Kai Bird's 'Gate': One Foot In Israel, One In Palestine

Kai Bird i i

hide captionKai Bird co-authored American Prometheus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Nilgun Tolek
Kai Bird

Kai Bird co-authored American Prometheus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Nilgun Tolek

Writer and historian Kai Bird has been accused of being "naive" when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — and he says he's OK with that — perhaps because he has experienced it from both sides. Bird grew up with an Arab view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: His father was an American diplomat, a scholar of the Arab world whose work took the family to Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Now, Bird is married to a Jewish woman — the daughter of Holocaust survivors — and they have raised their son in the Jewish tradition.

Bird's latest book describes his experience "coming of age between the Arabs and Israelis." Part history, part memoir, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate is named for the checkpoint that separated Israeli West Jerusalem and Jordanian East Jerusalem when Bird was a child there. In Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, Bird tries to make sense of the juncture of the Shoah, the Holocaust of the Jews, and Nakba, the catastrophe, as Palestinians view the creation of the state of Israel.

As he learned more about the Holocaust from his in-laws, Bird says he realized that it is impossible to understand the Nakba for the Palestinians without understanding the Shoah for the Jews.

Crossing Mandelbaum Gate
Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978
By Kai Bird
Hardcover, 448 pages
Scribner
List price: $30

Read An Excerpt

"These are two people who are filled with victimhood, and they don't understand each others' victimhood," Bird tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

Bird gradually came to appreciate this profound sense of victimization through his wife's family; his mother-in-law was orphaned during the Holocaust at 16, and went on to become a spy against the Germans in Italy — putting herself in great danger. Decades later, living in New York City in the 1960s, she kept a fully packed suitcase in the closet — just in case she needed to flee suddenly.

Arabs often dismiss citations of the Holocaust as something they had nothing to do with, while Israelis dismiss the Nakba as an injury that was slight compared to what Jews have endured.

Bird cites one Palestinian friend living in Ramallah who argues that "Palestinians should not be blamed for the Holocaust committed by Europeans." And yet, Bird says his friend "understands the fact that her neighbors are filled with a dreaded victimhood."

In the long term, Bird foresees a two-state solution for Israel.

"I don't think it's rocket science to understand what should happen and what eventually will happen between the Palestinians and the Israelis," he says. "It's a very small place ... Eventually these two people are going to have to live with each other."

But he is not optimistic that a solution to this "emotional hot button" will get sorted out anytime soon.

"There are very few reasonable people who are willing to cross the borders — to cross Mandelbaum Gate," he explains. "It's just a terribly intractable problem."

In the long term, Bird has hope for the Nusseibeh-Ayalon Plan — laid out by Sari Nusseibeh, president of Jerusalem's Al-Quds University, and Ami Ayalon, former head of the Israeli security agency. Both were Bird's childhood friends.

Bird explains: "They said, 'Let's share the land. Let's create a Palestinian state along the '67 green line borders and share Jerusalem.' It makes ultimate sense, and I think that's the way to go."

The current state of affairs is not encouraging, and Bird acknowledges that the country is many decades away from a two-state solution. Yet he says that looking at Sheikh Jarrah, his old East Jerusalem neighborhood, gives him hope: Every Friday in Sheikh Jarrah, hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis join together in nonviolent protest against the building of settlements in East Jerusalem.

"I know I've been accused of being naive, and I own up to it," Bird says. "But I think that at a time when the realists have all failed, we should be naive. We should go for a naive solution."

Excerpt: 'Crossing Mandelbaum Gate'

Crossing Mandelbaum Gate
Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arams and Israelis, 1956-1978
By Kai Bird
Hardcover, 448 pages
Scribner
List price: $30

1
Jerusalem

On the eve of the Suez War in 1956, soon after we arrived, my father observed in a letter to his parents: "Once more we can cross freely through Mandelbaum Gate and once again every day we remark about the contrast between an energetically determined Israel and a stubborn, colorful and slowly progressing Jordan. ... One side is willing and capable of doing the job. The other is still almost feudal, clannish and with a 'baksheesh' (personal charity approaching graft) mentality."

My parents came to Jerusalem as blank slates.

