DALIA LANDAU: The Bulgarian-born Israeli whose story is told in Sandy Tolan's award-winning book The Lemon Tree Photo: Gabriel Hershman
JERUSALEM: Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis could imagine losing a lasting solution without sovereignty over their holy sites, so could this city be the world's first shared capital? Photo: Gabriel Hershman
OPEN HOUSE: Dalia (pictured here) and Bashir's home became a meeting point for Palestinians and Jews and continues to this day, surviving testing times during the intifada. Photo: Provided
When a young Jewish Israeli girl opened the door of her home to three Arab men one hot summer's day in July 1967, it gave birth to a remarkable story of friendship between "enemies". That decision, shortly after the Six-Day War, also paved the way for a monumental book that has opened people's eyes to "the other side" of perhaps the world's most bitter conflict.
Sandy Tolan's The Lemon Tree illuminates the story of Zion's other exodus, not the Leon Uris – or should we say Paul Newman? – account, but the exodus of Palestinians after what they term the "Nakba" – the catastrophe – of 1948 in the wake of the creation of Israel.
The book, as reviewed previously in The Sofia Echo, is a non-fiction work. It tells of how a house in Ramla (previously known as as-Ramla) with a lemon tree in the back garden, was home to two families, the Khairis and the Eshkenazis. One is an indigenous Palestinian family, forced to flee their home town; the other, a Bulgarian Jewish family who left post-World War 2 Sofia after the communists came to power.
The extraordinary story begins in 1967 when Bashir Khairi, then a 25-year-old Palestinian, knocks on the door of the old stone house that had "passed" to the parents of 19-year-old Dalia Landau Eshkenazi. Dalia finds three Arab men dressed in suits. Incredibly, she allows them into their home. So begins a long but fitful friendship between Dalia and Bashir, albeit one fraught with bitter debate and prolonged silences. The story first came to prominence in 1988 when the Jerusalem Post published Dalia's "letter to a deportee", addressed to Bashir after his expulsion from Israel following the outbreak of the first intifada. The open letter was a partial acknowledgment of Israel's sins, but also a plea for Bashir to disown violent resistance.
Reluctant star More than four decades on from their first meeting, Dalia now lives in a Jerusalem suburb. The house in Ramla, now known as Open House, has become a meeting point between Palestinians and Israeli Jews. The friendship between Dalia and Bashir has survived several wars, Bashir's expulsion from Israel proper, two intifadas, a wave of suicide bombings and the machinations of fanatics on both sides forever trying to trample on the seeds of peace.
It was a tale crying out to be told. Tolan, an American writer who had a prize-winning radio programme at the time, first approached Dalia in 2004 with his idea for a story that would do justice to the Jewish and Palestinian histories. At first, afraid of the publicity and worried about bias, Dalia resisted his suggestion but was persuaded by Tolan's thoroughness and his promise to present both sides.
Visiting Israel earlier this winter, I decided to interview firsthand the woman whose life story has now been made famous. The Lemon Tree is now required reading on the curriculum of major universities and high schools. Even Japanese TV crews have visited Jerusalem in search of our heroine.
Dalia is now a softly spoken 63-year-old, still reaching out to "the other side", a reluctant "star" since Tolan's book first appeared in 2006 but eager to direct the publicity towards Open House. She radiates humility and empathy. Her demeanour reminds me of something Bashir once wrote – "I wish that there had been a forest of Dalias." – Yet, as I discovered from my interview with Dalia, many differences still remain between her and Bashir. Dalia is still a convinced Zionist. Bashir, on the other hand, has never conceded the Jewish "right" to its own state in "Palestine".
Heading for Palestine Our story begins, as ever, with the Holocaust, and the oft-told story of how Jews in Greater Bulgaria were "saved" from the extermination camps while other European Jews either perished or saw their entire families wiped out.
At first sight, leaving post-war Sofia for Israel, shortly after the "saviour" of its country's Jews, may have seemed an odd choice for Dalia's family. According to Dalia, an infant at the time, her parents, Solia and Moshe, retained great affection for their homeland, although they never returned to Bulgaria. Political considerations, however, overruled any longing for home.
"My father was in a socialist, Zionist youth movement in Bulgaria," Dalia told me. "He had learned Hebrew there. This was very useful for his work in Israel. So he helped new immigrants to adjust and find housing. Above all, my parents were horrified that Bulgaria had become communist. They were convinced it would be a catastrophe, even though they were very socialistically minded and loved Russian culture. They had learned Russian at school and studied the great Russian writers. But they completely felt it in their bones that it would be a disaster." Dalia's mother, Solia, found the move particularly hard.
"She was very homesick, she used to talk about people, the culture and the language. I think for her it was really difficult to adjust."
According to Dalia, their new neighbourhood in Ramla was something of a "little Bulgaria". Her parents spoke to each other – and Dalia – in Bulgarian. Today, despite only one visit to her home country (in 2004 for Tolan's book) Dalia still speaks Bulgarian, although she claims it is far from perfect.
