Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Lemon Tree

I recently finished reading a most interesting book entitled The Lemon Tree. Written by Sandy Tolan, The Lemon Tree explores the conflict between Palestine and Israel from the time before the creation of the modern state of Israel by following the stories of two families united by a single house. The house was built by Ahmad Khairi, a Palestinian, in the town then called Al-Ramla, located northwest of Jerusalem. Following the establishment of the state of Israel and the war that followed in 1948, the town came under Jewish control and the house eventually came into the ownership of Moshe Eshkenazi and his wife, recent immigrants from Bulgaria. In the ensuing years, Bashir the son of Ahmad and Dalia the daughter of Moshe would see their lives become intertwined because of this house. They develop a close bond but yet struggle to overcome the huge obstacles that separate them as Israeli and Palestinian. 

I liked this true story and the way the author presents it. By placing us in the context of these two individuals and their families, we can see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a very different and much more personal level. This isn't just about two nations and their destinies. It's about real people living real lives in real homes. As he tells the stories of Dalia and Bashir, Tolan fills in larger details about the establishment of modern Israel and the wars between it and its neighbors over the years. But he does so evenly, not favoring one side or the other and always keeping the impact of the events on the lives of our two heros in the forefront. It is a moving story and I highly recommend it, particularly if you are inclined to favor one side or the other. Tolan will help you see that neither group is entirely innocent of the problems that now divide the two and will also demonstrate through the relationship between Dalia and Bashir that solutions remain difficult and elusive.

I come from a faith background that unwaveringly sides with Israel. It sees the Jews as God's chosen people and embraces the idea that the establishment of the modern state of Israel was an act of God, a step toward the fulfillment of prophecies made centuries earlier. For much of my life I unquestioningly accepted and agreed with this perspective and the theology behind it. But over the years I have come not just to question this perspective but to actively reject it. The Jews may still have some status as God's chosen, although I am inclined to believe that the Church universal are the people of God now, but that does not mean that the establishment of Israel in 1948 was an act of God. Reading this book showed me how much it was the act of human beings and how significantly their visions, dreams and weaknesses (on both sides of the divide) played into the events of 1948 and the years since. I do want to state clearly that I am not inherently opposed to the establishment or existence of Israel. In a certain since, I view it as a fait accompli, something that the world must work with as it seeks a way forward, rather than something that can be undone as part of any “solution.” Whether this was the best way to make amends to what befell the Jewish people in WWII could be debated endlessly. Wouldn't it have been more appropriate to give them land in Germany, for example? But that question was never asked and to raise it now would be pointless.

However, accepting the existence of Israel does not require us to unwaveringly take the side of Israel in every conflict that occurs between them and the Arab world. The modern Israeli people, just as their forefathers of old, are fully capable of sin and error and in their efforts to secure their future in the land of Israel, they have far too often behaved in ways that prolong and fuel the conflict and must certainly grieve God Almighty. One of the steps required for any process of reconciliation to occur is for Israel to acknowledge these crimes and to change its ways. But this takes us into a discussion of how one might find a way forward, which we will come to shortly.

I cannot support those in the American Christian community whose support for Israel blinds them to the failures, sins and crimes of Israel. God is the God of the Jews, but he is also the God of the Palestinians and other Arabs. Does God favor the Jews more than those other people? I don't believe so. I believe that God's grace and mercy extend to all without difference, yet by our uncritical support of Israel because of a particular theological interpretation (and perhaps out of enduring guilt from WWII), we hinder these Arab peoples from hearing and receiving the love and grace that God extends to them as well. By our actions and words in support of Israel we say we want all people to hear the Good News, except the Palestinians and those who support them. Those people don't really have a place in God's kingdom.

Can there be a way forward? As Tolan demonstrates in The Lemon Tree, no easy one exists. But I think that the followers of Jesus can offer the only realistic one – the path of forgiveness and repentance, the path of grace and mercy. This requires acknowledging wrongs done to us and by us, followed by seeking and offering forgiveness. It requires a willingness to be wronged. It demands that we see our enemy no longer as an enemy, but as person whose dignity and worth come from God just as much as mine do. I don't know that it is humanly possible to live in such a way, particularly in such a heated situation as that between Palestinians and Israelis. I do believe that we who call ourselves followers of Jesus must speak out in support of these radical notions. We must speak in favor of peace rather than continuing to uncritically and consistently take the side of Israel regardless of her actions.

In a highly polarized world and in this particularly polarized conflict, stories like those told in The Lemon Tree are especially needed. A similar story is told in the movie of the same name, although the book and the movie are about the same people or exact situation. We need to remember that these conflicts involve real people and not reduce them to blocks of people whom we can support or oppose without critical engagement. We need to prayerfully read and watch the news and remind ourselves that God loves the people on both sides equally.

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