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

The Jerusalem Post - April 28, 2010


The Jerusalem Post blog: Shmuel Rosner's Q & A with Kai Bird

Wednesday Apr 28, 2010 Rosner's Domain: Kai Bird on "Israel's culture of victimhood" Posted by SHMUEL ROSNER

Crossing Mandelbaum Gate is "Pulitzer Prize-winner Kai Bird's vivid memoir of an American childhood spent in the midst of the Arab-Israeli conflict in Jerusalem, Beirut, Cairo and Saudia Arabia". But it is so much more. Some liked it. Others not so much. I sent him a couple of question after reading the book, and here's what I got:

1. In your description of the Six Days War you write that this was "a calculated war of aggression". The aggressor, in your story line, seems to be Israel. The Egyptian leadership of your story is portrayed as close to harmless (if bombastic in tone). I don't think most Israelis - and Americans - see this war the way you do. Can you explain the differences?

I understand that most Israelis and Americans still believe that Egypt provoked the June War and perhaps they even believe that Egypt was the aggressor. But historians are constantly churning the archives for new evidence. Our job is to revise the historical narrative with new evidence. To this end, I am firmly persuaded that the war happened as a result of a series of miscalculations on the part of Nasser, the Syrians, and the Soviets. Moreover, it is also clear that the Israeli leadership understood that Nasser had no intention of launching an attack -- but that he had provided them the public provocations that allowed them to seize the opportunity to deal his regime a blow and seize the Sinai. The Israelis fired the first shot -- and they initiated this war of choice after obtaining a green light from the Johnson Administration. I know this goes against the grain of Israeli opinion, but I believe my narrative in Crosssing Mandelbaum Gate is highly persuasive.

2. Here's something that I found somewhat puzzling: you write that you've spent "virtually" your "entire childhood in the Middle East", but you still believe that open borders and healthy economic, cultural cooperation between "peoples of ancient Palestine" is a viable possibility?

Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria. It is a very small neighborhood. And in the 21st century, an age of extreme globalization, I don't believe that any nation's borders can be air-tight for very long. The very definition of sovereignty is bound to change in the coming decades. I realize that things look very bleak today. Israelis are living trapped behind a literal wall. But I do not believe that a policy of hafradah (separation) can work in the long term. These people are inevitably going to have to live together. In the age of of the internet these peoples are already virtual neighbors. In the coming decades I believe these borders will have to become porous. This is aother reason why I titled my book, "Crossing Mandelbaum Gate."

3. One of the critics has written that "the book has succeeded in explaining the perspectives of two peoples who view the Middle East conflict through different lenses. One filters it through the Holocaust, or Shoah, the other through the Nakba". But one of the most troubling aspects of your description - I admit, I did find some of it troubling - is that you follow those thinking Israel's core reason is the Holocaust. Yes - it is a common mistake, one that President Obama seemed to made (or was blamed for making) in his Cairo speech. Can you understand why such position makes Israelis nervous?

I do not write--and I do not believe -- that the core justification for Israel's existance is the Shoah. To the contrary, the Zionist movement obviously began long before Hitler came to power in Germany. The last chapter of Crossing Mandelbaum Gate tells the life story of a great Israeli patriot, Hillel Kook, and I derive my understanding of Zionism from Kook's ideas. (Kook, by the way, is a forgotten hero of the Shoah, a man who is undoubtedly responsible for rescuing more European Jews from the Shoah than any other single person.) But Kook believed that Zionism as a movement should have ended when it successfully established the state of Israel. He was an early "Post-Zionist." And he broke with Begin, Ben Gurion and other Israeli leaders when they refused to write a constitution that would define Israeli identity in a secular fashion. Kook criticized -- and I criticize -- the tendency of many Jewish Americans and Israelis to expropriate the Shoah and use its powerful historical narrative as the ultimate justification for the existance of the Israeli state. I think this is not only historically inaccurate, but very harmful to Israel's political culture. Israel's culture of victimhood also helps to explain why it remains in conflict with its neighbors more than 60 years after its independence.

4. You charge that those unhappy with Egypt's Nasser "claimed that he intended to 'throw the Jews into the sea.' 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." I'm not sure I agree - but my question isn't about Nasser: Do you believe that the leaders of today's Iran want to destroy Israel?

I think Iran's current leadership is dominated by religious fundamentalists -- and so by definition they are pretty crazy. Any one who claims to be acting politically in the name of God is a nut. So I do find the Teheran regime reprehensible and dangerous. On the other hand, if Iranian scientists hand a nucelar weapon to these religious idiots, I don't think they would commit national suicide by attacking Israel with the bomb. I have spent much of my career as a historian writing about the Bomb and I am convinced that even these nutty fundamentalists understand what Robert Oppenheimer understood in 1945 -- that it is not a military weapon. Until we develop an international disarmament regime in which nuclear weapons are declared illegal -- and until we develop a severe inspection regime to monitor all nuclear materials and facilities -- all of us have to live in the shadow of the Bomb.

By the way, Gamal Abdul Nasser was not a religious man, but a secularist. His closest political enemies were the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalists. Yes, he became an authoritarian dictator and eventually built a sometimes cruel but bumbling police state. But he was also extremely popular--and in Crossing Mandelbaum Gate I argue that he was an Arab leader who was quite capable of coming to a real peace deal with Israel. Not just Sadat's "Cold Peace" that exists to this day. But the tragedy is that by defeating this great symbol of secular Arab nationalism Israel and America opened the door to today's jihadists.

5. The easiest question: What's your receipt for Middle East peace and security? 

As to the "easiest" question, well, actually it is an easy question. Every rational observer of this conflict understands what should happen, and indeed, what will happen over time. It is not rocket science. There will be two states. The borders will be the 1967 Green Line with one to one adjustments of land. East Jerusalem will be the capital of the Palestinian state. Personally, I believe Obama and the international community should demand that the Nusseibeh-Ayalon Plan be submitted to a referendum in Israel and in the occupied territiories. I think a majority of the citizenry of both Israel and Palestine favor a two state solution along the lines of the 1967 borders. And if there were a referendum the results would place enormous politcal pressure on both parties to come to an agreement. But of course, I realize that none of this may happen in the short term. The extremists on both sides -- nearly all of them by the way are religious fundamentalists -- are doing everything they can to avoid a peace settlement. A hundred years from now, people will look back on those who prolonged this conflict and condemn them for all the blood they have shed.

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