The Lemon Tree
15 April 2010
I'm almost finished listening to the audiobook version of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan.
I had high hopes for this book. I thought it was going to be the story of an Arab and a Jew, like the subtitle says. Instead, much of the book is an overview of the history of the Land of Israel for the past 100 years. I've already read plenty of books like that, so in that respect I've found this book disappointing.
But even as a supposedly fair and balanced overview of the Israeli-Arab conflict, this book falls short. Overall, I would say that this book definitely favors the Arab side of the story, while selling the Jewish side short.
The main subject of the book, which I supposed is the main subject of the Israeli-Arab conflict, is the "right of return". Who exactly does the Land of Israel — popularly and inaccurately known as "Palestine" — belong to? Of course, in the book, it's not called the Land of Israel, but "Palestine". And the land is never referred to as Arab-occupied Israel, but Israeli-occupied "Palestine". This just proves the point that there is no such thing as unbiased words — one's choice of words definitely communicates a point of view.
In the book, the main Arab character, Bashir, harps endlessly about the right of Arabs to return to the land which they lost when Israel became a country. He says that his ancestors had lived on that land for hundreds of years. His solution is for all of the Jews to leave the Land of Israel and go back into exile in the countries where they had lived previously. He contends that the Arabs have a historic claim to the Land of Israel, while the Jews were living scattered in many other lands throughout the world, and that the Arabs have a superior right to return to the land of their ancestors.
The story revolves around a house built in Ramle by Bashir's father — with a lemon tree in the backyard, hence the title of the book — which they were driven out of by the Israelis during the Jewish war of independence in 1948. Over the following decades, Bashir insists that because the house belonged to his family, and the land belonged to his family and their ancestors, then he and his family have the right to return to their house and their land. He considers the Jewish family currently living there to be illegally occupying their house and property. Bashir and his family are fed up with living in exile in Ramallah. His outlook seems only logical, fair and right — after all, put yourself in his shoes and see how you would feel.
Unfortunately, Bashir, the other Arabs, this book itself, and all of those customers who have written glowing reviews of this book on — they all fail to go back far enough in history to examine who really has the superior claim to the right of return. Let's take a look now at some of the facts that never seem to make their way into The Lemon Tree.
The Land of Israel was first promised to the Jews when God told Abraham, about 3,800 years ago, that He would give the entire land to Abraham's descendants. Further promises to Abraham's son Isaac and grandson Jacob (later renamed Israel) clarify that the promise of the land was to the Jews, and NOT to the Arabs. Hence, because of these promises from God, the Land of Israel is also called the Promised Land. Please read my previous article Enmity and Reconciliation for more details on this topic.
God's promises to the Jews started to become reality when the they left Egypt and began conquering the land of Canaan, about 3,400 years ago. They took over the land which was being occupied by various other peoples: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (see Deuteronomy 7). These were NOT Arabic peoples. The Arabs were living to the east, in what today is Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Under king David, Israel became a cohesive, united country, with Jerusalem as its capital, around 3,000 years ago. Jerusalem continued to be the capital of the Jewish land and people for 1,000 years, until the Romans destroyed it and expelled many of the Jews from the Land of Israel in 70 AD. Following a Jewish rebellion against the Romans in 132 AD, the Romans renamed the Land of Israel "Palestine" ("land of the Philistines", Israel's archenemies in previous centuries), while Jerusalem was renamed "Aelia Capitolina" (capitolina referring to the pagan temple that was built there), in an attempt to erase the historical ties of the Jewish people to the region. Most of the Jews were expelled from the Land of Israel, beginning nearly 1,800 years of exile among the nations of the world.
Jerusalem has always been a Jewish capital city. Under the Romans, the capital of that area was Caesarea, not Jerusalem. During the long Muslim dominion of the Middle East, they had numerous centers of power: Mecca, Damascus, Bagdad, Cairo, Constantinople (Istanbul) — but never Jerusalem. It was only in the 1900's, when the Jews finally started coming back to their ancient homeland in large numbers, desiring to reclaim the Land of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital, that the Arabs started claiming Jerusalem as their supposed "capital" too.
