Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956–1978, by Kai Bird (Scribner, 424 pp., $30.00)
At the beginning of this coming-of-age memoir with a Middle Eastern twist, Kai Bird writes that he hopes his “voyage through the world of the ‘other’” will contribute to reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians. The Holy Land has never been short of volunteer peacemakers, but Bird would have us believe that his qualifications stem from his experience growing up in Arab Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt as the child of an American diplomat. Celebratory blurbs for the book from Fouad Ajami and Martin Gilbert are likely to make Bird’s claim appear convincing to many readers. But it’s puzzling that such tough-minded scholars didn’t see through the author’s veneer of empathy and evenhandedness and recognize his as one more in a long line of recent books—from both the right and the left—that anathematize Israel as a colossal historical mistake.
Bird’s father, Eugene, was a State Department “Arabist” whose first foreign posting was to the U.S. consulate in Jordanian-occupied East Jerusalem in the 1950s. Young Kai’s formal schooling began on the Israeli side of the divided city. Every day, the little boy was driven to school and back home through barbed wire and heavily armed military checkpoints. This was Mandelbaum Gate, the only legal border crossing at the time between Israel and any of the surrounding Arab states. A no-man’s-land between the two checkpoints was littered with the burned-out hulks of tanks and armored personnel carriers from the 1948 war. Bird’s title, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, thus serves as a metaphor for the memoirist’s vision: he wants to build cultural and political bridges between two communities still at war a half-century later.
Part of Bird’s problem, however, is that he was nurtured with a blinkered, one-sided view of the Middle East conflict. The small expatriate and diplomatic community in East Jerusalem had a jaundiced attitude to the Jewish state and, all too often, to Jews in general. One of the Bird family’s best friends was Katy Antonius, a formidable presence in Arab Jerusalem’s social circles. She was the widow of George Antonius, a leading Palestinian intellectual of the 1930s and the author of The Arab Awakening, widely considered the classic historical account of the emergence of Arab nationalism in the early decades of the twentieth century. As Bird acknowledges, “The book and the author’s widow were to color our family’s outlook on the Middle East for years to come.”
Rarely does Bird reflect critically on these early influences. Without reprobation, he shares one of Katy Antonius’s rants: “Before the Jewish state I knew many Jews in Jerusalem and enjoyed good relations with them socially. Now I will slap the face of any Arab friend of mine who tries to trade with a Jew. We lost the first round; we haven’t lost the war.” Mind you, Antonius wrote this in the 1950s, when Jordan could have created an independent Palestinian state with the stroke of a pen. Then again, she wasn’t quite as blunt about the evils of Zionism as was her lover, General Sir Evelyn Barker, former commander of British forces in Palestine. “Just think of all this life and money being wasted for these bloody Jews,” Barker wrote to Katy. “Yes I loathe the lot—whether they be Zionist or not. Why should we be afraid of saying we hate them—it’s time this damned race knew what we think of them—loathsome people.” According to Bird, even his parents “had long since thrown their sympathies entirely to the Palestinians.” Mrs. Bird wrote to friends that the Israelis had seized the Palestinians’ land “by threat, murder, pillage—all the methods 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 the Nazis persecuted Jews, and neither can I.”
Perhaps Bird deserves credit for candidly revealing his mother’s morally abhorrent linking of Israelis to Nazis. The trouble is that our would-be builder of bridges doesn’t seem to find the comparison embarrassing in the least. And yet these were the political judgments about the conflict that Bird regularly imbibed from the time he was a first-grader in East Jerusalem until he finished high school in Egypt. His claim that it was “given to [me] to see both sides” strains credulity.
What was definitely given to Kai Bird on his return to America in the late sixties was immersion in the militant campus antiwar movement at Carleton College, and then an opportunity to cut his teeth on left-wing journalism at The Nation. Had Bird worked at The Nation two decades earlier, he would have encountered one of America’s most passionate advocates for Zionism and Israel: Freda Kirchwey, legendary editor of the magazine from 1933 to 1955, who led a lobbying effort at the United Nations for the creation of a Jewish state. In the spring of 1948, she reported from Israel on the armed struggle that erupted after the UN passed the November 1947 partition resolution dividing Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. She noted in a dispatch to The Nation that hundreds of thousands of Arab civilians were leaving areas under Jewish control. For the most part, the Arabs weren’t fleeing because they were forced to by Jewish military forces, but rather because they were ordered to get out by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinians’ political leader during the 1948 war. She also reported firsthand that among the forces sent to wipe out the Jewish state at birth were “assorted Europeans fighting in the Arab ranks—Nazis, Chetniks from Yugoslavia, and Balkan Moslem soldiers.”