Escape and expulsion When Dalia's parents arrived in Ramla, the town and the dwellings were all deserted. "People went into Ramla and picked the empty houses. The neighbourhood was mainly Bulgarian, followed by Hungarians and then Poles. The whole town was full of European Holocaust survivors. In fact, whoever was not Bulgarian was a Holocaust survivor. Some people had lost all their families and had numbers tattooed on their arms."
Bulgarian Jews, by contrast, experienced relatively few privations in the war, although it seemed at one point that deportation to the death camps was imminent. The narrow escape for the Bulgarian Jews is depicted in Professor Ed Gaffney's film Empty Boxcars which tells the story of the salvation of the Jews in Greater Bulgaria, but also the slaughter of many innocents in Macedonia.
The Bulgarian Jews' fate hinged ultimately on the whim of the "sly fox" – King Boris, whose role in the war was extremely controversial. A forest and a statue in Israel were dedicated to him but later removed because, although the Jews in Greater Bulgaria were not sent to the extermination camps, 11 000 Macedonian Jews had been deported. It was felt that for somebody to call themselves a righteous gentile they must be consistent. Yet Dalia is prepared to offer Boris some understanding.
"He was trying to save the Bulgarian people from fighting the Russians and doing the best he could in all possible circumstances. I don't envy him. If Bulgaria hadn't been a so-called ally, then the fate of the Bulgarian Jews would have been like that of the Dutch and other people," she says.
Drawn together by fate Conversation quickly turns to Bashir Khairi, Dalia's 68-year-old friend and shadow. He is living in Ramallah in the West Bank (still under Israeli occupation) barred from the country of his birth. The town is just 14km from Jerusalem. But given his circumstances it might as well be Timbuktu.
"The last time I saw him (Bashir) was with Sandy Tolan in about 2006," says Dalia. "We talk on the phone because he can't come to Israel; he doesn't have a permit because he was allegedly involved in an act of terror (a supermarket bombing) in 1969." Bashir spent 15 years in jail.
Has he, I wondered, ever admitted his crime?
"I don't know what he admitted or didn't admit in court because it was behind closed doors. I have confronted him with this and he has never said that he did NOT do this. He just said 'why do you call these people terrorists? They are freedom fighters', so what do you understand from this?"
But he's still your friend and that's how you see him?
"I see him as something that grows from the same earth, from the same hole, in a way somehow part of my fate, shall we say, like family. It's a very strong connection, to know that you've been living in someone else's house."
Even though Bashir had allegedly committed an act of terrorism, Dalia still felt she owed something to him and his family for "taking" their home.
"After he came out of prison we searched him out again and offered him compensation," says Dalia. "That would have meant selling the house, but he didn't want that. The house became not only a pre-school for Arab children but also a co-existence centre. He could not be a full partner, so it was a challenge to start creating something."
In the book Dalia always seems to be reaching out to Bashir, whereas he seems totally rigid in his views. She believes, however, that he has moderated slightly.
"There was some kind of a shift and it might have been a change in the organisation he belongs to, the PFLP (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) which always rejected the state of Israel."
The longing for home I asked Dalia to explain the longing for the return to Zion, in particular the following passage, attributed by Tolan to Dalia in The Lemon Tree.
"For 2000 years we were praying three times a day to return to this land. We tried to live in other places but realised we were not wanted in other places. We had to come back home," Dalia is quoted as saying by Tolan.
Dalia says it's an almost inexplicable yearning.
"It's something in your collective unconscious, it's something you breathe all the time, something that Jews have been praying for."
I point out that many Jews have never been to Israel.
"Israel is a code word, a symbol, it was a dream. It might have remained a dream were it not for the Holocaust," she told me.
Bashir, it seems, could never understand the Jewish dream of returning to their historical homeland, particularly since wave after wave of new Jewish migrants made it more and more unlikely for his family, who had actual roots in the soil, to return. Bashir continued to resent the one-way privilege which afforded the likes of Russian human rights activist Natan Sharansky passage to Israel – irrespective of his past achievements – while his own family remained in exile.
Dalia smiles wryly as she tells how, back in 1969, Bashir offered her a "solution" to the problem of two peoples sharing the same land. "He said – 'I don't know; it's not your place here. You go back to where you came from,' so I was dumbfounded. Then when we met after he came out of prison in 1985, after my parents died, he said, 'any Jewish person can stay here who was here before 1948.' Before that he'd always cited 1917, the date of the Balfour Declaration. The last time I saw him he was proposing one secular democratic state."
To Dalia that would mean the elimination of the state of Israel.
"What does one state mean? Just think about it. The point is that the law of return is the raison d'etre of the Jewish state. It's affirmative action for the Jewish people, so of course it's not an equal state."
So a law of return for Jews but no right of return for Palestinian refugees?
"But if you have a two-state solution then each side has its own land and that would mean the continuation of our state," says Dalia.
Dalia envisages a solution whereby Bashir could live in Ramallah, but in a Palestinian state. If Bashir were allowed to return to his orginal home in Ramla – indeed if all Palestinians forced into exile were given the right of return – then this would just create a new refugee problem. So Bashir, even under the creation of a new Palestinian state, would not be able to return to his old town of Ramla.
"That's a very heavy sacrifice to make," concedes Dalia. "So the least Israel could do is return to the 1967 borders."
