DATE May 15, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Historian and author of "David and Solomon" Neil Asher
Silberman discusses testing accuracy of Bible's oldest stories
through archaeological research
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for The Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
My guest Neil Asher Silberman is a historian who combines careful analysis of
Biblical text with painstaking archaeological research to test the accuracy of
some of the Bible's oldest stories. The results have sometimes been
controversial. He and co-author Israel Finkelstein have raised doubts about
whether Abraham and other Jewish patriarchs were actual historical figures,
and they question whether the story of the Israelites' bondage in and exodus
from Egypt ever happened. Their latest book is "David and Solomon: In Search
of the Bible's Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition." They
conclude David may have actually been a bandit leader in the Judaean hills and
it's doubtful Solomon ever built a temple in Jerusalem. Silberman believes
that probing the historical accuracy of Biblical stories takes nothing away
from their moral and religious power. Neil Asher Silberman is a contributing
editor of Archeology magazine and director of Historical Interpretation for
the Ename Center for Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation in Belgium.
You know, among the earliest characters in the Bible are those called the
patriarchs of the Jewish people, Abraham, his wife Sarah, you know, their son
Isaac and their progeny, including Joseph, who gets sold into slavery and
taken into Egypt. Now Biblical scholars and many people of faith have
believed for years that these were real historical characters, dating the
origins of the Jewish tradition, you know, back more than 4,000 years. You
and your co-author, Israel Finkelstein, examined this. What does the
historical record tell us about whether these were real people who actually
walked the lands of the Near East?
Mr. NEIL ASHER SILBERMAN: Well, you're right to say that for generations and
generations scholars and people of faith considered this to be accurate
history. I think that a major change has come over the last generation or so
as archaeology has gotten more into the picture. And archaeology, of course,
has this ability to perhaps not identify specific people but really to
identify a broader social context. And what we can say now is that, on the
one hand, there is really nothing that can convince us in terms of the stories
that are told of those patriarchs that these were real historical events. On
the other hand, we know from archaeology that many of the elements of the
stage setting of that story--the place names, the kinds of customs that are
described, even a detail as seemingly insignificant as the use of camels for
caravans--is something that can be really placed archaeologically in a much
later period. In fact, in the seventh century BC, as opposed to the earlier
date that was assumed for the historical patriarchs, something like 2000 BCE.
DAVIES: If, in fact, these stories seem to be set in a much, much later time,
what does that tell us about where the stories came from and their purpose in
the context of that time?
Mr. SILBERMAN: Well, we have to understand that these stories and traditions
are obviously much older than the time they were put into writing. But in
tracing the changes from memories to oral traditions to a written version
like--as we have in the Bible now, what we're talking about is the way a
society or a people remembers that can give us much more insight into what the
Bible represented to the first listeners, the first readers of that text.
You're absolutely right. In so many of the most famous stories of the Bible,
whether it's the patriarchs or the Exodus or the conquest of Canaan or the
grand empires of David and Solomon, which our new book is about, all these
things are quite clearly they did not happen at the time as they're described.
But that isn't to say that they did not have significance at later periods.
And instead of seeing the Bible as a one-time creation, we can actually use
the Bible as perhaps the most important archaeological artifact of all. In
its layers and in its stories, and in the details it provides, it gives us
perhaps the clearest image of how a people begins to collect traditions and
focus them into a very finished, very coherent kind of expression of their own
DAVIES: Now, one of the subjects that you and your co-author deal with is the
Exodus, which is certainly one of the most compelling stories of the Bible,
how the 12 sons of Jacob and their families migrate to Egypt where they became
a strong nation and eventually conflict with a harsh and tyrannical pharaoh.
God rains plagues upon the pharaoh. The Hebrews flee under the leadership of
Moses, and after wandering 40 years in the desert, they meet at Mount Sinai
and emerge spiritually united in a compact with one God. It's a real
nation-forging experience, celebrated every year with the holiday of Passover.
