Years ago, I traveled to Palestine and Israel. I met Giorgio Ferrario, our representative in Palestine. We both worked for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent. I told him I didn’t understand the conflict and wanted to learn more. “Read The Lemon Tree,” he said. Ten years later, the book remains present in my mind. When I launched Books+CommuniTea with Friday Tea, I knew it was the story to launch our conversations.
Centered around a house built in 1936, in then Palestine, the book, a true story, documents the friendship forged between a young Israeli woman (Dalia) and young Palestinian man (Bashir). He knocks on her door and tells her that his family used to live there, it used to be his home, could he come in and see it?
As their friendship develops, we see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unfold through their eyes, their personal stories, and their uncompromising quest for home, homeland, and belonging in the same place – literally the land they stand on. Where is home? Is it a physical space, a country, a feeling? This theme was at the forefront of our book club conversation. For some Palestinians, it is the Right to Return to the homes they fled. For some in the Jewish diaspora, it is Aliyah, moving to and making Israel home.
For members of our book club, home was defined as many things: where family is, places we grew up, countries where we were born or spent formative years, and in some cases, something we’re still looking for. We also reflected on the paradox the book presented in our current COVID context. The Lemon Tree portrays Dalia’s and Bashir’s lifelong quest for the right to remain home. The fact that we are currently forced to stay at home – due to COVID lockdowns – changed how we viewed our circumstances, as we reflected on the plight of displaced people who fight for their homes.
We also heard from Mohammed Eid (Moh), Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Fellow Alumnus from Palestine. He spoke of the first time he left the Gaza Strip and realized that home does not have to be a crowded refugee camp, that there are wide open spaces and places where there is enough for everyone.
Book club members share warmth and laughter with olive leaf tea.
What if we threw flowers, not weapons.
One of many border crossings from Palestine into Israel.
Our book club was timely. The day after we met, the Biden Administration restored aid to Palestinians, including funding for the UN Refugee and Works Agency (UNWRA). The agency assists 5.5 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East. In fact, Moh worked for UNWRA in the Gaza Strip. Later that week, The New York Times reported on how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has created deep divides on college campuses, even now in times of digital learning. That divide continues all the way up to Congress where the movement to Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) Israeli made goods (to pressure the country into conforming to international law) is a point of further legislative divide.
Everything is complicated about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The legacy of British rule in the region, lines drawn on a map creating disputed borders, foreign governments jockeying for power by supporting different sides, Jewish settlements being built in Occupied Palestinian Territory, the strength of the Jewish diaspora and fragmentation of the Palestinian diaspora (many of whom are in refugee camps across the region), the countries that host Palestinian refugee camps – there are a myriad of complex actors in the fight. I have been following the conflict for more than 10 years now, and still, it is hard to comprehend.
I do know this: years ago, when I re-entered Israel from Palestine, I felt fear. To go through passport control to cross back into Israel, I was required to join a line of people. As I got deeper into the line, I found myself fenced in on all sides: security fencing to my left and right, a long line of people behind me, people in front of me, and armed soldiers monitoring the process. I simply couldn’t leave the line. When it was my turn to walk up to the passport window, I was nervous. I also remember being very distressed at my new understanding that Palestinians who cross the border to work on the Israeli side, or have family there, have to experience this same domination and lack of power every day of their lives.
Another thing that I will always remember is a mural I saw painted on a wall outside a Palestinian refugee camp. Banksy, the artist, calls it “Flower Thrower”. When I see it, I think: “What if we threw flowers, not weapons.” Can you imagine what a completely different world this would be?
I didn’t share these personal experiences at book club. We had so much to talk about, we ran out of time. I found such comfort in our group, reflecting on the book together, and the questions it surfaced about our own lives and the country we live in. When I closed our Zoom room, I poured myself another cup of olive leaf tea – the one that Friday had paired with the reading. The tea was symbolic of our conversation, like drinking in warmth and sunshine, a respite from the hard days we have had.