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


West Maui Book Club Discussion Questions

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Any page numbers refer to iPad edition.

Questions from WMBC member (MS)

1. Do you think this author has any bias in his presentation of the events? If so, against which party?

2. Is there a real lemon tree in the real story? Would you feel differently if it was an olive tree (the olive branch is a symbol of peace), a fig tree or any other tree?

3. Is there any hope for this area? What would be an acceptable solution for you?

Author's Questions found at

a. (RG1) The book opens with the journey of Bashir and his cousins on a bus to their childhood homes in al-Ramla. What must have been going through their minds during that time? Can you imagine the internal dialogue in their heads, as they rode the bus, then walked around their old hometown? How would you have felt if you were Bashir, approaching the old home, and pressing the bell?

b. (RG2) Dalia’s very existence, and her arrival as an infant to Israel in November 1948, is the result of remarkable circumstances that combined to save some 47,000 Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust. What do you think the most important of these factors was? How much importance would you put on the actions of Dimitur Peshev, the parliamentarian, or Bishops Kiril and Stephan – and how much to other factors? Finally, the book (p. 43) describes Dalia as carrying “an extraordinary legacy” with her to Israel in 1948. What was that legacy?

c. (RG3) The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 is known as the “War of Independence” to Israelis, and the “Nakba,” or “Catastrophe,” to Palestinians. Chapter Four describes how Bashir’s family, and Dalia’s cousin, Yitzhak Yitzkaki, experienced the war. Take the point of view of Bashir, during the first several months of 1948, and tell the group how you experienced those times. Now, do the same with Yitzhaki, beginning with his overland trip on the Orient Express, his arrival in Jerusalem on New Year’s Day, and his subsequent participation in the Haganah.

d. Chapters Four (pp 66-69) and Five (pp. 80-85) describe the experience of leaving home, from the Khairis’ and Eshkanazis’ perspective. How were these departures, in the things that they carried and the things that they left behind, similar? How were they different? Can you imagine what must have been going on in the minds of Ahmad and Moshe, the fathers of each family, as they looked forward into the unknown?

e. Chapter Six describes the calamitous scenes of refugee life in Ramallah and Gaza in late 1948 and early 1949. At one point (p. 89) Bashir watches his mother sell off her gold, and experiences the shame of watching his proud father become increasingly destitute. How would this have shaped Bashir’s attitude, and his increasing devotion to the “right of return”?

f. Dalia was born three days after the United Nations voted, on November 29, 1947, to partition Palestine into two states – one for the Arabs, and one for the Jews. Eleven months later, she and her parents boarded the Pan York, bound for Israel. In this sense Dalia is truly a child of Israel. Describe through Dalia’s eyes a young and growing Israel – both in terms of the excitement her family felt to be literally building a new state and of the trauma so many immigrants brought with them, and Dalia’s efforts to empathize with them. How might this empathy have prepared her to meet Bashir years later?

g. Describe the different immigrant experiences of Dalia’s parents in the new land of Israel. Moshe (p. 121) is described as a “doer” who liked to exclaim, “if it doesn’t work for you, just cut it off like a pickled cucumber.” Solia, on the other hand, was increasingly seen by Dalia as an uprooted tree who couldn’t take to new soil. Can you imagine yourself into the outlooks of both parents?

h. (RG4) Bashir and his family kept their focus on the “right of return,” as promised by U.N. Resolution 194, as their exile extended into the 1950s, and then the 1960s. Why was this such a singular focus for Palestinians during this time? If it were you who had been displaced, would you also demand to return home, or would you, at some point, decide it would be easier to live in peace, if also in exile? Whatever your answer, what does it say about Bashir and the Palestinians that they remained focused on the right of return?

i. (RG5) Dalia describes herself as growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust (pp. 112-115). Even though her family, along with their fellow 47,000 Bulgarians, escaped these atrocities, she nevertheless experienced a young Israel as deeply traumatized. At the same time she grew up among a new community of Jews who were trying to re-form their identity. On pp. 118-120 a discussion of the Sabra, or “New Israeli Man,” describes a desire among many Israelis to “wash off that old Jew” and “stand tall for the first time.” How much of a role do you think the Holocaust, and reaction to it through the crafting of a Sabra identity, played in the formation of Israel’s national psyche? How great a role have these factors played in determining the attitudes of Israel’s citizens, its soldiers, and its leaders?

j. By 1956 Egypt’s charismatic president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, became a champion for many Palestinians who expected him to deliver them back home by force of arms. These expectations built ever greater, but even by the mid-1960s, Nasser himself (p. 125) expressed reluctance to engage Israel in war. As tensions built, however, war seemed more and more inevitable, and Israel launched a surprise attack against Egypt on June 5, 1967. From the narrative in Chapter 8, especially p. 123-135, explain the various positions on what led to war. What was Israel’s position? What was Nasser’s – and was there a discrepancy between his public rhetoric and his private statements? How do the declassified documents from the LBJ Presidential Library, particularly the notes from cabinet meetings and CIA intelligence assessments, shed light on this buildup to war?