The gift of empathy Clearly, Dalia sympathises with Bashir and his tragedy. But does Bashir, I wonder, empathise with the Jewish tragedy?
"I don't know," says Dalia. "The barrier is that we have caused them suffering and it's hard, just like it's hard for us to empathise with them. They are a threat to us because of their claim on this land. It's very difficult to empathise with your enemy. Empathising with your enemy is a unique quality. Jesus said love your enemy. I don't know if he (Bashir) empathises – I don't blame him, I ask for understanding, not so much for empathy."
Although the book is inevitably tilted somewhat towards sympathy with the Palestinians (simply because their story is seldom told) the reader is left understanding that both sides have suffered.
"Beforehand, I told Tolan if you want to win sympathy exclusively for one side or the other, then you're just doing what others have done. I just wanted empathy for both sides. So we had an exchange about this and finally this is what came out of it. But he (Tolan) always says when he meets audiences for book promotions – 'I grew up on the story of the Jewish exodus and I very much wanted to write about the exodus of the Palestinians'."
The book, although it reads like a novel, is also a part history of the conflict. In particular, it address the failed Camp David summit of 2000. Dalia thinks that the status of Jerusalem, even more than the return of refugees, was – and continues to be – the main obstacle to a resolution.
"I think that those Palestinians who want peace understand very well that they can't insist on the right of return of refugees to our part of Palestine, if there's a two-state solution, otherwise there would be two Palestinian states. But I don't see them giving up on Jerusalem. It's so symbolically important to both sides. It would also be very, very hard for Jewish Israelis to agree to divide Jerusalem, to allow East Jerusalem to be in Palestine. This would be unthinkable for symbolic, religious reasons. But it would also be unthinkable for the Palestinians NOT to have sovereignty over THEIR holy places. The answer would be to share Jerusalem. It's a heart with two lungs, like a mother with two children. The imagery is extremely important because the human psyche works very much on symbols and images. So Jerusalem is very, very symbolic and neither side will give it up. But if it's shared you need a lot of trust. But perhaps we could have one place in the world that is the capital of two countries. I think this is a beautiful vision to aspire to," she says.
The baggage of history The second intifada that erupted after 2000 unleashed several years of misery for both sides.
"It was horrible, every day in Jerusalem; here in this neighbourhood there was a bus explosion, killing 14 children. It did great harm to the population," Dalia says.
The intifada also dealt a hammer blow to Dalia's work in Open House.
"Until the second intifada we had parents of children meeting, some of whom had been seeing each other for six years. The children continued to meet but the parents blamed each other's communities. I used to ask myself: how come the young people continue under such incredibly challenging circumstance and yet the parents cannot sustain their togetherness? The men in particular blamed each other for the catastrophe. The parents had the baggage of history behind them. They recall the sufferings of their parents – the Palestinian tragedy of 1948 and the Holocaust – whereas young people have much less baggage and live more in the present," says Dalia.
"It makes such a difference now that the bombings have stopped," says Dalia. "I remember when Abbas was elected – and even before the votes were counted – he announced that the 'small intifada' was finished but that the big struggle for peace had started. Of course if there's no progress, I don't think that the status quo is a solution. I don't see that time is in our favour. I think that Israel's interest lies in strengthening the moderates."
As for Gaza, Dalia thinks that there was enormous pressure on the Israeli government to do something, although she is non-commital about whether the attack (laid bare in Gideon Levy's harrowing book The Punishment of Gaza) was justified. "There used to be constant rockets every day. It was a catastrophe in Sderot (the Israeli town near Ashkelon which bore the brunt of the rockets from Gaza). Rockets would come through the living room of people's houses. There was one case of a boy who jumped on his brother (to save him) and the rocket fell on him and blew off his leg. After the attack, the rockets diminished considerably, so what is the conclusion?"
The dictates of conscience Not all reaction to The Lemon Tree has been flattering. As Tolan relates it in his introduction to The Lemon Tree – "A talk show host on Arab radio said he was sick of hearing the story of the Jewish love for Israel; a woman in Los Angeles chastised me for telling me the story of the Arabs of a 'nonexistent Palestine'."
For Dalia too, the decision to agree to tell the story was a risk.
"At the beginning some of my friends were questioning what I was doing. I think they felt that the subject was explosive and that my acknowledgement of the Palestinian narrative could be one-sided. My answer is one has to do what one has to do according to one's conscience, independent of what the other side thinks or doesn't think."
At the end of our interview I still express amazement that Dalia opened the door back in 1967.
"I don't know if I could have done it today," she says with a laugh. "After all, it was three men, just after a war, dressed in suits and ties in the heat of the summer. What would I say if I had a daughter? But I realised two things, one that I thought I could trust them and second that I'd never see them again if I didn't open the door. A thousand thoughts passed though my mind in a few seconds."
From what Dalia says, she always knew who was behind the door that summer's day in 1967. In a way she implies she half-expected Bashir's family to visit. So it was natural for Dalia to invite them in. After all, it was consistent with her much voiced mantra – one that has guided her actions over the past 40 years – "Our enemy is the only partner we have."
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