HOWARD BERKES, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Howard Berkes. Every house tells a story. In Ramallah in Israel there is a house with two tales. One Jewish, one Arab. In 1967 a Palestinian man cautiously approached the house, which had been his boyhood home.
Mr. BAHSIR AL-KHAIRI:(Through Translator): I was wary. Should I knock forcefully and risk intimidating the people inside? Or knock softly and risk that the people would not hear me?
BERKES: Bahsir al-Khairi stood at the home his father built, wondering about the lemon tree his father planted in the yard. Bahsir's family was forced from the stone house in 1948 after the creation of the state of Israel and before an Israeli family moved in.
Mr. AL-KHAIRI: (Through Translator): And I said, is it possible for me to come in and see the house?
Ms. DALIA ESHKENAZI (Israeli): And I opened the door wide and I said, yes, do come in.
BERKES: Dalia Eshkenazi opened the door to the house and to a friendship. Reporter Sandy Tolen first told of their search for understanding in a 1998 radio documentary heard on the NPR Program FRESH AIR. Since then Tolan has dug deeper, tying the history of the two families and the house that connected them to the history of Palestinian, Israeli conflict. His new book is called The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew and the Heart of the Middle East.
Mr. SANDY TOLEN (Author): Dalia's family came from Bulgaria in late 1948. They were Bulgarian Jews who emigrated to Israel, got on a boat, sailed seven days and arrived in the Israeli port town of Haifa. Her father Moshe heard of a town called Ramallah, so they were among the first 300 Jewish immigrants to arrive, mostly from Europe, and they came to this town and they saw this nice house with a lemon tree in the backyard and they moved into it.
BERKES: So both Dalia and Bahsir were young children when one left the house and the other moved in. Both had very different perceptions, though, about why and how Bahsir's family left. You quote a letter that Bahsir wrote to Dalia many years later about why his family left, and I wonder if you wouldn't mind reading that.
Mr. TOLEN: We were exiled by force of arms. We were exiled on foot. We were exiled but we left our souls, our hopes and our childhood in Palestine. We left our joys and sorrows. We left them with each lemon fruit, with each olive. We left them in the flowering tree that stands with pride at the entrance to our house in Ramallah. We left them hoping to return.
BERKES: And Dalia had a completely different view of this and she spoke with you about that for your radio documentary. Let's hear Dalia's side of that story.
Ms. ESHKENAZI: From time to time I would ask my parents and other people, who were the people who lived in these Arab houses before and why did they leave? And yeah, we were always told, yeah, people fled and left the boiling soup on the table. So it sounded like some kind of a cowardly escape.
BERKES: It's actually 19 years before Bahsir has the opportunity to go back and visit his former home, and Dalia answers the door and invites him in and that meeting begins the sort of lifetime of conversation.
Mr. AL-KHAIRI (Through Translator): Dalia said I have never seen people like you. You are strange. You don't just like your homeland, you adore your homeland. You adore the trees, you adore the fruits. You adore the earth, everything. I don't understand this attachment. I told her I think I have an answer for that. For us the lemon fruit is not just the fruit. This lemon is homeland. This lemon is Ramallah. This lemon is Palestine.
Ms. ESHKENAZI: And I am a child of Zion. For me Zion means something very different than it means to him. For me Zion is the mountain of God. For me it is an expression of my very ancient longing. For me it's a word that symbolizes a harbor for my people and our collective expression here and for him it is a regime of terror.
BERKES: Two years after they had first met in 1969, Bahsir is accused by the Israelis of taking part in a terrorist attack on a supermarket. He then ends up spending a total of 15 years over time in prison. He's also deported. But he never really tells you, at least in the book we don't learn for sure whether he was actually involved in those attacks on Israelis or not. What do you believe about that?
Mr. TOLAN: I don't know. He was convicted of it in an Israeli military court. He denies it and yet he told me, as I wrote in the book, that, you know, I understand that the means were violent. He believes that his family was usurped of its land, that the Palestinians were expelled, and that since the right of return was not granted, that we have to take whatever means are necessary. Now to Dalia that, what he did, what she believes he did, was a terrorist act. And every time I've asked him he said, no, he's not guilty of that.
BERKES: Dalia realizes that their friendship can't bridge this deep divide between Israelis and Palestinians and really between them.
Mr. TOLAN: Yes and no. I mean at times she would tell me, you know what, I'm not comfortable with the word friendship, because friends choose each other and we have each other whether we like it or not.
Ms. ESHKENAZI: I love my country and you love your country, and I love your country too, and it is the same country. And I have nowhere else to go and you have nowhere else to go. So we are here, and nobody will dream the other away. And our enemy is the only partner we have.
Mr. TOLAN: And as she told me, it was something beyond friendship, and here he is, and I can close the door again, but now I know the history and I know something about what makes this guy tick and what this family has endured over the years.
BERKES: So what happened to the house?
Mr. TOLAN: Well, what happened was that she had been thinking about what way could one acknowledge that there were two histories in this house and so she came and requested a meeting with Bahsir and he was happy to meet with her and she said, Bahsir, what, you know, what shall we do? Maybe I could sell the house and give the proceeds to your family. He said no, no, no. We cannot sell our patrimony. And she said, well, what do you think we should do? And he said, well, I lost my childhood there. I would like this house to be turned over as a kindergarten for the Arab children who now live in the town of Ramallah. And she and her husband readily agreed and they also said, look, at a later point they said, we want to this be a center of dialogue for Arab and Jew called the Open House, and that's what it became. Both an Arab kindergarten and a center for encounter between Arab and Jew.
BERKES: What happened to the lemon tree?
Mr. TOLAN: Well, in 1998 the lemon tree died, and a few years later Dalia, with some Arab and Jewish children went out and planted another one. Bahsir wasn't able to come because he's not allowed to go to Israel from Ramallah, but she planted with the hopes that one day both families could enjoy the fruits of this lemon tree.
BERKES: The book is The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew and Heart of the Middle East, and the author is journalist Sandy Tolen. Sandy, thanks for joining us.
Mr. TOLAN: Howard, thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
BERKES: You can hear Sandy Tolen's original radio documentary on our Web site, NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.