Sep 16, 2014
My newborn son, just nine days old, was lying on the dining-room table, swaddled in his soft blue-and-white striped birthing blanket. A bearded stranger with a knife stood over him. It was a Sunday, my son’s bris day. The Torah commands, On the eighth day, [the child’s] foreskin shall be circumcised (Leviticus 12:3). But we nevertheless had the mohel (the circumciser) come on the ninth day. Already we were altering tradition—but no matter, it was only Leviticus.
When I told my mother that we intended to have a bris, Yiddish for “circumcision,” she was astonished. She had never been to a bris; neither had I. When I was born, Mother had a doctor circumcise me in a hospital. My father was similarly circumcised at birth. We were Christians, and this allegedly hygienic procedure had been practiced for two generations in our family. But a bris was something else, something strange and Old World. A mohel would come to our house with his izmel (lancet) and before an audience of friends and family cut off the foreskin of our darling boy’s infant penis. This primordial ritual would permanently mark my son with the identity of a Jew—and in this case, a Diaspora Jew. To the rabbis, he would have a Hebrew name: Yehoshua Avigdor ben Yonah. For me, my son Joshua’s bris was a simple but firm acknowledgment of his mother’s Jewish heritage, a nod in the direction of tradition. Like her, he would be Jewish, because according to Judaic law, a child’s Jewishness is defined by his mother’s identity. But I also realized that the world of the goyim would in any case always regard him so. All Jews had been bound by a covenant since the time of Abraham: “To you and your offspring I will give the land where you are now living as a foreigner. The whole land of Canaan shall be [your] eternal heritage, and I will be a God to [your descendants].” God [then] said to Abraham, “As far as you are concerned, you must keep My covenant—you and your offspring throughout their generations. This is My covenant between Me and between you and your offspring that you must keep: You must circumcise every male. You shall be circumcised through the flesh of your foreskin. This shall be the mark of the covenant between Me and you.” (Genesis 17: 8–11)
My parents came to Joshua’s bris and held him in their arms before the ceremony. Father read a poem he had written for the occasion. When the time came, my wife’s cousin Robert was designated by the mohel to hold Joshua’s tiny limbs firmly while he wielded the izmel to cut the foreskin. Blood flowed. With his little finger, the mohel then flicked a single drop of soothing red wine into Joshua’s mouth. It was all over in seconds. Afterwards, I spoke a few words to explain our baby boy’s name: “We have chosen a strong Hebrew name like Joshua because he is descended on his mother’s side from a family of Holocaust survivors. We hope he too will become a survivor of life’s adversities and that like his warrior namesake he will take life’s journey strong in body and mind. But unlike the biblical Joshua, we hope he is never forced to become a warrior and that when he someday visits Jerusalem, the city of his father’s earliest memories, he willfind all the peoples of that ancient place at peace.”
Joshua has yet to visit Jerusalem, and alas, the city is far from peaceful. This book—part memoir and part historical narrative—will explore why this is so.
This is not a 9/11 book, but it explores the history behind the passions, the fears, the hatreds and the anger that prompted nineteen young Arab men to plow commercial airliners into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and an empty field in Pennsylvania. Neither is it about the current crisis in Palestinian-Israeli relations. I have written this book in large part to understand why the Middle East of my childhood seems stuck in endless conflict. Only history can offer any insights into this question.
My father was a career Foreign Service officer, a diplomat and an Arabist who spent virtually all of his career in the Near East, as it was called in the U.S. State Department, from 1956 until 1975. So I spent most of my child-hood growing up amongst the Israelis and the Arabs of Palestine, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. I went back for a year in 1970–71 to study at the American University of Beirut. I went back again in my twenties as a freelance reporter. I had many adventures. For instance, in September 1970 Palestinian fedayeen hijacked a British airliner flying from Bombay to Beirut on which my high school sweetheart was a passenger. She was held hostage on an abandoned desert airfield in northern Jordan for four days.
I know the dangers and the seductions of the Middle East. It is part of my identity. I grew up amongst a people who routinely referred to the creation of the state of Israel as the Nakba the disaster. And yet I fell in love with and married a Jewish American woman, the only daughter of two Holocaust survivors, both Jewish Austrians. Gradually, over many years of marriage, I came to understand what this meant. One can’t live with a child of Holocaust survivors without absorbing some of the same sensibilities that her parents transmitted to her as a young girl. It is an unspoken dread, a sense of fragility, a surreal anticipation of unseen horrors. The children of survivors are inevitably saddled with an existential guilt. Their parents remind them every day how “lucky” they are, how privileged not to have lived in those dark years. And yet, however fortunate their life in America—or Israel— these children of the Holocaust cannot help but wonder whether, as Henry James put it in his short story “The Beast in the Jungle,” they are “being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen.” I can’t count the number of occasions on which my beautiful wife has quietly, insistently intimated that there really is a beast lurking in the jungle, waiting to pounce and destroy her privileged existence in the Diaspora. I am the goy who reassures her that it is not so—that the beast is a phantasm. But I know where the beast comes from. It comes from history. So the Holocaust—or, to use the more accurately descriptive Hebrew term, the Shoah—well, it too has become a part of my own identity.
