Kai Bird's 'Gate': One Foot In Israel, One In Palestine In his memoir, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, Bird describes his childhood experience growing up near a checkpoint that separated Israeli and Arab sections of Jerusalem. "These are two people who are filled with victimhood," he tells NPR's Robert Siegel.
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Kai Bird's 'Gate': One Foot In Israel, One In Palestine

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

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

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The writer and historian Kai Bird has written a book about coming of age between the Arabs and Israelis. It's called "Crossing Mandelbaum Gate," named for the checkpoint that separated Israeli West Jerusalem and Jordanian East Jerusalem when Bird was a child there.

His father was an American diplomat, an Arabist whose career took the family not just to Jerusalem but to Saudi Arabia and Egypt as well. Kai Bird grew up informed by an Arab view of the world, especially an Arab view of the conflict with Israel. His memoir describes that upbringing, but it's framed by another fact of Kai Bird's life: his wife is Jewish, their son is Jewish, and his in-laws were Holocaust survivors. Their stories are full of the commonly uncommon stuff of those who defied Hitler's death sentence for the Jews: danger, betrayal, deception, escape, luck.

Bird tries to make sense of the juncture of Shoah, the unique victimization of the Jews, and Nakba, the catastrophe as Palestinians drew the creation of the State of Israel. Kai Bird, welcome...

Mr. KAI BIRD (Author, "Crossing Mandelbaum Gate"): Thank you.

SIEGEL: ...to the program. First, the relationship between those two historic events. Arabs often dismiss citations of the Holocaust as something they had nothing to do with. Israelis often dismiss the Nakba as an injury that was very slight compared to what they have suffered. What, if anything, do they have to do with each other?

Mr. BIRD: Well, when I married my lovely wife Susan, I only gradually realized how important the Shoah, the Holocaust, was to her life as a daughter of two survivors. And I realized that you can't actually understand the Nakba without an appreciation of the Shoah. These are two people who are filled with victimhood, and they don't understand each other's victimhood. So this was a very compelling story to me. I had to write it.

SIEGEL: After your marriage into a family of Holocaust survivors, after it introduced you to a different view of this conflict, at first, how did your dealings go with as they were at first the other side is how you express your deeply held support of the Palestinian movement, how did your new in-laws and their friends react?

Mr. BIRD: Well, I only gradually got to know their story and it's not surprising, but Holocaust survivors often don't tell their own children what happened to them. I came in, I was a young reporter, newly married, and over the years I gradually got the stories out of them. My mother-in-law at the age of 16 was orphaned. Her father was killed in the concentration camp. She escaped Italy where she became a spy...

SIEGEL: She was a spy, yeah, yeah.

Mr. BIRD: ...for the Italian underground...


Mr. BIRD: ...at the age of 17 (unintelligible).

SIEGEL: Working actually for a German office.

Mr. BIRD: Yes. She was...

SIEGEL: She was a secretary in the German military.

Mr. BIRD: ...she's given a new identity and told go into the German army headquarters in Rome and asks for a job as a secretary, and she did this at great personal risk.

SIEGEL: Well, when you went back to Palestinian friends and you related to them, this is what I figured out about Jews and Israelis since I grew up and went to school here, what did they say to you?

Mr. BIRD: Well, I have one friend, Rita Jackman(ph), who now is in Ramallah, you know, she tells me, of course, that the Palestinian should not be blamed for the Holocaust committed by Europeans. But she understands the fact that her neighbors are filled with a dreaded victimhood. She just thinks that they should be neighbors. But it's very hard. There are very few reasonable people who are willing to cross the borders, cross Mandelbaum Gate.

SIEGEL: Ultimately, while you defend your right to be naive about your hopes for the Middle East...

Mr. BIRD: Exactly.

SIEGEL: ...you do foresee a two-state solution ultimately. You're not of the naive camp that says there should be a single democratic state where Jews and Palestinians all get together and, well, then have a simple democracy.

Mr. BIRD: Yeah. You know, it's complicated, this issue. And it's an emotional hot button. But eventually, these two people are going to have to live together. What should happen is a two-state solution probably along the lines of my childhood friends Sari Nusseibeh's and Ami Ayalon's plan, the Nusseibeh-Ayalon Plan that was broached in 2002-2003 in which they said, let's create a Palestinian state along the '67 Green Line borders and share Jerusalem, but alas, we're not anywhere near there.

SIEGEL: As, you know, I mean, the - Sari Nusseibeh, your friend from childhood, the head of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, and Ayalon, the former head of the Israeli Security Agency, these two wings of their two societies can connect but neither one commands much support in this country. That religious factions with millennial convictions are much stronger on either side of the line. And today, we hear the Palestinians will have an election, but it will only be on the West Bank, phase two, its future date will be in Gaza, not very encouraging.

Mr. BIRD: No. That is not very encouraging at all in the short term. However, in my old neighborhood in East Jerusalem, in Sheikh Jarrah, every week, on every Friday, several hundreds, sometimes several thousands of Palestinians and Israelis are non-violently protesting the building of settlements in East Jerusalem on the grounds. And if we go down that road, it prevents the possibility ever of a two-state solution. So I had I do have hope. I know, I've been accused of being naive and I own up to it, but at the time when the realists have all failed, we should be naive. We should go for a naive solution.

SIEGEL: Kai Bird, thanks a lot for talking with this.

Mr. BIRD: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a journalist and the author now of "Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978."

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