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Jewish Journal

The Arab-Israeli Conflict, through the eyes of an American child on the Arab side

by Jonathan Kirsch

April 14, 2010 | 8:22 pm

“Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978” by Kai Bird (Scribner: $27.00, 384 pps.) offers a view of the Middle East from a unique and unfamiliar perspective.  Bird is the son of an American diplomat whom he describes as an “Arabist,” that is, one of the State Department specialists whose sympathies lay with the Arab side of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  As a result of his father’s postings, Bird grew up in East Jerusalem, Beirut, Cairo and Saudi Arabia, and he was exposed to an Arabist version of history in his childhood home.

“No Arab can see why he should be turned out of his home just because Nazis persecuted Jews,” his mother wrote in 1957, “and neither can I.”

But there is another important fact you need to know about Bird.  His wife is Jewish, and — according to Halakah — so is his son.  He has seen with his own eyes the packed suitcase that his mother-in-law kept in a closet long after the ordeal she suffered during the Holocaust, and he understands exactly how the threat of extermination has shaped Jewish identity and destiny.

“We have chosen a strong Hebrew name like Joshua because he is descended on his mother’s side from a family of Holocaust survivors,” Bird said at his son’s bris.  “But unlike the biblical Joshua, we hope he is never forced to become a warrior….”

So Bird stands at a crossroads in culture, politics and history, a fact that is highlighted in the title of his book — Mandelbaum Gate was the crossing point between East Jerusalem, the Arab-controlled sector where the American consulate was located during the 1950s, and West Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish state.  His neighbors referred to the creation of the State of Israel as the Nakba (“the disaster”), and he later heard about the horrors of the Holocaust from his own in-laws.

“The Nakba and the Shoah,” he muses. “The bookends of my life.  So I refrained from writing about the Middle East and all its wars. It was an abdication.”

“Crossing Mandelbaum Gate” is Bird’s entry into the debate over the politics of the Middle East and, at the same time, an extraordinarily rich and pleasurable memoir, a worthy addition to the literature of Middle Eastern ex-pats that ranges from Charles M. Doughty’s “Travels in Arabia Deserta” to Thomas Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem.”  Although it contains passages I found off-putting, I simply could not put it down.

At times the book is haunting and even dreamlike, as when we are invited to see Jerusalem through the eyes of an American child. Bird recalls how the zoo once located on Mount Scopus had been moved to West Jerusalem after the fighting ended in 1948, but one lion was left behind.  The isolated Israeli positions were supplied by occasional armed convoys, and the provisions for the lion consisted of the carcass of a dead mule.  “We knew when it was time for the convoy,” writes Bird, “because from across the ravine in no-man’s land we could hear the roar of a hungry lion.”

His memoir is full of oddities and ironies.  One of the Palestinians whose visas were processed by Bird’s father was a 12-year-old boy whose family was heading for California. His name was Sirhan Sirhan. Among his father’s and mother’s good friends in Saudi Arabia was Salem bin Laden, who “frequently dropped by our house in Riyadh and brought along his guitar so that he and Mother could play Joan Baez and Bob Dylan tunes.”  Among the topics of conversation was Salem’s younger brother, Osama.  “No one in the family,” Salem said, “understands why Osama became so religious.”

As a Pulitzer-winning author of biographies on John J. McCloy, McGeorge Bundy and J. Robert Oppenheimer, Bird brings the skills of a seasoned journalist and historian to his work, and he scours the sources to confirm or deny various items of conventional wisdom.  “Nasser’s critics, both in Israel and in the West, have repeatedly claimed that he intended to ‘throw the Jews into the sea,’” Bird writes. “To be sure, he wasn’t happy with the Israeli state — but no one has ever been able to cite a single one of his private or public utterances to support such a charge. It is a canard.”

Bird also points out that Nasser, as a secular nationalist, opposed the religious fundamentalism that was (and is) sponsored by our supposed ally, Saudi Arabia, and its various kings and princes.  “[W]hen Nasser stumbled and the forces of secular nationalism were defeated in the 1967 June War, Faisal’s brand of pan-Islamist fundamentalism was there to fill in the political vacuum,” he writes. “It was under Faisal that Saudi money was first used to build hundreds of madrasas — religious schools that propagated the militant and puritanical Wahhabi brand of Islam all over the Middle East and Asia.”

If Bird is frequently critical of Israel, and sometimes harshly so, he also seems to understand the unique dilemma of a single Jewish state in dangerous confrontation with a great many Arab states. “The starting point is that this is our only place in the world,” he quotes Levi Eshkol as saying. “In some place, in this place, we have to stop being a minority.”  Clearly, Bird sees what his own mother failed to see when he considers the weight of history on Israeli decision-making.

“Forgetting the history is not humanly possible,” he concludes. “The Israelis and Palestinians need to see each other, and acknowledge each other’s historical narrative.”  And when his Israeli and Palestinian friends accuse him of being naive, he points out that the realists have so far failed to make any progress toward peace. “So maybe the time has come for the naiveté of a child.”

Bird readily concedes that his book “may startle some readers and offend others,” but he hopes that it will “stimulate a conversation.”  He is right on the first point, and we can only hope and pray that he is right on the second point, too.

Jonathan Kirsch, author of 13 books, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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