist to this day.

The Oslo Peace Accords were declared in 1993, as an attempt to ease tensions, and in this agreement, the Palestinians compromised and agreed to stay in only part of the lands and homes they had been declaring as theirs for them to return to in the past few decades, despite the Israelis destroying some 400 villages specifically so that such return wouldn’t be possible. Despite that, Israel continued, over the subsequent decades, to colonize the lands that were supposed to be for the Palestinians, according to this agreement, which resulted in the Palestinians essentially being subjected to occupation in their own territory, with Sandy giving the example of Palestinian school children needing to pass through multiple checkpoints just to get to and from school from their homes.

The Lemon Tree stems from Sandy’s attempt, in 1998, to find a way to present the situation from the point of view of different people, who identify with their own sides and situations, to provide an alternative point of view, in the United States, of the establishment of Israel as a heroic event. His search for such a story led him, after several interviews, to that of a single house which had two owners, with the original house being built by a Palestinian who became a mayor of the village that it was in. The Palestinians were expelled from their house when Israel had been established, when the son of the house’s owner, Bashir al-Khairi, was only six years old. A Jewish family from Bulgaria settled into the house when one of the family’s daughters, Dalia Ashkenazi, was still a baby; by that time, the lemon tree that had been planted in the house’s garden was already bearing fruit.

It was shortly after the 1967 war when Bashir and two of his cousins were able to cross into Israeli territory, drawn by their desire to know when they could return to their own homes, to see what had become of these. Meanwhile, Dalia had wondered what had become of the previous owners of the house her family had moved into, and when Bashir arrived, and when Dalia greeted him, she recognized who he was and that he could provide some of the answers to her questions. Bashir asked to enter and see his father’s house, and Dalia let him in, which started a friendship which was somewhat rocky at times, with the most obvious one being the fifteen years that Bashir had been incarcerated for supposedly being involved in a supermarket bombing that killed three people, but which lasted for decades.

It was after Bashir had gotten out, and after their reconnecting and reestablishing their friendship, Dalia began wondering what to do with a house which, by legal right, was hers alone, after her parents had died, but which she considered to be owned by both hers and Bashir’s family, and after speaking it over with Bashir, Dalia turned the house into a daycare facility for Arab children living in Israel. Sandy notes that this is significant, given the present situation, and also remarks that, so long as there are no major structural changes in how those in authority deal with the situation, it is only a rare and small indicator of what can be done.

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