In a famous town hall meeting in 1982, Susan Sontag stunned her New York leftist audience by suggesting that regular readers of Reader’s Digest would have received a more accurate accounting of Communism’s crimes than readers of The Nation. Though The Nation was guilty of getting Communist tyranny all wrong, the magazine’s saving grace was getting the Jewish question of the twentieth century right. But by the time Bird began his apprenticeship at The Nation, the magazine (along with much of the New Left) had moved toward principled hostility to Israel and to the very idea of a Jewish state. Nation editor Victor Navasky, described by Bird as his “rabbi” and “journalistic mentor,” even allowed an anti-Israel diatribe by favored writer Gore Vidal to degenerate into outright anti-Semitism. In 1981, Bird and Navasky coedited a special issue of the magazine, titled “Myths of the Middle East,” in which they argued that “messianic Zionism” was the principal reason for the absence of peace in the region. (Allegedly, Golda Meier and David Ben-Gurion were the leading Zionist messianists.)
After his Nation stint, Bird went on to write scholarly biographies of John McCloy, McGeorge Bundy, and (with Martin Sherwin) Robert Oppenheimer. Yet in his own autobiography, Bird seems strangely incurious about existing Middle East scholarship, particularly when actual historical facts tend to undermine his lifelong idée fixe that the Jews’ insistence on a state of their own was—and is—at the root of the region’s problems. A case in point is Bird’s perverse attempt to turn George Antonius into a misunderstood prophet of Palestinian-Jewish reconciliation. Commenting on The Arab Awakening, Bird writes: “It convinced me, as it had my father, that the Palestine cause was just, legitimate—and terribly misunderstood in the West.” Conceding that Antonius opposed a Jewish state in any part of Palestine, Bird wants us to believe that his intellectual hero possessed a “cultured voice and reasoned arguments” and “was by no means insensitive to the plight of the Jewish people in Fascist Europe.” Further, Antonius favored “creat[ing] a democratic, multiethnic state in which the Jewish minority would assume ‘the rights of ordinary citizens’ within a pluralistic civil society.” This, apparently, is Bird’s definition of Arab moderation.
David Ben-Gurion, then the chairman of the Jewish Agency, met with Antonius on three separate occasions in 1936. Bird expresses shock that the Jewish leader rejected Antonius’s generous proposal of full civil rights within a Muslim majority polity and instead continued to pursue “messianic Zionism”—that is, a separate Jewish state in Palestine. To Bird, this represented a missed opportunity to head off the coming clash between the two irreconcilable nationalisms. Antonius died in 1942. “He might have been the bridge,” Bird laments.
Bird can indulge that political fantasy because he’s in denial about Antonius’s real political loyalties and connections. Easily accessible scholarship would have revealed to Bird that in a 1935 letter to another Palestinian leader, Antonius wrote that he favored “the revival of Arab nationality through the revival of Islam—without which the Arabs can have no life.” Moreover, Antonius’s patron and benefactor, the American millionaire Charles Crane, was a rabid anti-Semite and an early admirer of the Nazis. According to the eminent British Middle East scholar Elie Kedourie, Antonius set up meetings for Crane with some of the region’s Muslim notables. At these sessions, the American supporter of Hitler tried to “awaken [the Arabs] to the dangerous Jewish campaign against religion and private property, and to convince them that the arrival of Jews in Palestine was only another move in the anti-God campaign which they had started in Russia and elsewhere.”
Bird does acknowledge that Antonius was a friend and advisor to the notorious Haj Amin al-Husseini and that Antonius even showered praise on the grand mufti for his “single-hearted goodness.” Oh well, Bird explains: “George was a naïve man, at heart a romantic intellectual.” And then Bird tries to clean up the image of the Jew-hating mufti, one of the true monsters of the World War II era and, indeed, of Jewish history. The worst that Bird can say about Husseini is that he fled “to Nazi Germany, where he met with Adolf Hitler and urged the Nazi leader to prevent Jewish emigration to Palestine”— ignoring the fact that by then there were virtually no Jews left in Germany. For European Jews under Nazi control, moreover, the only alternative to immigration to Palestine was a death camp. As the American historian Jeffrey Herf has shown, Husseini’s wartime services to Hitler, including recruiting a Balkan Muslim unit of the Waffen-SS, were not just the result of a political alliance of convenience but were forged out of deep affinity with Nazi ideology and support for Hitler’s eliminationist anti-Semitism. Even before he left Palestine, the mufti expressed admiration for Hitler’s solution to the “Jewish problem” and sent delegations of young Islamists to the Nazis’ Nuremberg rallies.
