Reviews : Crossing Mandelbaum Gate : Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978

Paul Haist review in The Jewish Review - June 6, 2010


Jewish Review - June 6, 2010

I was a boy on the frontlines of Middle East history By PAUL HAIST article created on: 2010-06-01T00:00:00 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award winner Kai Bird (“American Prometheus”) has written a mostly riveting and intimate memoir about his years growing up in the Middle East as the son of Oregon-born and University of Oregon educated U.S. Foreign Service officer Eugene Bird—one of the State Department’s Arabists. Kai Bird moved to Jerusalem with his family just before the outbreak of the Suez War of 1956. He was only 4 years old, but his memory, abetted by his parents’ papers and his own research and experience in the region later as a reporter, make for a gripping story of life in a neighborhood that makes the streets of old South Philly look like West Linn. Some of the reading may be tough for ardent supporters of Israel. Bird and his parents lived on the Palestinian side of Mandelbaum Gate, at one time the only crossing between Israel and Palestinian territory, and, like many Foreign Service officers at the time, they developed considerable sympathy for their Arab neighbors. Differing opinions notwithstanding, Bird’s narrative and insights are highly instructive for Israel supporters wanting to understand the perspective of those with whom they disagree. Bird, himself, remains mostly—but not entirely—above the fray. Still, passages such as the following example will give some readers pause: “‘The situation here seems impossible,’ Mother wrote in 1957, ‘unendingly hopeless and without solution. I feel no sympathy for Zionism whatsoever and none for Israeli society’…For most Americans, and for much of the world, the Israelis appeared to be the victims. This infuriated Mother, who had come to believe that the Israelis had seized much of Palestine ‘by threat, murder, pillage—all the methods that we ascribe to the men who have persecuted the Jews. No Arab can see why he should be turned out of his home just because Nazis persecuted Jews, and neither can I.’” Kai’s years growing up in the Middle East took him not only to Jerusalem, but also to Lebanon, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil fields and their insular American compounds, and Egypt, as his father increasingly became part of the Arabist cadre in the State Department. Bird revisits The Six Day War of 1967, the Black September hijackings of 1970 that triggered the Jordanian civil war. He draws vivid portraits of key figures including George Antonius whose book “The Arab Awakening” awakened Arabs and some Westerners as well. Kai’s portraits, which greatly distinguish his work, also include King Hussein of Jordan, Salem bin Laden (Osama’s brother), a younger Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri (today’s No. 2 al-Qaeda leader), King Faisal, President Nasser and Hillel Kook, among others key figures whose actions still influence the region today. In one especially gripping section of the book, Bird recalls the mysterious 1954 Lavon Affair in which an Israeli sleeper cell in Cairo reportedly launched a series of terrorist strikes—including against U.S. government offices. Operation Susannah, as it was called, ostensibly was designed to discredit the regime of Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser, but later was revealed in the diaries of then Israeli Prime Minister Moishe Sherett, to have been designed as a deliberately inept scheme by top Israeli military and political figures to derail the prospect of peace talks between Israel and Egypt, talks favored by Sherett, and—according to Bird—Nasser also. The Egyptians arrested all the alleged perpetrators—all of them Egyptian-Jews. Two were hanged. “‘I would never have imagined, he (Sherett) wrote in his diary on Jan. 10, 1955,’ that we could reach such a horrible state of poisoned relations, the unleashing of the basest instincts of hate and revenge and mutual deceit at the top of our most glorious Ministry [of Defense]…” While the non-Jewish Kai Bird grew up in an environment notably sympathetic to Palestinian or Arab points of view, he married a Jewish woman, which may afford him a broader perspective than some others who write about the Middle East. In the final section of “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, Bird revisits the Jewish experience in early mid-20th-century Europe, the evolution of his relationship with the woman who would become his wife, the impact of her presence on his views, and the growth of Jewish observance in their family. He concludes that Mandelbaum Gate—gone though it may be—“remains a symbol of hope, a place of reunion—and a reminder that these divisions cannot last forever.” “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate” is well indexed and extensively footnoted.

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