Now in evaluating the historical veracity of this tale, I guess one thing you
can look at is Egyptian records because the Egyptian society was literate and
kept a lot of detailed records about its wars, kings and other events. What
does the Egyptian record tell us about the possibility of Israelites being
enslaved and fleeing?
Mr. SILBERMAN: Well, of course, there is nothing that resembles the story of
the Exodus with all its miracles and plagues and miraculous acts as it's
described in the book of Exodus, but archaeology tells us something else about
the Exodus that in a way offers its broader historical significance. We know
that from really the beginning of recorded history and even before that in
Protoliterate times, there was always constant movement between the land of
Canaan and the land of Egypt. It--basically because the climate and the
weather and the agricultural conditions in Canaan are very unstable and
unpredictable, and it's subject to long periods of drought, floods...
DAVIES: Just to interrupt, when we say Canaan, we're referring here to modern
Mr. SILBERMAN: When we say `the land of Canaan' we're referring to basically
what is represented by Israel and the West Bank, that area basically between
the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea that lies north of Sinai. And the
land of Canaan is a very tough land to depend on because of the weather and
the climate and so forth, whereas Egypt, the land of the Nile, with a constant
source of water, was always seen as an endlessly fertile place where people
could make a good living. And there was constant back and forth between
Canaan and Egypt over the ages.
I think that the writing of the story in which we have some very definite
clues on when the story was written and to which sites it refers was one of
those periods in which Egypt was rising, the people of the kingdom of
Judah--the people who identified themselves as the people of Israel--were very
concerned with issues of law and freedom and the tyranny of a pharaoh. But it
had nothing to do with the pharaoh that is described as Moses' adversary.
Once again, it brings us to the seventh century and the period of King Josiah,
an otherwise largely forgotten king, who was in the midst of an ambitious
project to resurrect the greatness of the united kingdom of Israel. And the
story at that time would have particular significance.
DAVIES: The Exodus story concludes with the Israelites wandering in the
desert for 40 years and eventually conquering the land of Canaan. I mean,
these heroic battles. To what extent does the historical record support that
Mr. SILBERMAN: Well, the archaeological record really gives us a
dramatically different story. First of all, there are the obvious things that
are wrong with the story. The Biblical account gives a unified campaign under
Joshua, systematically destroying the cities of Canaan within a relatively
short period and then settling the whole of the land.
Well, we know that the wave of destructions of cities in Canaan at about this
time extended over some period of 200 years. This is quite accurately dated
by the pottery and other archaeological indications. But even more striking
is the fact that some of the cities that are so prominently mentioned, namely
Jericho where the walls came tumbling down and Ai where a great battle took
place, were either unoccupied or unfortified at this time, so the physical
stage setting is all wrong.
There is absolutely no archaeological evidence of a unified military campaign,
but what there is is evidence for a dramatic and otherwise unknown social
transformation, precisely in the uninhabited areas of the homeland, far from
those cities that Joshua is described to have conquered. An amazing
demographic explosion occurred just at about the same time, somewhere around
1200 BC. In place of largely uninhabited hilltops and valleys, dozens, if not
hundreds of strikingly similar villages were constructed.
So what we see archaeologically, in place of Joshua's conquest, is a long
social transformation, where indeed a group of people conquered their promised
land but they didn't conquer it through warfare and siege. They conquered it
essentially by establishing a new kind of group, a new way of life, that came
to be the basis of the kingdoms of Israel. So what we see in this case is
perhaps the clearest example of where the Bible suggests the truth but the
details of the story are incorrect.
DAVIES: My guest is Neil Asher Silberman. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Neil Asher Silberman. He is a Biblical scholar
who, with his co-author, Israel Finkelstein, has written a new book, "David
and Solomon: In search of the Bible's Sacred Kings and the Roots of the
Now I taught ancient history 20 years ago, and I recall it was--at the time it
was treated as fact that around 1000 BC there was a flourishing kingdom of
Israel, with Jerusalem as its capital, and this corresponding to its glory
days of Kings David and Solomon. Solomon built this elaborate temple at
Jerusalem, and I'm wondering, what does the archaeological record tell us
about the accuracy of that picture of Jerusalem. What were the conditions in
Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside at that time?