The only people who would have a prior historic claim to the Land of Israel would be the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. As far as is known, these peoples no longer exist. No one goes around today claiming to be a Hittite or Canaanite, demanding that the Jews give the land back to them!
The evidence that Bashir and his family were driven out of their ancient homeland, and that their house and lands were illegally occupied by the Jews, is irrefutable and would carry much weight in a court of law ... until someone came along with a stronger and older claim. This the Jews have done. Just as Jews were illegally occupying Bashir's ancestral lands, so the Arabs have been illegally occupying the Land of Israel for more than 1,000 years.
The Arabs are squatters on Jewish land, while the absentee Jewish owners have been scattered amongst the nations for nearly 2,000 years. Now that the legitimate and legal owners have returned, the squatter Arabs refuse to give the land back to its rightful owners. Just as the Arabs have a right to expect the Jews to return the land, which the Arabs have owned for hundreds of years, back to them, so the Jews have a stronger and older right to expect the Arabs to return the land, which the Jews have owned for thousands of years, back to them.
Any argument the Arabs could use to justify their claim on the land is also an argument, many times more powerful and relevant, to substantiate the Jewish claim on the Land of Israel. The older and superior Jewish claims on the land make the newer and inferior Arab claims null and void.
Jews had been living in Arab lands throughout the Middle East and North Africa for thousands of years. But once Israel became an independent nation again in 1948, an estimated 800,000 to 1,000,000 Jews were forced to leave the land of their ancestors, leaving behind over 100,000 square kilometers of land which they owned (four times the size of the state of Israel) which today would be valued at more than $300 billion. Many of them left as refugees, with only the clothes on their backs, or just a very few possessions. Their homes and properties and businesses were left behind, usually without compensation. You can read more about this in the Jewish exodus from Arab lands.
Of course, you rarely hear anything about the injustice of the Jews being driven out of the lands of their ancestors. Pretty much the only thing you hear about is the injustice of the Arabs being driven out of the Land of Israel (or "Palestinians" being driven out of "the land of Palestine", as it is more commonly reported).
The point is, after 60 years you don't hear anything about the Jews' "right of return" to the land of their ancestors in these Arab countries. No, the Jews who were forced to leave these countries have started new lives in the Land of Israel, and are not living in the past, dreaming of "return". They have accepted their losses (quite substantial ones, as we have noted), and worked heart and soul, with a lot of sweat, to build new lives in a new land.
Contrast this with what the Arabs of "Palestine" have been doing for the last 60 years. Exactly the opposite! Sitting around in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Israel, focused on the past, whining about their miserable conditions (and they truly are miserable), and continually demanding their "right of return" to Israel.
They know full well that the return of millions of "Palestinian refugees" (as they number today after 60 years of high birth rates) would mean the end of the very existence of Israel as a nation. That is exactly why the Arabs insist on the "right of return". The goal of the Arabs is NOT to solve the "Palestinian refugee" problem. If that were the goal, it could have been accomplished a long time ago. No, keeping the "Palestinian refugee" problem UNsolved — keeping this problem front and center — provides a very powerful weapon against Israel. The true goal of the Arabs is the complete destruction of Israel and the complete eradication of the Jews from their land.
Just as millions of Jews have left their homelands, leaving everything behind to start a new life in the Land of Israel, in the same way millions of "Palestinian" Arabs could look to the future instead of living in the past, and start new lives in the many Arabs counties surrounding Israel. The Arabs have billions of petrodollars with which to help their "Palestinian" brothers, if they really wanted to. But obviously that is not the agenda of the "Palestinians", nor of the surrounding Arab nations.
If you want to say that the Jews are illegally occupying Arab land and houses that the Arabs had to leave after 1948 in the Land of Israel, you can just as accurately say that Arabs are occupying Jewish land and houses in the Arabs countries that the one million Jews had to leave after 1948. Even though the Jewish lands and houses in the Arab countries would have a greater market value than the Arab land and houses in the Land of Israel, how about if we call it an even trade, and bring an end to this ridiculous Arab-Israeli conflict?!