By all rights, Husseini should have been tried by the Allies as a war criminal. Instead, the postwar French government allowed him to escape to Egypt in June 1946, where he was given asylum by King Farouk. Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, welcomed the mufti back, calling him the “hero” who “challenged an empire and fought Zionism with the help of Hitler and Germany. Germany and Hitler are gone but Amin al-Husseini will continue the struggle.” What al-Banna meant, of course, was the coming struggle against the Jews in Palestine. As soon as the UN voted for partition in November 1947, al-Banna and Husseini collaborated in organizing armed Muslim Brotherhood units and sent them into Palestine with the openly declared goal of finishing Hitler’s work. It was the first jihad of the postwar era and the first violent eruption of Islamofascism, with many more to come. But for Bird, the Jews’ “messianic” insistence on building their own state had set off all the trouble.
Despite his sharp criticism of Zionism, Bird goes to great pains to demonstrate his sensitivity to how the shadow of the Holocaust shaped Israelis’ attitudes toward their Arab neighbors and the outside world. There is no reason to doubt his sincerity on this point. Bird’s college sweetheart, Susan Goldmark, a beautiful and talented young woman whom he eventually married, was the only child of two Holocaust survivors. Bird devotes two chapters of his memoir to a touching and dramatic account of how her mother and father—Austrian Jews—managed to survive and outwit the Nazis. “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,” Bird writes. Uncovering the Jewish tragedy of his own family made Bird all the more determined to write about the suffering of the Palestinians among whom he grew up. He concludes that the two tragedies—the Shoah and the Palestinian exodus of 1948, known as the Nakba—are “the bookends of my life.”
But history is not a balancing act of competing tragedies. Referring to the systematic extermination of European Jewry in the same breath as the flight, or expulsion, or dispossession, of 600,000 Palestinians as a result of a war that their own leaders launched is morally disgraceful, even for a self-proclaimed peacemaker and builder of bridges. Even worse, Bird’s “bookends” image serves to distract from the author’s constant and mostly inaccurate harangues about the Jewish state’s ethical shortcomings, while largely giving the Palestinians a pass on their own violent pathologies.
Here are a few examples: according to Bird, after World War II, native-born Israelis cruelly insulted the Holocaust survivors streaming into the country, calling them “‘yekkes,’ a derogative clownish term.” This is a canard. Anyone familiar with Israeli culture knows that “yekke,” meaning jacket, was used as a humorous commentary on the bourgeois habits of the formally dressed German Jews who managed to immigrate to Israel before the Holocaust. Bird writes that the only reason Jews were persecuted in Egypt and other Arab countries was the conflict over the creation of Israel. He should consult the great Tunisian Jewish writer, Albert Memmi, a fighter against French colonialism, who wrote that the notion that Arabs were tolerant of the Jews in their midst was “a huge lie: Jews lived most lamentably in Arab lands.” Bird would have us believe that in 1967, the Israelis launched a premeditated “war of aggression” against Egypt and in doing so blew another historic opportunity to reach an agreement with that misunderstood Arab peacemaker, President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Bird berates Israelis for “not seem[ing] to know or care about their neighbors, all those Arabs who lived a few miles away,” somehow neglecting to point out that it was those Arab “neighbors” who prevented Israelis from visiting their countries, not the other way around.
These are just some of Bird’s ill-considered, often inaccurate jibes about Israel. Another is particularly worth examining, not for what it says about Israel but rather for what it conveys about the author’s own biases. Recalling his days growing up in East Jerusalem in the 1950s, Bird cites a conversation between his father and an Israeli soldier manning the Mandelbaum Gate checkpoint. The elder Bird tells the soldier that the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war “are still living in tents.” The soldier seems surprised at hearing this and repeats, incredulously, “Still living in tents?” To Kai Bird, the soldier’s response represents Israel’s insularity and insensitivity to Palestinian suffering. Yet Bird’s interpretation of the anecdote reflects his own lack of political imagination as a journalist and historian. Any reasonable person should have found it astonishing that neither the Arabs nor the West had done anything in the decade after the 1948 war to resettle the refugees. Fifty years later, when Bird writes this memoir, it’s even more astonishing. Every other refugee problem of the twentieth century has been settled. But the Palestinians who left Israel in 1948, and their descendants, are still locked up in camps for one reason alone: it allows the Palestinian leadership to perpetuate its fantasy of reversing the Nakba.
