This is another book for the World Citizen Challenge, in the category of History.
I learned of City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, by Adam LeBor, from two fellow participants in the World Citizen Challenge: Gavin of Page247 (review) and Eva of A Striped Armchair (review). I am interested in the struggles of the middle east and the history of the region, and a book that viewed these struggles and history through the stories of real individuals particularly appealed to me. City of Oranges aims to tell the 20th-century history of the port of Jaffa, next to Tel Aviv (now part of Tel Aviv, but existing long before) through the stories of several Jewish and Arab families who lived or still live there.
However, I was a bit disappointed. I found that the book did not focus on the individual lives nearly as much as I was expecting, and there were large sections devoted to a general discussion of the historical events in Palestine/Israel. I understand that of course there has to be some context for the stories being told, but I felt that the book would be more aptly subtitled “a 20th century history of Palestine/Israel, focused on Jaffa, with some personal stories thrown in.” Certainly the personal stories were there, and at times were powerful and heart-wrenching. However, they were woven in to the context so well that at times the context took over. I also found it very difficult to keep all the people straight. Many of the individuals he described were related to others that he had talked about earlier, but I couldn’t follow the relationships. The beginning of the book has a list of “characters,” but it was not nearly as helpful as a pictorial family tree would have been.
Even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, it was very interesting to learn the 20th-century history of this region, and I very much enjoyed the personal aspects. I think focusing on individual experiences is a powerful way to learn history and to understand at a human level what happened. At the same time, this was a painful book to read. The Palestine/Israel region has been wrought with conflict, and it is very difficult to stay optimistic about any possibilities for peace. Both sides have shown a horrendous lack of respect and understanding for the other side. It is very depressing to realize that before WWII, Jews and Arabs lived in relative peace in Jaffa and the rest of Palestine, but after Israel’s independence in 1948 this was no longer the case; essentially peace declined instead of progressed.
I had a vague sense as I was reading City of Oranges that the author was not completely unbiased, but in fact had a pro-Palestinian/Arab bent. Now, if this had truly been only an “intimate” personal history, I do not think I would have had that sense; this came mainly from the more political/general history sections than from the personal stories. I do not doubt that the Jews who founded Israel did many horrible things, including ignoring and dehumanizing the Arabs who lived on the land they took, as well as treating the Sephardic Jews already living there badly at times, but at the same time there were places in the book that gave me the sense of “those poor innocent Arabs, look at what the thoughtless Jews did to them.” The author would no doubt deny that he intended to convey such a perspective; perhaps I am overly sensitive because I have Jewish ancestry. However, I think it is very difficult for people to stay unbiased with regards to this region, so I would not be surprised if in fact LeBor really did have, in his personal opinions, such a bias. At the same time, I think an important point that some of the individuals he interviews make (including Jews) is that Israel has to acknowledge the harms it did cause, because there is no denying that it did and continues to cause many harms, and peace cannot be reached as long as they continue to claim complete innocence. I do not think that Jews get a free ticket when it comes to their treatment of other human beings just because they have themselves been persecuted and dispersed for hundreds of years.
Ultimately what I care most about in this and any conflict is that individual humans each have the opportunity to live their lives with dignity and without immediate physical threat, and this is a point that LeBor helps highlight. His book is an important reminder of the human side to this conflict, that the individuals living in the region are each trying to make the best of their lives and do what they think is right for themselves and their children. He shows us that Arabs and Jews have lived together in peace and friendliness in the past, and that there are possibilities for the future.
Overall, I cannot whole-heartedly recommend City of Oranges. If you have a particular interest in the region, you will probably enjoy it. Just be prepared for a good bit of history and some painful details.