Sandy Tolan discusses how two people who, improbably, became friends, embody the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in The Lemon Tree.
How did you first met Dalia and Bashir?
I met them in 1998 while I was doing research for a story about the 50th anniversary of the 1948 war [for Israel's independence]. We were doing a series of documentaries for public radio on how ordinary people see the news.
You seem to portray two victimized families: Dalia's Jewish family fled the Holocaust and moved into the house that Bashir's Palestinian family fled during Israel's war of independence. Is that how you see the crisis?
I think that what's so fascinating and tragic about the conflict is that both peoples have a deeply traumatized past—and how it's been so difficult up to today for one people to truly see the history of the other. [In Israel,] the war of 1948 is seen as the War of Independence. The same event is seen as the Nakba, the catastrophe, by the Palestinians. But it's the same event.
Did you have a personal connection to this conflict?
As a journalist, I grew up wanting to cover the issue my whole life. I was married to a Palestinian. I was able to understand the conflict—the personal connection to what the Palestinians had gone through. And I worked as an oral history consultant for the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
How did the ongoing Mideast violence affect your reporting of the book?
In the case of Dalia and Bashir, they weren't able to gather in the same space. Almost all of my interviews were done by shuttling back and forth between Ramallah, where Bashir lives—he's basically not able to leave—and Dalia, who lives in Jerusalem, and, like other Israeli citizens, is not able to go to the West Bank.
There's much that is painful in the book. What was the most hopeful part of it for you?
When Dalia and Bashir meet again for the first time in seven years... you really couldn't have two people who are much further apart in their political philosophies. But the personal warmth that these two have for each other's families and the genuine respect and affection that they have for each other is a bridge over political differences.