Having devoted a good part of his memoir to railing against “messianic Zionism,” Bird finds himself in something of a cul-de-sac on his stated goals of peacemaking and building bridges. He could adopt the conventional approach of most liberal and leftist critics of Israel, such as the lobbying organization J Street, and argue for more Israeli concessions that might result in a negotiated “two-state” solution with the Palestinians. But such a pragmatic deal would also mean international legitimacy for “messianic Zionism” and the exclusive Jewish state that Bird abhors. Instead, Bird is at one with those pro-Palestinian intellectuals on the European and American left who are more interested in cosmic “historical justice” and recompense for the Nakba than they are in a compromised, imperfect peace that ends the conflict and preserves Israel as a Jewish state.
So in his concluding chapter, Bird proposes a solution called “the Hebrew Republic”—though he admits it’s an approach with zero chance of implementation and that many of his friends consider him “naïve” for suggesting. The concept is based largely on a single conversation that Bird had 32 years ago with an Israeli named Hillel Kook, who died in 2000. As it happens, I also enjoyed many conversations with Kook in the three decades we knew one another. I regard him as a twentieth-century Jewish hero. I have written about his ideas and his activism in the two great struggles of the 1930s and 1940s—the effort to rescue European Jews and then the creation of the state of Israel. (I should also divulge that Bird asked me to read his chapter on Kook before publication and that I made some factual suggestions.)
As a teenager in the 1930s, Kook joined the underground Irgun Tzvai Leumi, a breakaway from Haganah, the official armed force of the Jewish community in Palestine. He eventually became the Irgun’s representative abroad and the group’s liaison to Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of the Revisionist Zionist movement. Stranded in the United States during the war, Kook and some of his Irgun associates organized the only lobbying group that achieved some limited success in pressuring a reluctant President Roosevelt to make any effort to rescue European Jews from deportation to the death camps. After the war, Kook resumed his activities as one of the leaders of the Irgun, fought for the creation of Israel, and was elected to the new nation’s Constituent Assembly—or first Knesset—in 1948.
But Kook was a Zionist with a twist. As early as 1946, he described himself as “post-Zionist.” What he meant was that the newly independent Israel (wherever its eventual borders might be) should be a Jewish country, but in the same way that America was Christian. Jews would constitute the country’s majority, but Kook insisted that there should be separation of state and church (or synagogue), as in the U.S. Constitution. More important was that there would be a distinction between Jewish religious identity and an Israeli nationality open to all religions. Kook had fallen in love with the United States and its constitutional structure; he hoped that non-Jewish citizens of the new state (including the Arabs who remained in the country) would feel comfortable declaring themselves Israeli (or Hebrew) by nationality, just as American religious minorities felt at ease as American nationals. Kook believed, too, that separating religion from nationality in the new state would make it easier to achieve peace with the Arabs, both within and outside Israel.
Needless to say, Kook’s ideas did not resonate in Israeli politics. He resigned from the first Knesset and remained a party of one in Israel, an unappreciated prophet. This makes him a perfect foil for Kai Bird, who still has accounts to settle with “messianic Zionism” and the exclusive Jewish state idea. He sees Kook as a historic figure on the Jewish side—like Antonius on the Arab side—who might have made a difference. And in calling for the transformation of “messianic” Zionist Israel into a secular “Hebrew Republic,” Bird can claim to have found a magic wand leading to Palestinian-Jewish reconciliation and atonement for the Nakba.
I’m not sure that Hillel Kook would see it that way. I remember him as quite sophisticated about contemporary politics. I believe that after 9/11, he would have been shrewd enough to realize that the project of changing Israel to become more like America, whatever the political merits, would not have meant much to the masses of Arabs radicalized by the new Islamism. Indeed, a more secular, less religiously Jewish Israel on the American model would likely have fueled even more intense Islamic rage against the “little Satan.” In any event, Bird’s “Hebrew Republic” comes off as another distraction from his agenda—and that of his allies at The Nation—to delegitimize the democratic republic called Israel, the only one of its kind existing in the Middle East.