The Nakba and the Shoah. The bookends of my life. In my twenties I came to the conclusion that I did not wish to spend my entire life forlornly trying to rectify the injustices of the Nakba and the Shoah. So I refrained from writing about the Middle East and all its wars. It was an abdication. Instead, I wrote three biographies of leading figures in the American foreign policy establishment, John J. McCloy, McGeorge Bundy and J. Robert Oppenheimer. (The last of these—American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer—was coauthored with Martin J. Sherwin.) These books all explored how power worked in twentieth century America. This meant I had to write a great deal about America’s acquisition of the atomic bomb and its use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about the postwar nuclear arms race and various aspects of the Cold War—such as how close we came to waging nuclear war during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. I also co-edited an exhaustive anthology about the decision to use the atomic bomb, Hiroshima’s Shadow.
Thus, instead of the Nakba and the Shoah, much of my career as a biographer and historian has been obsessed with things atomic. I am not unaware here of a certain personal irony: having decided to avoid the grimness of the Nakba and the Shoah, I spent years writing about an apocalyptic weapon.
Thirty years have passed since I left my childhood haunts in the Middle East. And only now do I feel compelled to grapple with the difficult history of a most troubled land. I write about the Nakba—the story of Palestinian dispossession. But I also tell the Shoah story of my mother-in-law’s dispossession and survival in war-torn Italy as a spy for the Italian resistance. I write about the Saudis of my youth, and the American oilmen who made a Faustian bargain with the Wahhabi kingdom. I write about Arab intellectuals like George Antonius and secular Arab nationalists like Egypt’s Gamel Abdul Nasser. I write about the wars that have defeated Arab modernity, and given rise to the Islamists. The Suez War. The June War. Black September. The October War. In my childhood and youth I experienced all these wars. I was evacuated from Jerusalem during the October 1956 Suez War, and evacuated again from Egypt just before the June 1967 War. During the September 1970 hijackings and the subsequent Jordanian-Palestinian civil war, I was in Beirut. And I was in Yemen and Saudi Arabia just before the outbreak of the October War in 1973. I write about the region’s descent into violence, terrorism and a seemingly endless cycle of retaliation. Along the way, I discover for myself a historical record of all the doors not opened, the roads not taken to peace. Finally, I write about the Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled and the “Hebrew Palestinian” Hillel Kook—living symbols of my “bookends,” one for the Nakba, the other for the Shoah.
My story begins in Jerusalem—a city where apocalyptic literature was born and nurtured. I encountered in Jerusalem and elsewhere on this idiosyncratic journey all sorts of people: Jewish Americans, Jewish Austrians, Jewish Hungarians, Palestinian Americans, Jewish Israelis, Jewish Egyptians, Arab Israelis, Hebrew Palestinians, Palestinian terrorists, Israeli terrorists, Sunni Wahhabi Saudis, Shi’ite Saudis, Coptic Egyptians, Armenian Palestinians, Jewish Turks who now call themselves Israelis, Christian Palestinians, Muslim Palestinians, Hasidic Israelis, secular Israelis, and at least one boy whose identity is half Jewish German-Polish and half Sunni Palestinian. All of these people have more than one identity. Or rather, their identities are composites of many strands of history, ethnicity, religion and place. They have what the Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf calls “multiple allegiances.”2 So this book is also necessarily about the fundamental issue of identity. It is a voyage through the world of the “other.”
Only now do I realize that it is also a book about my own expatriate identity. It is about a boy born in Oregon who travels to Jerusalem and grows up amidst the Arabs and Jews in the tribal mosaic that is the Middle East. I was forced from an early age to develop what the Jewish American writer Leon Wieseltier calls a “stranger’s wakefulness” to what was going on around me.3 So this is a story about a four-year-old boy whose mother overhears him telling a friend that the difference between “this country” and “Washington” was that this was “a place where men got angry at each other and started fighting and now everyone had to go around being a soldier.” He can see and hear all around him violence committed in the name of identity. It is about the boy who becomes keenly aware of the borders drawn on maps and globes. He knows these borders divide people into one identity or another. In Jerusalem, however, this privileged little boy is allowed to pass every day back and forth through Mandelbaum Gate, the one passageway permitted between the Arabs and the Jews. It is given to him to see both sides.
Kai Bird is the new Executive Director for CUNY Graduate Center's Leon Levy Biography Center
Crown books (Random House) has signed Kai Bird to write a biography of President Jimmy Carter's White House years.