Mr. SILBERMAN: Well, it gives you a completely, dramatically different
picture. The archaeological surveys and excavations in and around Jerusalem
basically show that it was a quite rural, quite undeveloped area with a large
population of sheepherders. No real towns to mention. And in Jerusalem
itself, it was really quite a modest, highland village. Now what this
contrasts with is the Biblical picture where Jerusalem is the glittering
capital of essentially a Middle Eastern superpower whose borders extended from
Egypt all the way to the Euphrates with the ability not only to mount huge
trade and military expeditions but also to build an enormous temple on the
temple mount. What archaeology shows is something that was a lot more humble
DAVIES: There was a piece in the Jerusalem Post in January reporting that
another scholar, Eilat Mazar, had found what she has declared to be King
David's palace. To what extent does this challenge or undermine some of your
Mr. SILBERMAN: Now archeology is a funny thing. And Biblical archaeology is
even funnier because there was a traditional approach of the Bible in one hand
and the shovel in the other, where people would basically read the Biblical
text and dig and see if there was anything that they could somehow connect to
the Biblical text. Now archaeology, as I'm sure you and many of the listeners
know, is not quite that clear. When you dig, you find things that are very
difficult to understand: tumbles of stone, destruction layers and so forth.
And while archaeology is quite accurate in charting the dimensions of a room
or the number of pieces of pottery, the significance of those finds--I mean,
in fact, what's interesting about the past is sometimes for archaeologists
more a Rorschach test than a real indication.
So when we came with the Bible on earth with the suggestion that had already
been put forward by many scholars about the questionable accuracy of the
palaces and the grandeur of the kingdom of David and Solomon, we hear in
January of the discovery of David's palace. The discovery of a palace or a
significant building of David, even if it were to be connected with David--and
bear in mind there are no inscriptions, there's nothing that tells us that
this large building has anything to David. What would it really tell us to
prove that the Bible is true? Would we point out the spot on the roof of this
building where David spied Bathsheba for the first time? Would it tell us
anything about the accuracy of David's reign as it is told in the Bible?
Every piece of evidence from Jerusalem is, of course, valuable. But beware of
spectacular discoveries that promise to prove that everything is true. It's
another piece of the puzzle that must be combined with the general picture in
Jerusalem of very modest buildings and no sign of international trade or even
literacy and the wider picture in all of the kingdom of Judah, in which the
settlements are hardly larger than villages. So even if such a building could
have been erected in the time of David, to call it a palace, to use it to
verify that every word of the Biblical description of David is accurate, is
really using the archaeological evidence for much more than it deserves to be
DAVIES: I wonder if any of the research you have done is relevant to claims
by Israel and the Palestinians for the occupied territories on the West Bank.
Mr. SILBERMAN: Well, you know, pro and con. The history of the Bible is
often used as competing battle banners, and there are those that take, you
know, political support from every discovery that seems to support the Bible
and those that take it from every discovery that tends to question it. I have
to say that our--the work that we've done really is very unconnected with the
eventual political uses, in the sense that the struggle between Israelis and
Palestinians today is a problem that must be solved in the present. But I
have to say that there have been those who have said to us, `You know, your
investigation of Biblical archaeology has got enormous political implications,
and for the cause of Israel, it's dangerous.' Well, I think that that kind of
idea in itself is extremely dangerous and must be fought against. If we are
to cut off any avenue of research, particularly something as relatively
harmless as our theology in the fears of what the results may be used or
exploited for, then we have really cheapened and really demeaned our own value
as archaeologists to a society.
And I have to say something also about the sometime very strong reactions that
have come to our work, both "The Bible Unearthed" and "David and Solomon," in
suggesting that some of the Biblical stories aren't true. There have been all
kinds of hysterical accusations that this kind of work is going to undermine
the Jewish people or undermine Western civilization or all kinds of
exaggerations like that.
