Book review of "Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978" by Kai Bird

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By Mike O'Connor
Sunday, April 25, 2010


Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978

By Kai Bird

Scribner. 424 pp. $30

Kai Bird begins his memoir in Jerusalem in 1956, when the city was still primitive, worn out, with camels in the streets, a tiny place compared with now. The 1948 war of hate and real estate had ended six years before Bird arrived from Eugene, Ore., with his family. His father was a State Department official on his first posting, in the Jerusalem consulate. Bird was 4. There was still gunfire in the night, and no one knew when the next awful battle would be upon them. A kid would have felt all that too.

Yet Bird's description of these early years is strangely muted, as though he has trouble recalling the details of what must have been an extraordinary early childhood. For instance, we don't get much sense of his evacuation from Jerusalem to Beirut during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956-57. The long section on the mid-1960s, when his family lived cloistered in an American diplomatic compound in Saudi Arabia, gives us interesting history, but not an absorbing personal story. We want more about this American youth in the Middle East; instead, Bird gives us his analysis as an adult of America's misguided policy in Saudi Arabia. "Crossing Mandelbaum Gate" is illuminating reading for anyone trying to understand why American diplomats in Israel are still searching for peace or why our soldiers are still in Iraq, but too little of it sheds light on what Bird learned while coming of age with Arabs and Israelis.

When he gets to recent history, Bird, who won a Pulitzer with Martin J. Sherwin for their biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, grabs the reader's attention. He tells poignant stories of early 20th-century Palestine, where Jews and Palestinians mixed well enough that we can imagine a peaceful multiethnic country being built, though one with a Jewish minority. He pairs the growing immigration of European Jews with the violence leading to war and the creation of Israel, delivering the unyielding dilemmas we see today. And, he says, replacing all the Palestinians with Jews was what extremist Zionists really had in mind.

Bird began digging deeply into the barriers between Arabs and Jews after he married an American Jew and learned of her parents' trials surviving the Holocaust. In their story, he saw another people smashed by history, as the Palestinians had been. And then he looked at what happened when these two battered peoples faced each other.

After a compassionate examination of the Palestinian fight to get back Palestine, he gives us a very thoughtful reason why it has not worked:

"Armed struggle was the worst tactic the Palestinians could have used against a whole society marked by trauma and paranoia. But there has never been a high-profile, politically viable Palestinian Gandhi, and then over the decades it is the Palestinians who have become drenched in victimhood. For the Israelis, the Shoah [Hebrew for the Holocaust] always trumps the Nakba [Arabic for catastrophe: the founding of Israel]."

"Crossing Mandelbaum Gate" is a fascinating book about a crucial period in the Middle East, but as a memoir it fails on the promise of its subtitle. Bird turns a beacon on the exhilarating places in which he grew up. If only he had shone the same beacon on himself.

Mike O'Connor covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for NPR and is the author of "Crisis, Pursued by Disaster, Followed Closely by Catastrophe: A Memoir of Life on the Run."

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