The fact is, the "Palestinians" already have their own land and nation. In the original British proposal, at the end of World War I, to establish a Jewish national homeland in the "land of Palestine", a large amount of land EAST of the Jordan River was also included. This acknowledged the historic Jewish lands from the times of the Old Testament Jewish kingdom. But due to Arab pressure, the land east of the Jordan was removed from the offer to the Jews, and was instead made into a separate country, now known as Jordan. The land east of the Jordan River was to be for the Arabs of "Palestine", while the land west of the Jordan River was to be for the Jews of "Palestine".
Over the following decades, Arab resistance to an independent Jewish state caused the land allotted to the Jews on the west side of the Jordan River to shrink by another 44%. Once Israel declared independence in 1948, the Jews had to fight invading Arab armies from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and of course the "Palestinians" themselves, in order to hold on to even that meager amount of land. The miraculous Jewish victory against such great odds, as they fought for the very survival of Israel and the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, enabled them to gain back much of the 44% of the land west of the Jordan River which had been denied them.
So not only do the Jews have a historic claim on the land, they also have the right of victors, acting in self-defense against the aggression of the neighboring states. This scenario has played itself out over and over again, in 1956, 1967 and 1973. But the humiliated Arabs have been very sore losers, and up to this very day they demand that the Jews give the entire Land of Israel "back" to the Arabs. Rather than getting on with their lives in a new land, like the Jews have done, the Arabs prefer to sit around in self pity, live in the past, complain about the present, and continually plot future violent acts to bring about the destruction of Israel.
I can guarantee you it won't happen. In the Bible, God has promised the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel, their continued existence, and their triumph over all who wish to destroy them. Even when all the nations gather to surround and attack Jerusalem, God will fight for Israel to assure their victory (see Zechariah 14). That will be a glorious day!
There was another issue with The Lemon Tree that bothered me. In the book, the author goes into great detail about the Israeli mistreatment of the "Palestinians" over the past 60 years, especially by Israel's then current and future leaders. These mistreatments are then used in various ways to question, lessen, or invalidate the Jewish right to the Land of Israel. As if Jewish mistreatment of Arabs somehow gives the Arabs more rights to the Land of Israel than the Jews.
As we have seen above, the Jews have historical and spiritual claims on the Land of Israel that go back almost 4,000 years. THAT is the basis of their right to the land. The Jews' moral actions do NOT make their right to the land more valid; neither do their immoral actions make their right to the land any LESS valid. It has absolutely NOTHING to do with their apparent morality or immorality.
The Qur'an teaches the Arabs to hate the Jews, to subjugate them, and to kill them. So do the Arabs have a right to complain when the Jews sometimes mistreat them? There is nothing in the Bible that says the Jews should hate, subjugate and kill Arabs. In fact, there are times when the Jews are very humane to the Arabs. If you look through history, it is clear that Arabs have been treated much worse by fellow Arabs than they have by Jews. Many Israeli Arabs would rather live under Israeli rule than under Islamic Arab rule. The Arabs should work on raising themselves up to the superior level of morality that the Jews have, rather than complaining about being mistreated by the Jews.
Neither should the "Christians" point the finger at the Jews. Those who call themselves Christians, who claim to live by the morality taught by the Jewish Messiah, Yeshua (Jesus), very rarely actually LIVE by the words of Yeshua. He told us to love our enemies, but very often we don't. The Jews, who don't believe that Yeshua is the Messiah, don't have this teaching in their religion. So if we Christians for the most part don't love our enemies, how can we condemn the Jews for not loving their enemies? The Jews are continually fighting for their existence and survival — sometimes they have to do what they have to do, and it gets ugly. The Jewish mistreatment of Arabs over the years IS ugly and shameful, but it in NO wise diminishes the Jewish right to the entire Land of Israel.
So there you have it. The Lemon Tree is a book that had potential, but instead it wallows in the liberal, relativistic thinking that so epitomizes all of the attempts to bring peace to the Middle East. Misinformation clouds the essential issues. And so the conflict continues.