We are really part of a tradition that began more than 150 years ago when the
first geologists in Europe, Lyle and then eventually Darwin, proved that
probably, however beautiful the literary text of the opening of the book of
Genesis is, the world probably wasn't created in seven days. And over the
last 150 years, there have been a number of controversies. First, as I said,
in the Garden of Eden, then in the Tower of Babel, then a generation ago about
the patriarchs. And at each of these battle lines, a battle has been fought
and inevitably the Bible has been seen more and more as a profoundly symbolic
and powerful text but not history.
So, what I'd say to all these critiques, we're just trying to do what
archaeologists have often not done. Not take the Bible in one hand and the
shovel in the other, but rather respect the coherence of the narrative of the
Bible and independently use archaeology to explore and reconstruct the
material development of society in the land where the Bible was written. Then
the interesting part is to combine the two versions. And so, what we're
doing, I hope, has got value for anyone who is interested in finding out the
how, the whys and the wheres of so much of the Bible.
DAVIES: Well, Neil Asher Silberman, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. SILBERMAN: It was great to be with you.
DAVIES: Neil Asher Silberman. His latest book, with co-author Israel
Finkelstein, is "David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible's Sacred Kings and
the Roots of the Western Tradition."
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Reporter Sandy Tolan discusses his book "The Lemon
Tree: An Arab, A Jew and the Heart of the Middle East," about the
friendship between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Today marks the 58th anniversary of the start of the Arab-Israeli war. The
Israelis call this war "the War of Independence." Palestinians refer to it as
"Al-Nakba" or "The Catastrophe." The war established the initial borders of
modern Israel, creating a Jewish state while dispossessing Palestinians of
their homes in Arab villages in what had then been the British Mandate of
In 1948, along with 700,000 other Palestinians, a six-year-old boy named
Bashir fled with his family from their home in Ramla. As Palestinians were
fleeing in fear of the Israeli military, European Jewish emigres, seeking a
haven after surviving the Holocaust, flooded into the new land of Israel.
They included the family of an infant named Dalia who settled in Ramla, taking
for their home the empty house of Bashir's family, with its backyard lemon
tree. "The Lemon Tree" is the name of Sandy Tolan's book documenting the
complex friendship between Bashir and Dalia, borne out of the mutually
incompatible desire to call the same piece of land "home." Tolan's book is
expanded from his radio documentary "The Lemon Tree," broadcast on FRESH AIR
in 1998. Tolan is the co-founder of Homeland Productions, which has produced
dozens of public radio documentaries, and he directs the project on
international reporting at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Terry spoke with Sandy Tolan last week. She asked him how Bashir and Dalia
Mr. SANDY TOLAN: Well, they met at the gate of the house that Bashir had
built--Bashir's father had built in 1936. This was after the Six-Day War in
1967. It was several weeks after the war. It was a war that Bashir and his
family were expecting the Arabs to win. They believed fervently in their
right to go back to their homes that they had been driven out of and many had
fled from in the cities and villages across Palestine in 1948, during that
war. For 19 years, they waited to come back and when the Arabs instead
were--suffered the most crushing defeat and the Israelis suffered the
most--many felt most miraculous victory of their lives in 1967. What happened
then, ironically, is the borders changed for Israel essentially. They--the
lands that the Israelis were patrolling changed, and it allowed all these
Palestinians to come back and search out their old homes.
So it was in this way that Bashir and his cousins boarded a bus, came from
Ramla, went to Jerusalem and arrived at the gate to this house in 1967, and
Bashir rang the bell. Dalia had been an infant when she arrived. She was now
19 years old and a reserve officer in the Israel army and a student in English
literature at Tel-Aviv University. She heard the bell ring, and she went and
got the key to the gate and she went down to the gate and she opened the door
and there was Bashir and his two cousins.
