We should be deeply concerned that some secondary schools are using Sandy Tolan's The Lemon Tree (2006) to educate students about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Despite its thin veneer of balance, the book distorts history and context, makes systematic factual errors, uncritically repeats propagandistic anti-Israel claims, and either justifies, sanitizes, or even heroicizes Palestinian extremism and terrorism. Through these distortions, Tolan tries to convince the reader that the conflict is caused solely by Israel's alleged expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 and refusal to grant them the "right of return." Propaganda rather than history, this book should not be recommended as a guide for understanding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Tolan tries to tell the history through the real-life stories of Israeli Dalia Eshkenazi Landau and Palestinian Bashir Khariri. The Khariris, a prominent Arab family, built a home in Ramla in 1936 but became refugees during the 1948 war when Bashir was six years old, and they relocated to Ramallah, where Bashir became a lawyer. The Eshkenazis, Jewish refugees from Bulgaria, moved to Israel near the end of the 1948 war, and the then-empty Khariri house became their new home and the place where Dalia grew up. After the 1967 war, Bashir was able to visit his old home and meet Dalia. They developed a long friendship even though Bashir became associated with a terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and was frequently imprisoned. Disturbed by Bashir's grievances about his "lost" home, Dalia tried to right things by donating the house as a kindergarten for Arab children in Ramla in 1991. The house, named "Open House," is still operating as a peace and educational center.
The very structure of the book poses problems. Bashir and his family present the extremist Palestinian case against Israel, while Dalia is simply not informed enough to counter their claims, and Tolan's narrative constantly reinforces Bashir's version. The second problem is that by focusing on Dalia, Tolan gives the impression that the Holocaust was the reason Israel was founded. Dalia's frequent refrain justifying the Jewish presence—that Jews had to have a refuge and their own state—erases the deep historical roots of Zionism, the Jews' 3,000-year presence, and the backbreaking labor of early Zionists who returned to join Jews already there and restore the land during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Virtually every page about the conflict's history is full of small and large errors, from Tolan's claim that the Mossad organized illegal transport of Jews to the Mandate after World War II (p. 75) even though the Mossad was not formed until 1949, after Israel was a state and immigration was legal. There are also larger factual errors, such as Tolan's claim that Israel's national religious parties began the settlement-building enterprise after 1967 (p. 152) when, in fact, the Labor party initiated the program largely for security reasons, and some Israelis returned to Jewish communities that had been destroyed during the 1948 war, such as Gush Etzion. His claim that UN Resolution 242 (1967) called for Israeli withdrawal from "Sinai, Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza" (p. 153) is factually wrong. The resolution never named any specific territories and assumed that Israel would keep some of the land it had captured in its defensive 1967 war.
A further sampling of the systematic errors and bias includes:
By using Dalia's biography as a guide, Tolan misleadingly ties the foundation of modern Israel to the Holocaust. Neither he nor Dalia ever challenge the Khariris' frequently repeated lament (pp. 50, 160): "The Nazis killed the Jews….But why should we [Palestinian Arabs] pay for what they did?" The implication is that Jews revived their ancient connection to the land, immigrated, and displaced the Arabs only because of the Holocaust. This vantage point minimizes or ignores the Jewish people's 3,000-year attachment and continued presence in this their homeland, their belief—repeated for 2,000 years in liturgy and rites—that they were destined to return, and their repeated efforts to return throughout the centuries. It ignores the large Jewish presence in cities like Safed, Tiberius, and Jerusalem in the 16th century, the fact that Jews again became the majority in Jerusalem in the mid-19th century, that Zionism was born decades before the Holocaust, and that Jews had been building up the country long before World War II. In part because Dalia's family came to Israel only after the Holocaust, the reader doesn't hear about the heroic efforts of the early Zionists who cleared swamps, planted trees, built towns such as Tel Aviv (founded in 1909), and established the infrastructure of a state long before the rebirth of the state and long before the Holocaust.
Tolan draws misleading parallels between the Holocaust and the "Nakba." The very juxtaposition of the narrative, comparing the Eshenazis as refugees to the Khariris, comparing Dalia's and Bashir's childhood experiences, comparing their experiences during the wars (World War II and the 1948 war) constantly implies parallels. Apart from the similar tragedies in all wartime experiences, this is a reprehensible parallel to draw. Tolan overlooks key factors:
- Palestinian Arabs unleashed the 1948 war. Jews never unleashed a war on Europe. They were hunted victims solely because they were Jewish.
- Palestinian Arabs were offered their own state in 1947. They rejected the opportunity to create the first Palestinian Arab state in history because they would not accept a neighboring Jewish state no matter how small its borders. In contrast, Jews had no options but death, escape, or bare survival in concentration camps.
- Palestinians never faced mass murder or genocide. No one was trying to kill them because they were Palestinian. Indeed, Israel invited all Arabs within its borders to become equal citizens in the state. Over 160,000 did so, and today Israeli Arabs make up over 20 percent of Israel's population.
- Palestinian Arabs had militias, assistance from Great Britain, and allies throughout the Arab world that had fully developed militaries and weaponry. The Jews had no means of self-defense.
Tolan implicitly subscribes to the premise that Palestinians lost their homeland or nation in the 1948 war. He continually sympathizes with the Palestinians' lament that they lost their homes or homeland. In fact, no Palestinian Arab state has ever existed. The 1947 UN Partition Plan was the first time the international community recommended creating such an entity, but Arab and Palestinian leaders rejected the offer. Today, Israel and the Palestinians are supposed to be in negotiations to create what would be the first Palestinian Arab state in history.
The author constantly minimizes the millennia-long presence of Jews in the land. He neglects to mention that Jews, who remained or returned throughout the millennia, became the majority in Jerusalem again in the mid-19th century and that they built towns and villages (like founding Tel Aviv in 1909) long before the Palestine Mandate. He claims that Ramla was always a Muslim city, ignoring the long history of Jewish communities in the city that has been documented by multiple sources and ignoring the fact that the small Jewish community that remained fled during the Palestinian Arab massacres of Jews in 1929.
Roberta P. Seid is Education and Research Director with StandWithUs.