October 10, 2008

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Trying to understand the Middle East conflict

Cynthia DewesPerhaps many Americans, aside from experts I know, are ignorant of the convoluted history of Palestine. I know I was until I read The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan.

Tolan is a renowned journalist who has written extensively about the Middle East and Latin America for magazines, newspapers and radio. In this book, he has attempted to present as a story the history of the Palestinian area contested by Jews and Arabs.

The book is centered on a house in the town of Al-Ramla (Jewish-name Ramla), built by an Arab family in 1936 and later commandeered for an Israeli family in 1948. The lemon tree in its garden symbolizes the death of the Arabs’ hopes and dreams, and the fulfillment of the Jews’ hopes and dreams, leading over time to regeneration in peace, love and cooperation on both sides of the conflict.

We know from the Old Testament that the Jews lived in Palestine before Christ was born. Other Jews arrived over the years, including when the Ottomans welcomed them after they were ejected from Spain in 1492. Arabs and Jews then shared a homeland largely without incident until the Ottoman Empire fell in 1917 after World War I, and the British took control of the area.

With the rise of Zionism, founded by Theodore Hertzl in the late 19th century, even more Jews began to emmigrate to Palestine. The British obligingly announced the Balfour Declaration in which they pledged to establish “a national homeland for the Jewish people.” Jewish landowning was on the rise, partly due to sales by absentee Arab landlords, and conflict began to occur between them and the Arabs.

The emergence of Hitler during the 1930s increased Jewish immigration in Palestine, and Arab nationalism increased, culminating in the Great Arab Rebellion of 1935. In 1937, the British Pell Commission recommended that Palestine be divided into two states.

Following World War II, sympathy for Jews naturally intensified and led in 1948 to United Nations Resolution 181, creating the partition of Palestine. Later, Resolution 194 promised Arabs the “right of return” to their disputed territories. This right led to constant acrimony and the 1967 Six-Day-War, in which Jews took even more Arab lands.

The Lemon Tree recites the ensuing history of negotiations and failures in diplomacy, including attempts by U.S. presidents. We learn about the machinations of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Yasser Arafat, the Oslo Accords, and on and on.

This true story is told through the eyes of an Arab man and a Jewish woman who lived in the same house before and after the land disputes began in Palestine. To both, the lemon tree in the back yard is a symbol of life. In that spirit, they meet and together they create in their shared house the Open House, a kindergarten for Arab children and a center for peaceful encounter between Jews and Arabs in now-Jewish Ramla.

As Christians, we are vitally interested in Palestine as the setting for Jesus’ birth and death and the genesis of our faith. The solutions to the area’s troubles reflect the Christian ideals of loving one’s neighbor as oneself and trying to learn God’s will as a model for our own.

The Lemon Tree illustrates the power of and the necessity for love in all human dealings. And it is particularly helpful to us in understanding how human trial and error inevitably lead us to the moral dilemmas that we find ourselves in.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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