TERRY GROSS, host:
And she welcomes them into the house, and that began a long series of meetings
and conversations between them, and they started trading stories. And I was
interested in how their visions of each other were so different. Like she--he
read that she was always taught in school that `the Arabs ran away from their
homes, fleeing like cowards.' And one textbook said that the Arabs preferred
to leave once the Jews had taken their towns. How did what she was taught in
school compare to the story he told her of how his family actually left their
Mr. TOLAN: Well, he was enraged by--he didn't say anything at first, but you
know, he later told me and he wrote, in a memoir that he wrote, that he was
very angry with this idea that `we just left, as if,' in his view, `we
Palestinians were not driven out of their homes and had not spent the last 20
years praying and just determined by any means necessary to get our homes
back.' So he described to me how furious he was that anybody would
characterize that way, and he began describing to her in a series of meetings
over the months and years of the connection that he had to the home and to the
land and especially to the lemon tree.
GROSS: So Bashir and Dalia, the Palestinian and the Israeli meet, they share
their stories, they get to know each other a little bit, and, you know,
reading this or listening to your documentary, you think at this part of the
story, `Oh, I see what's going to happen. They're going to kind of start
empathizing with each other's stories, and at that point, they're going to
unite and talk about the need for peace.' That's not what happens. First of
all, Bashir keeps telling Dalia that her family should go back to Bulgaria and
give them their house back.
Mr. TOLAN: Yes, she felt so connected in--as their dialogue progressed and
she one day actually risked something personally by--when the West Bank at the
beginning of the occupation in 1967, she actually went to see him in Ramla and
ended up having this long, long conversation at his house in Ramla, where his
family was living. And she began to think, `Well, I'm connecting with him.
We're telling our stories. I'm relating to the--to his love for his land, and
I can relate to it because of my love of Zion, my love of Israel and our exile
for so many years in Europe.' And so she starts thinking, `Oh, I can
understand you.' And he just looks at her. He just totally--he does not
understand how someone who didn't bury their parents in--their grandparents in
that land, who haven't lived for generations right there on the land as his
family did, he doesn't relate to her longing for a place that she wasn't born
in and that her parents weren't born in, so he tells her, `Look, the solution
is for all of you to go back.' And she just feels like she got punched in the
stomach, and she realizes--she begins to realize, `This is a little more
complicated than I thought,' and she--he just tells her, `Look, you stole the
land from us. We have a right to go back. What right do you have to take
this place that we lived in all of our lives?'
GROSS: Well, eventually Dalia gets quite a shock. There's a supermarket in
Israel that's bombed, and Bashir is arrested as one of the suspects. He's
sentenced to 15 years, but Bashir says that these were false accusations and
that if the Israeli government had been able to actually prove the charges, he
would have been sentenced to life, not 15 years.
Let's hear an excerpt of your documentary "The Lemon Tree," which was first
broadcast in 1998, eight years ago, and your new book, "The Lemon Tree" is
expanded from this documentary. Before we hear from Bashir, we'll hear some
of Dalia's reactions to his imprisonment.
(Soundbite from documentary "The Lemon Tree")
DALIA: I used to walk by the Ramla prison every day on my way to work. And I
was having thoughts whether I should go and check if Bashir was in that
prison, because it's a very large prison for long-term prisoners. And I never
did it. You think of it every day, you know, that--yeah, I felt very
betrayed, and it was too much for me.
BASHIR: (Through translator) I did not confess and they could not extract a
confession from me. However, I am Palestinian. I have always hated
occupation. And I believe that I have the right to resist it by the means
that are available to me. Yes. At one stage the means were violent but I
understood them. I understood the actions of the Palestinian fighters who are
ready to sacrifice themselves. I still understand them.
DALIA: I believed he was guilty. I still believe so, and I would be the
happiest person on earth to be disabused of this notion. Indeed, I was for
many years, waiting for a letter saying, `I never did this,' or a
conversation. `If I did this, I'm very, very sorry.' But I never received
such a letter. But I am his friend, yes? Am I his friend or not? If I am
his friend, he can tell me frankly, `I had nothing whatsoever to do with it.'