My father and mother spent their formative years in Eugene, Oregon, a town of fewer than 20,000 people. Oddly enough, my father was named Eugene, although everyone called him "Bud." The Great Depression hit his parents hard. My paternal grandparents had met in Montana, where they had laid claim to separate, neighboring tracts of land under the Homestead Act. For seven years they scratched out a living growing wheat, until its sinking market price forced them to sell the land and move to Oregon. During the Depression my grandfather worked for the local dairy in Eugene — owned by the family of the novelist Ken Kesey.

My father graduated from high school in 1943 and was lucky to be chosen by the Navy for officer training — and by the time he was commissioned, the war was over. He had known my mother, Jerine, in high school, but they didn't start dating until after my mother's fiance died when his Navy ship was sunk in a Pacific typhoon. By then, Bud and Jerine were both enrolled at the University of Oregon.

My mother's father, Chad Newhouse, had survived gassing in World War I, and spent his working life as an accountant and insurance salesman. His wife, Bernice Haines, worked for two decades at Quackenbushes, the local hardware-and-housewares store. I remember as a child marveling at the old-fashioned wire pulley contraption which the cashier used to send customers their change from a second-floor cage. Bernice — or "Bee," as we called her — could remember a time when Indians on horseback still roamed the plains of eastern Washington where she grew up. Chad had a family Bible that had come across the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon.

They were all pretty ordinary, small-town Americans. They worked hard, and had very little money. My mother went to a Disciples of Christ church and sang in the choir. My father was raised a Christian Scientist. But in 1948 a Baptist minister married them in the Congregational church. After years of shopping around, they eventually became Episcopalians. I was born in Eugene on September 2, 1951. Father named me after Kai-Yu Hsu, a refugee from Communist China whom he had befriended at the University of Oregon. "Kai" means "mustard" in Mandarin Chinese, and "Kai-Yu" suggests someone who adds "spice" to life.

Father was boyishly handsome. When he grinned, he exposed his one physical flaw-the badly crooked teeth of an adolescent too poor to go to the orthodontist. In high school he had edited the school newspaper and joined a local chapter of the Sea Scouts, so he learned to sail on nearby lakes and up north in Puget Sound. When he began dating Jerine at the University of Oregon, he'd often take her out sailing — and bring along his best friend, Bob Naper, who later joined the CIA.

Jerine had that scrubbed, open-faced look of the 1940s, with wide, trusting eyes and brown curly locks. She had played the piano on the local Eugene radio station at the age of seven, and in her university days she regularly played the organ at her local church. She had lived in California as a young child, but that was the full extent of her travels until she married Bud — when he then took her to Stockholm on a year abroad for his graduate studies in history. My parents had nothing in their upbringing to prepare them for the Middle East.

After finishing his master's in history at the University of Oregon in 1952, my father was awarded a Rockefeller Internship with the State Department. That autumn we moved to Washington, DC — and Father passed the Foreign Service exam. But by 1952 the Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy, had forced a hiring freeze at the State Department, charging that "pinkos" from Harvard and Yale had infiltrated the Foreign Service. Two years passed before Father was finally offered an appointment to the Foreign Service.

In the meantime, the Department had by sheer chance assigned him to serve his internship on the Israel-Jordan desk. He worked under a veteran Arabist, Donald Bergus. With fewer than 600 officers, the Foreign Service was an elite "old boy" institution, the civil service of the American foreign policy establishment. Most of Father's colleagues were bluebloods from the East Coast: white, male and Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Many had been schooled at Phillips Exeter Academy or similar preparatory schools and had then attended an Ivy League college. And within this elite institution the area specialists, particularly those who specialized in difficult languages like Arabic, were a select group.

In the spring of 1956, Father was appointed vice-consul at the American consulate in the Jordanian-controlled part of Jerusalem. His job would be to handle visa and consular affairs for Americans visiting Jordan — and to report on the Jordanian monarchy's activities in both Jerusalem and the West Bank. We would live among the Arabs of East Jerusalem. To his innocent eyes, Jerusalem was the Holy Land. He wrote home to his parents about the wonderment he felt walking the same streets where the historical Jesus had walked two thousand years earlier.