k. The Six Day War is universally considered Israel’s greatest victory and the most devastating defeat in the history of the entire Arab world. Dalia described it as nothing short of a miracle; Bashir had the horrifying feeling of history repeating itself. Imagine first that you are Dalia in early June, 1967; then that you are Bashir. Can you describe the emotional state of each of them, as word of Israel’s victory came? (See especially pp. 137-141.)

l. After the Six Day War, Bashir and his cousins arrived at the doorstep of Bashir’s old home (pp. 144-48), where Dalia and her parents now lived. Imagine that you are Dalia when you hear the bell and come to the gate, to see three Arab men – the enemy – staring at you from across the gate. They ask you for permission to visit the home. What do you do, and why?

m. Now imagine that you are Bashir, in the moment when you are waiting for Dalia’s reply, after you’ve asked her to see inside your childhood home. What is going through your mind? And when she says yes, and that he should “feel at home,” how does this feel? Walking around the house, seeing your old room, seeing the lemon tree – how do you imagine this experience?

n. After the cousins left the house and went back to Ramallah by bus, Bashir felt “aware of a new burden resting like stones on his chest” (p. 148). What was that burden?

o. A few months later, Dalia repaid the visit of Bashir by visiting him in Ramallah. Describe the journey, both physically and emotionally, that Dalia took as she rode into the West Bank and then walked up the steps into Bashir’s home. What must it have taken to get her into that place?

p. Describe the encounter between Bashir and Dalia in Ramallah (pp. 154-63). If you like, two people in the discussion group can role-play, reading verbatim from their conversation (especially pp. 158-163). In either case, describe the respective positions both young people stake out – Bashir, in the injustice of his family’s dispossession; Dalia’s, in the love for Zion and the need for the Jews to have a safe haven.

q. After Dalia’s visit, and much debate within himself, Ahmad Khairi decided to visit the home he had built in Ramle. He was met there by Moshe Eshkenazi. Two fathers of the same house faced one another across the transom. During this visit, Ahmad, who was going blind, asked to be taken to the lemon tree. Moshe guided him there, plucked some lemons, and gave them to Ahmad. What is your reaction to this encounter between the two fathers?

r. (RG6) The emerging trust between Dalia and Bashir was shattered in February, 1969, when a bomb exploded in a Jerusalem supermarket, killing three people. Bashir would later be convicted of complicity in the bombing and sentenced to fifteen years. Is your own view of Bashir transformed by the description of these events? How is this tempered, if at all, by the accounts of his torture and imprisonment? In the meantime, Dalia cuts off all contact with the family. Describe her state of mind during this time, and her own ambivalence about contacting Bashir.

s. (RG7) After Dalia’s parents died, and Bashir got out of prison, Dalia did indeed get in touch with Bashir. Why? Describe her evolution from being “zealous in the defense of Israel” (p. 180) to meeting Bashir at the home of a Christian minister in Ramallah. At that meeting, Dalia offered to share the home in Ramla. What is the meaning of this gesture? What is the meaning of the agreement Dalia and Bashir forged that day?

t. (RG8) In 1988, near the beginning of the intifada, Bashir was deported to Lebanon. On the eve of his deportation, Dalia wrote an open letter to Bashir that was published in the Jerusalem Post (pp 200-203). Weeks later, Bashir replied (pp. 216-220). Describe your reaction to both letters. If you like, two people from the group could read the letters for the entire group.

u. For many years after he met Dalia, Bashir kept a secret, hidden in his pocket. He finally revealed the secret in his 1988 letter to Dalia. What was that secret, and how do you think it affected his view of Israel, war and peace, and himself?

v. In 1996, Bashir returned from exile to be with his family in Ramallah. He had mixed feelings about his return, in large part because he did not believe the Oslo process would deliver a just peace. Why? (See Chapter 12, pp. 223-29.)

w. In 2000 Israeli and Palestinian leaders met with President Clinton and others at Camp David (pp. 234-39). There are widely varying interpretations of why the summit collapsed. Describe it from Ehud Barak and Israel’s point of view, and then from Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians’. How would you explain the collapse?

x. (RG9) Bashir and Dalia finally meet again, in the midst of rising violence and political tensions, in Ramallah in 2004 (256-262). They find that their political differences are as great as ever, but that their personal relations are as warm as ever. How does one explain that? y. (RG10) Near the end of the book (p. 262) Dalia says, “Our enemy is the only partner we have.” What does she mean by that?