And yet, he belongs to an organization which puts it on its agenda to destroy
Israel. Also, through terror actions, so-called armed struggle. Bombing
buses and so on where also Palestinians are and also Palestinian children can
be because terrorism is indiscriminate. And I can be on one of these buses,
BASHIR: (Through translator) We have suffered many massacres: Dawayima, Kufr
Qasim, Deir Yasin, Sabra and Shatila. In the face of all these massacres,
dispossession, if anybody thought that the Palestinian would react like Jesus
Christ would have, he is wrong. If I didn't have this deep conviction to the
bone marrow is a necessity of hating the occupation, I don't deserve to be a
Palestinian. This feeling, political feeling, started at the age of six, when
we were expelled.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's an excerpt of Sandy Tolan's 1998 radio documentary "The Lemon
Tree," and he has a new book that's an expansion of that documentary.
How much time did Bashir end up spending in prison?
Mr. TOLAN: He spent 15 years, from 1969 when he was arrested until 1984 when
he was released.
GROSS: As Dalia said, she cut off contact with his family when he was
arrested because she was so upset at the thought of his involvement with the
supermarket bombing, and she eventually becomes convinced that Arabs and Jews
would have even more trouble that she thought living side by side. Can you
talk a little bit about how she was politically changed by his imprisonment.
Mr. TOLAN: Well, she did--as you say, Terry, she did feel very betrayed by
Bashir. And she felt, well, `If he was guilty in this, then how can I'--if
there's just--she believed so much in personal dialogue as the key to
transformation, and that if there is no hope for dialogue, then what is there
hope for? So she actually became quite zealous, as she describes it, in the
defense of Israel and she withdrew from the family.
But I want to tell you a story about what happened just before she withdrew,
when Bashir was still in prison, around the time of the trial, before he was
convicted. Bashir's father came to the house. And he had said that he would
not come to that house, that if he came to the house that he had built in 1936
and he saw it, the house that Dalia and her parents were now living in, he
would just have a heart attack and die.
But then, one day he decided with his daughter Newha and his wife Zakia that
he would want to visit the house. And he came there--he was almost blind. He
had been going blind for a long time, so he could barely see the house, and he
came and there was Dalia's father, Moshe, and he invited them in, and they
came and they went and sat in the backyard, and there was--he was very unable
to really see his surroundings but he asked Moshe, Dalia's father, `There was
a lemon tree here. Is it still here?'
And so Moshe got up, along with Newha, Bashir's sister, and they guided him to
the tree, and he then stood there under the branches, just crying and Moshe
gave him these lemons.
But it was this kind of connection that Bashir saw, this attachment that he
saw and experienced and saw in his father, the humiliation of the loss and
turning a whole nation essentially--a whole group of people, the
Palestinians--into refugees that made him--that gave him the political
convictions that he had and that were just expressed in that tape that we
DAVIES: Reporter Sandy Tolan speaking with Terry Gross.
We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with writer and radio producer
Sandy Tolan. His book "The Lemon Tree" explores the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict through the friendship between Bashir, a Palestinian man, and Dalia,
a Jewish woman whose family occupied Bashir's house in the 1948 Arab-Israeli
war. Bashir was accused of involvement in the bombing of an Israeli
supermarket and imprisoned for 15 years.
GROSS: How did Bashir's imprisonment change Bashir?
Mr. TOLAN: Well, in some ways I think it drove--it made him more committed
to the whole idea of return by any means necessary. He met a lot of people in
prison. He became a prison leader for better conditions. They would have all
kinds of meetings. They put on skits and plays, and they'd read everything
from Shakespeare to--sometimes they smuggle in writings of Palestinian poets
or other literature. They read Victor Hugo. They read Mark Twain. They
listened to Chopin. They listened to Arabic music like Umm Kalthum. And I
think Bashir's politics became sort of more firm, in a sense. He became a
Marxist and someone who was as committed to the return of Palestinians to
their homes, as he ever was before he went into prison.
