In the book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, Sandy Tolan artfully tells the story of two individuals who grew up with dramatically different cultural stories.
Bashir Khairi, a Palestinian man, was six years old in 1948, when his family was expelled from the home his father built by Jewish Zionists trying to create a nation for the Jewish people. When the Israeli soldiers approached al-Ramla, the Khairi family’s village, the Arab civilian defenders were no match for the Israeli army.
A delegation met with the Israelis and negotiated a surrender under which the Arab villagers could remain if they handed over their weapons and accepted Israeli sovereignty. Despite this agreement, however, the Israeli forces were ordered to expel the residents immediately. As a result, young Bashir, his family, and thousands of others lost their homes and became refugees.
Three months later, Moshe and Solia Eshkenazi and their baby Dalia immigrated to Israel from Bulgaria. The Eshkenazis, who had narrowly escaped being sent to the Treblinka death camp, ended up living in the Khairi family home.
Dalia had grown up being told that the Arabs who had lived in what was now her family’s home, and in hundreds of other homes in her city, had simply abandoned their homes years ago.
In 1967, Bashir and Dalia ended up meeting when Bashir went to visit his family’s former home and found Dalia’s family living there. They developed a relationship that grew over a period of years.
Through their openness and willingness to listen to each other’s stories, these two individuals were able to form a human connection across what appeared to be an unbridgeable gulf between them. It is through the telling of and listening to each other’s stories that the two of them could humanize and empathize with each other.
Bashir came to understand that Dalia was a woman with an alert living conscience for whom he came to feel affection. And Dalia learned information that differed dramatically from what she had learned from her school textbooks that inaccurately described Palestinians as having “voluntarily abandoned” their homes. It was, she later wrote “very painful for me, as a young woman 20 years ago, to wake up to a few then well hidden facts.”
After coming to understand the truth of how her home came to be Israeli property, Dalia felt the need to make reparations of some kind to the Khairi family. Bashir suggested turning the house into a preschool for Arab children to provide them with the joy he was unable to experience as a child. The house, which came to be called Open House became not only a kindergarten for Arab children but a place for encounter and dialogue between Arabs and Jews.
In addition to illustrating the power of stories to connect individuals at the interpersonal level, the story of the relationship between Bashir and Dalia also demonstrates the way that stories told at an individual level provide the foundation necessary for change at the societal level as well. In the year 2000, a year in which many Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers, a number of Arab citizens shared family stories from 1948 at Open House. Dalia’s husband recalled:
“Suddenly, Arabs opened up with statements of pain. Liberal, well-meaning Israelis who thought they were building cultural bridges and alliances were forced to confront the fact that there were endemic problems and injustices in Israeli society that required much more than cross-cultural encounter and coexistence activity. It required social and political transformation on a societal scale.” (pp. 240-241)
In my book, Repairing the Quilt of Humanity: A Metaphor for Healing and Reparation, I discuss the need for the stories of Native Americans and African-Americans to be told. It is through the telling of and listening to these stories that white Americans can come to understand (as Dalia’s husband did in listening to the stories of the Arab citizens) that overcoming the legacy of racism requires large scale societal transformation.