Bashir and the “Right of Return”: The Lemon Tree

The path of any human life is shaped from events encountered and the exploration of certain passions. Inevitably, the mission of an individual has the potential to be impacted from both positive and negative experiences. The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan, curates the historical context of the Arab-Israeli conflict and a story of a Palestinian family to enlighten the reader of the political and social dynamics that evolved throughout the twentieth century, specifically, within Muslim-Arab and Israeli spheres. What was once a comfortable life in British Mandate Palestine turned into a struggling and even inhumane one for the Khairi family during Israel’s war for independence. Relocated from Palestine to Jordan, Ahmad and Zakia Khairi’s son, Bashir, spent most of his childhood in the environment of a refugee center. He noticed both external and internal qualms his parents faced in the wake of displacement. Financial instability and dependence on aid services manifested through the lives of refugee families, but along with these economic factors was the displacement of their culture as Arabs. The childhood events Bashir encountered within a refugee environment served as a foundation for his life-long commitment to achieving the right of return and is exemplified through his activism as an adult.

Witnessing his mother having to her sell gold to help the family survive, as well as seeing the dissipation of cultural tradition through his father, started Bashir’s negative sentiment towards Israel as a young boy. Before Isreal’s war of independence, the Khairi family was comfortable, living in al-Ramla in British Mandate Palestine. Their lives were completely shifted when the family was forced by Israeli military to evacuate their homes since they were Muslim-Arabs and more threatening to the government than the Christian-Arab population in al-Ramla (Tolan, 2008, 1726-1727). Along with neighbors from Lydda, the family relocated with other refugees in Ramallah, Jordan, where living conditions were chaotic and inhumane. Although a young child, Bashir understood the severity of his family’s situation when his parents both exhibited acts of desperation.

In one instance, Bashir witnessed his mother, Zakia Khairi exchange her jewelry for bread, olives, cooking oil, and vegetables. Zakia essentially utilized the gold as a source of survival for the family, showing how impoverished the conditions were. “Gold had long been the resource of emergency for the Arab women of Palestine… Zakia’s gold held off the worst of the hunger, and Bashir understood that his mother had become the family bank” (Tolan, 1634-1636). For Bashir to experience this stark shift in his life as a child, from residing in Palestine to becoming a poor refugee, would mean that this negative sentiment towards Israel would be rooted in ideology at a young age and would have the potential to develop and shape his mission later in life. Palestinians were displaced for decades after the Khairi family’s initial force from their home in 1948, meaning Bashir’s development of identity, knowledge and life experience was shaped by an environment centered around political conflict, survival, and a desire to be return home.

Additionally, Bashir saw that the “men in particular had been shocked literally into silence” when his father, Ahmad, was unable to purchase coffee for a friend (Tolan, 1645-1646). Bashir was aware that this act of hospitality was one of the simplest expressions in the Arab culture, therefore, Ahmad experienced humiliation that Bashir would remember “for the rest of his life” (Tolan, 1655-1657). Witnessing a parent being stripped of a common custom of their culture is comparable to the dissipation of an identity. Further, Bashir could see that not only were physical spheres uncomfortable for refugees, but social and emotional suffering was a consequence of their displacement by Israel. After witnessing both of these encounters with his parents and the influence of the destitute atmosphere around him, as noted in Chapter Six of The Lemon Tree, Bashir has developed an opinion about the Israeli conflict at an early age.

To further analyze how these events impacted Bashir’s attitude in regards to the Palestine-Israeli conflict, actions taken by Bashir in both his childhood must be identified to connect this cause and effect. Beyond the lack of food and money disposable in Ramallah, the mental trauma induced from the refugee atmosphere manifested through Bashir’s negative outlook on Israel at a young age. Bashir and his siblings would play “Arabs and Jews” as a game, where he would consistently refuse to play the role of the “Jew.” This nuanced behavior shows his hostility towards Israel and that “avenging the loss of Palestine became a singular goal, even in play” (Tolan, 1829-1830). Bashir was surrounded by a refugee environment which encompassed much discussion regarding when families could return back to Palestine, frustration with Israel, and inadequate efforts from the UN to legitimize policy, such as Resolution 194, that would enforce a right to return (Tolan 1871). “The central trauma was not in selling off gold or finding enough to eat. Rather it lay in the longing for home and, conversely, in the indignity of dispossession” (Tolan, 1831). These mental tribulations were rooted into Bashir’s childhood and are later reflected in Bashir’s statements as an adult activist.

Living through the conflict and consequences of the Nakba led to Bashir’s involvement in activism and expression of nationalism. His “hands-on” approach to the right of return involved taking non violent action that demonstrated his belief that Palestinians themselves would be responsible of achieving this right, as weaknesses in Arab regimes were revealed during instances such as the June Wars (Tolan 2589). For example, a huge upset for Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt, was the attack on the Egyptian air force and further lost territory (Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, 2017, 315). This undermined his efforts to unify an Arab state and his aspiration to liberate Palestine from its “Zionist occupiers” (Cleveland, 320). Along with Israel’s attack on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan’s air forces in 1967, Israel also had occupation of Ramallah, the Khairi’s refugee city. To demonstrate his opposition to the new justice system imposed on the West Bank by Israel, Bashir refused to come to court as a lawyer. “As long as there’s an Israeli flag behind the judge in the courthouse… I won’t be representing my people” (Tolan 2578). By taking control of political demonstration, Bashir could express his nationalism and loyalty to the concept of return, no matter if a legitimate policy was supporting the movement or not. He believed that “his people would go back to their homeland only through the sweat and blood of Palestinian armed struggle” (Tolan 4586). Moreover, Bashir was unique in that he accepted that his people needed to organize and demonstrate for any progress to be made. He exhibited his ideology when he was arrested and interrogated due to his lawyer strike and. He replied the same answer to each officer’s question, “I believe in one thing: Palestine. And I hate one thing: occupation. And if you want to punish me, do it” (Tolan 2773). It is apparent that through both action and dialogue, Bashir encompasses an anti-Israel ideology, as identified during childhood, and as an adult, persevered through Arab defeats by initiating activism on behalf of Palestine.

Bashir’s strong presence in activism can be attributed to his personal experiences as a person growing up as a refugee, like most Palestinian activists. Witnessing the Palestinians losing aspects of their culture, family and friends to violence, and pride while displaced from their country motivated Bashir to stay consistent in demanding a true right to return. In another instance of activism and nationalism, Bashir led an event along with four other activists in Lebanon to support the Palestinian refugees and to demonstrate opposition for Resolution 242. Bashari was vocal about how the resolution, which called for Israel’s bordered to be drawn based on pre-1967 lines, was not powerful enough to redeem Palestine’s refugees (Tolan, 3729). “The only solution is return… We want to go back to our homeland,” Bashir told a reporter. His devotion to the right of return fuels his engagement in activism, which he consistently is involved in throughout his lifetime as a refugee.

In conclusion, Bashari’s strong activism, exhibited in his adulthood, can be attributed to his background as a refugee and his experiences as a child. Because he has witnessed struggles in his family and in the refugee community, both financially, physically and mentally, a drive was instilled at him at a young age to work towards achieving a right to return and restore the life refugees once knew in Palestine. Seeing firsthand that his mother had to sell gold as an act of survival and that his father could not even afford to express social gestures from the Arab culture, shifted Bashir’s perspective on how destitute Palestinian refugees were during the time period. Bashir addressed the problems he witnessed in childhood as he became more politically capable as an adult, thus, resulting in his consistent dedication to demonstrate to both Palestinians and Israeli forces that “Our right of return is a natural human right” (Tolan, 4705).