GROSS: After his release from prison, having spent 15 years behind bars,
Dalia sent him a message that her father had died and the house was empty and
she wanted to meet with him about the future of the house. What was that
Mr. TOLAN: Well, Dalia and her husband Yehezkel Landau--she was married by
this time--went up to Ramla, where Bashir was meeting, and they met in the
home of an Anglican priest, a Palestinian man and his wife, and they met and
Dalia had been thinking, you--ever since these days, these many years that she
would refuse to talk to Bashir, would not be in touch with his sisters or the
rest of his family, she still kept thinking, you know, `This house is a house
with the experience of two families. The joys and the losses and the hopes
and the dreams and the loves of two families. It's not just the house of one
family.' And now that her parents had died, she felt not only the
responsibility of deciding about the future of the house, but she personally
did not feel that she wanted to make this decision absent a conversation with
Bashir and his family. And she had first offered to sell the house and give
the proceeds to the Khayri family, to Bashir's family, and he said, `No, no,
no selling of the patrimony. This is our home and you can't sell this house,
And she said, `OK, well then, you know, what do you propose?' And he said,
`Well, Dalia, I lost my childhood here, in this house. I haven't be able to
come back to this house. I would like to see it become a kindergarten for the
Arab children of Ramla, and there were still about and still are about 20
percent of the town is an Arab population. And so she and Yehezkel readily
agreed that that's what they would do. In addition, they wanted to turn the
house into a center for dialogue, a center for encounter between Arab and Jew,
and so to this day, it's called Open House, and it is both a kindergarten for
the Arab children of Ramla and a center for encounter between Arab and Jew.
GROSS: Is Dalia involved in running it?
Mr. TOLAN: She is. She's very involved in it, and she's very involved in
groups that promote the whole notion of co-existence which is a very difficult
thing to talk about in the current atmosphere.
GROSS: So, where would you say that Dalia and Bashir stand now politically?
Mr. TOLAN: I think Bashir still believes in the right of Palestinians to
return to their homes in--that they were--they fled or were driven out of in
1948. As a practical matter, this is quite difficult to imagine because many
of the villages that Palestinians lived in in 1948 are gone. They've been
destroyed in--there were more than 400 of them. Where would these refugees
who are now living in refugee camps go exactly? There have been a lot of
discussion of this from Palestinians who say, `There's a way to do this.' But
in a practical matter, a lot of these villages--there are cities built on top
of them. And then if you look at the neighbors of Dalia, the people who are
living in Ramla and neighboring town of Lydd where so many--where tens of
thousands of Palestinians were essentially expelled from in 1948, where would
those people go?
So Dalia does not believe that Bashir's solution is practical. She believes
in a two-state solution. She believes in a state of Palestine living
alongside a state of Israel. They don't agree on that. But the thing that's
amazing to me is as much disagreement as they have politically, the warmth
between them and the affection that they have for each other personally, the
questions that they ask about each other's children, is really remarkable, and
it shows that there is something even beyond friendship. They cannot, as
Dalia says, they cannot `wish each other away." They are there with each
other, and one way or another, even as remote a possibility as this looks like
right now, they're going to have to co-exist.
GROSS: What are their lives like right now? You know, is Bashir still a
militant? Has he been sent back to prison since he was released after the
Mr. TOLAN: Bashir's spent a lot of his life in prison, Terry. He was
suspected of being one of the organizers of the first Intifada in early 1988.
He was deported from the West Bank--essentially deported a second time. He
went to Lebanon, came back during the Oslo process in 1996, and then during
the so-called second Intifada, the al-Aqsa Intifada after the year 2000, he
was imprisoned again for a year. He says he was never charged with anything.
There's a status called administrative detention where people are basically
incarcerated by Israel without any formal charge, and he says he was never
charged with anything during this time, and he's been out again for the last
DAVIES: Reporter Sandy Tolan speaking with Terry Gross.