Father was young and filled with an innate optimism about the postwar world. Just before leaving for Jerusalem, he spent three days observing a meeting of the Security Council at the United Nations. After listening to the speeches with a headphone over his ears, he waxed philosophical in a letter home: "It seems to me the world is so closely linked together that there shouldn't be any cause for war or even misunderstandings." But then he saw evidence that this was not true: "Our little five-foot, mustachioed ambassador from Jordan refused to sit next to Israel's ambassador, Abba Eban. He kept an empty seat between himself and the Jew at the conference table."

At thirty-one, my father was garrulous and charmingly informal in manner. He was also very much a married man. "I know that I love you," he wrote Jerine after his arrival in Jerusalem, "when there is a feeling of relief and a single sharp jab of joy when your letters are handed to me." (He had gone ahead to find a house.) Mother hated to be separated from him, and her own letters could be equally passionate: "The love thoughts tumble out too quickly to capture with pen and paper. I can only say, I love you, lover." In their few weeks of separation he complained about his "gay but monkish existence." He was, in fact, a shameless extrovert. "This life is no place for one who does not thoroughly enjoy meeting people," he warned my slightly more shy and sheltered mother. One evening after dinner at the Greek consul general's home he played charades with a French newsman, a balding British diplomat and the widow of the man who earlier that spring had been hanged for the 1951 assassination of Jordan's King Abdullah. "She is German," Father wrote, "has adopted the Muslim religion, is thoroughly opportunistic, and apparently well liked. ... She also is about the most seductive looking blonde one will encounter anywhere. I have placed on the shelf her kind offer to help me look for a house." (Someone — presumably Mother — had underlined in pencil the words "on the shelf.")

Even then, as a lowly vice-consul on his first posting, he took delight in crossing social boundaries. "The life here may seem hectic to you," he warned Mother. "But if we can regulate ourselves to the slightly madcap atmosphere and refuse to be disturbed by rank consciousness — I am by far the best antidote against that this society has seen in a long while — nor by snippy old ladies and slinky young ones, it will be a charming existence."

Mother arrived a few weeks later, bringing my little sister, Nancy, and me. The three of us flew from Washington, DC, to Beirut aboard a twenty-one-seat Pan American Airways DC-3, a propeller plane with a cruising speed of 180 miles per hour. After spending one night in Beirut, we boarded a smaller aircraft and flew into Jerusalem's tiny Kalandia Airport. Every time a plane landed or took off, police had to stop the traffic on the road from Jerusalem to Kalandia because the runway crossed the road. Father met us with a consulate car and drove us to the American Colony Hostel, then a quaint bed-and-breakfast lodge in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Now it is a luxury boutique hotel and boasts the favored bar and restaurant for East Jerusalem's expatriate community of diplomats and journalists.

The American Colony was our home that first summer of 1956 in Jerusalem. My earliest memories stem from this stone building and its rose garden. From that day to the present, the Colony has always been my Jerusalem. To live there was to partake of its history as a way station, a genteel expatriate haven in the midst of Arab Jerusalem. We had a two-bedroom suite with daily maid service and three meals a day delivered to our rooms — or we could eat in the Colony's grand dining room. In the late afternoons and evenings dozens of expatriates and Palestinian intellectuals mingled in the "big salon," sitting in overstuffed armchairs under an elaborate Damascene ceiling hand-painted with gold leaf. In the flagstone courtyard there was a water fountain surrounded by palm trees, potted plants, ivy geraniums and pungent jasmine.

This lovely courtyard remains one of the most serene spots in Jerusalem. A high rock wall stretched from Sheikh Jarrah all the way to Mandelbaum Gate, dividing the city. But from the second- and third-story windows of the American Colony one could gaze across an open field of no-man's-land and into Israel. For some reason that summer the Israelis decided to clear a nearby minefield dating from the 1948 war. This meant blowing up as many as eighteen large antitank mines daily. On one occasion hot iron landed in the garden across the street.

Excerpted from Crossing Mandelbaum Gate by Kai Bird. Copyright 2010 by Kai Bird. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Books Featured In This Story

Crossing Mandelbaum Gate
Crossing Mandelbaum Gate

Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978

by Kai Bird

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