We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with writer and radio producer
Sandy Tolan. His book "The Lemon Tree" is expanded from his 1998 radio
GROSS: You first wrote the story of "The Lemon Tree," the story of Bashir and
Dalia, for your 1998 radio documentary. Now eight years later your book,
which expands on that story, has been published. Have your feelings about
this story and the meaning of this story changed over the eight years?
Mr. TOLAN: Yes, definitely. They've deepened, mostly because of how I was
able to learn so much more about the experience of each family. One of the
families, the Eshkenazi family, Dalia's family, was from Bulgaria, and I
learned by spending weeks and weeks in Bulgaria, the story of Dalia's family
and how they escaped the Holocaust in the 1940s in Bulgaria, which is an
incredibly compelling story.
And at the same time, I learned from Bashir's perspective, from his family's
perspective, and from the broader Palestinian perspective, this whole notion
of what it's like to be attached to land that you've lived on for more
generations than you can count. This connection to a town that was founded by
Arabs in the year 715, Ramla, and what's like to live in exile. What it's
like to feel that your home is a place you need to go back to, even to the
point that people in some of the villages now--the refugee camps--will draw
the villages that have been disappeared for 50 years. They'll draw the maps
of these villages for their grandchildren.
So rather than just connecting with the story that I grew up with more, which
is the story of Israel being born out of the Holocaust, I was able to deepen
my understanding of how this truth is matched and met by the truth of the
Palestinian exile. One of the most compelling things, Terri, about my
experience in this is that the war of 1948, which began on May 15th, is called
`the war of 1948' by many historians. It's called the "War of Independence,"
by Israel, and it's called the "Nakba" or "Catastrophe" by Palestinians, and
it was this experience that was really deepened by my research on the book.
GROSS: Is it difficult for Bashir who's Palestinian and Dalia who's Israeli
to actually see each other now with changes in Israeli policy about borders?
Mr. TOLAN: Well, they don't see each other very much, and part of that is a
practical reason. It's extremely difficult for them to be physically in the
same place. Bashir's not allowed to go to Jerusalem. He hasn't even received
permission for--he's been wanting to go to Jordan for medical treatment and
has not got permission, essentially, to leave Ramla from Israeli authorities.
So that makes it difficult for him to go see her.
And for Dalia as a civilian, Israeli citizen, she is not supposed to go to the
West Bank. I went with her and a Palestinian translator--Palestinian English
translator, Palestinian journalist, Nadal, to the West Bank, and we basically
sort of snuck Dalia across. We didn't literally sneak her across. She was
sitting right there in the car, but they didn't ask for her ID, and if they
had, they might have turned us around. So we went there, and we saw Bashir,
and it is difficult for them to talk to each other about politics. But the
personal warmth they have for each other's families is so remarkable, and it's
so deep and it's so compelling to stand there. They hadn't seen each other in
seven years, and she walks up the steps, and she says to me, `Dala, I want to
hide behind you.'
And she walks up, and finally, there's Bashir standing at the landing with
this incredible smile on his face--this broad smile. And they stand there
looking into each other's eyes as if they were oldest of friends, just shaking
each other's hands for what seemed like five minutes and asking, `Oh, I hear
Ahmad'--who's Bashir's son who's named after Bashir's father--`I hear he's
going to Harvard. You must be so proud.' `Oh, and how's Rafael?' This is
Dalia's son. `How is he doing?' `Oh, he's going into computers.' `Oh, you
must be so proud yourself.'
And this kind of personal warmth--it's not just small talk. It's establishing
a recognition of the connection that they have to each other, even across
these political chasms. There is some hope to me for reconciliation because
when people actually get to know each other, they have a chance to try to
understand where their peoples might go, that's not just based on peace but
that's based on some sort of sense of fairness, of how this could all work
GROSS: Well, Sandy Tolan, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. TOLAN: Thank you, Terry. It's good to talk with you.
DAVIES: Sandy Tolan, whose new book is "The Lemon Tree." You can find a link
to his 1998 radio documentary "The Lemon Tree" on our Web site
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIS: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, 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 Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.