Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Jerusalem Daze

In Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, Kai Bird recalls growing up in the Middle East as a diplomat’s son

Adam Kirsch
April 20, 2010
Mandelbaum Gate, c. 1950.(Wikimedia Commons)
Mandelbaum Gate, c. 1950.(Wikimedia Commons)

Mandelbaum Gate, despite its name, was never one of the historic portals leading into the Old City of Jerusalem, like the more famous Jaffa or Damascus Gates. Rather, it was a checkpoint that stood from 1948, when Jordan occupied Arab East Jerusalem, until 1967, when Israel conquered the city and demolished the gate. What Checkpoint Charlie was to Cold War-era Berlin, Mandelbaum Gate was to Jerusalem in the early years of the State of Israel: a dangerous, heavily fortified symbol of division and isolation.

In titling his memoir Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, then, Kai Bird is situating himself and his story in a particular moment of Middle Eastern history. Bird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and historian, whose work so far has concentrated on leading figures in America’s Cold War establishment, such as John McCloy, McGeorge Bundy, and J. Robert Oppenheimer. But in the 1950s and 1960s, when those men were making their mark on American foreign policy, the young Bird was living far away from the United States. As the son of a Foreign Service officer, Bird spent his childhood in various corners of the Arab world: Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut, Saudi Arabia.

Bird was just 4 years old when his father was posted to Jerusalem in 1956, a few months before the Suez War. The family lived in the eastern, Jordanian section of the city, but he attended school in West Jerusalem, so crossing Mandelbaum Gate was for him a daily ritual. This experience of “coming of age between the Arabs and Israelis,” as the subtitle of his book has it, marked Bird’s outlook deeply: “I spent virtually my entire childhood in the Middle East, and though it is not home, I worry about it as if it were my home.” Yet Bird’s book turns out not to say nearly as much about his own childhood as the reader might expect, or want. Much more than his own experiences, what interests him is telling the story of Arab politics during the years of his childhood. The milestones in Crossing Mandelbaum Gate are not personal but historical: the Suez War, the Six Day War, the Black September uprising of the Palestinians against King Hussein of Jordan.

When we do get personal glimpses, they are usually intriguing. As a boy attending Catholic school, for instance, Bird was punished for writing with his left hand, not realizing that this was “a breach of etiquette in the Arab world because the left hand is associated with the toilet.” In Beirut, where he and his mother and siblings were sent for safety during the Suez crisis, his favorite restaurant was “Uncle Sam’s,” where he could get American delicacies like fries and shakes. In Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where the American oilmen had their compound, Kai was kicked off the local horse-racing team because he was a mere “consulate kid”—an interesting glimpse of expatriate class distinctions, and a hint at where the real power lay in the Saudi-American relationship.

These are not much more than grace notes in Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, but they hint at the kind of book Bird would have been well-qualified to write. As the son of a diplomat, he had an unusual perspective on the growth of America’s unofficial empire. He shows how his father, as a low-ranking diplomat, was personally well-liked but frequently outranked by civilian businessmen and undercover CIA officers. The young Kai was personally privileged and writes about some of the luxurious settings he lived in—in Cairo, for instance, the Birds’ home was in Maadi, a wealthy cosmopolitan enclave inside a teeming Third World city. Yet he made many Arab friends and felt drawn to the cultures and peoples he lived among, leaving him ambivalent about his status as a representative of American power.

When he returned to America in the late 1960s to attend Carleton College, Bird was “an angry young man, self-righteous to a fault,” and more than ready to participate in student protests against the American establishment. In 1970, he was arrested for barring the doors of a draft office in Minneapolis (and ended up sharing a cell with Paul Wellstone, the future U.S. Senator). When his parents, then stationed in Bombay, read about the protest in the International Herald Tribune, Bird writes that they “suspected right away that I had been involved.” Considering the potential repercussions for his father’s official career, their response seems to have been remarkably calm: They wrote him that “we would probably have done the same ourselves under the same circumstances,” while trying to instill in Bird some political humility: “Who are you, or any other eighteen year old, to say that you have all the answers?”

In writing about the modern Middle East, Bird does not claim to have all the answers, exactly, but he definitely has his heroes and villains. What is troubling is that the heroes are Arab nationalists—above all, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who can do virtually no wrong in Bird’s eyes—and that the villains are, most often, America and Israel. Bird’s sympathies are most apparent in his discussion of the Six Day War—which he calls, following Egyptian usage, the June War. In that war, Israel struck preemptively against Egypt’s threatened invasion, which Nasser explicitly promised would lead to the extermination of the Jewish state. To Bird, however, Nasser is a hapless figure, guilty at most of “bluster,” and the onus for what he calls “a calculated war of aggression” rests squarely on Israel—and on the United States, which failed to restrain its ally. In another unsettling chapter, Bird writes with barely restrained admiration about Leila Khaled, the Palestinian terrorist whose hijacking of two airliners made her a cult figure, “the female Che Guevara.’”

In all this, Bird shows a clear continuity with his upbringing—after all, he was a teenager in Nasser’s Egypt, and he talks about his youthful support for the terrorist group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He is also, of course, the son of a State Department Arabist, a type of diplomat that has long been mistrusted by American Jews for their anti-Zionist, anti-Israel instincts. (It is not strictly relevant to Bird’s book, but since he mentions in his epilogue that his father, now in his eighties, runs a nonprofit called Council for the National Interest, it is worth noting that this organization strikes me as considerably less benign than Bird makes it out to be. He describes it as a “quixotic” nonprofit, a “shoestring operation” that lobbies Congress “for a two-state solution.” In fact, judging by its website [], the Council is primarily concerned with ending America’s alliance with Israel and breaking the Jewish stranglehold on American politics and media—or, as its mission statement more diplomatically puts it, “to restore a political environment in America in which voters and their elected officials are free from the undue influence and pressure of foreign countries.”)

Bird is also, as he informs the reader on the very first page of Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, married to a Jewish woman who is the child of Holocaust survivors, and the last section of his book is devoted to telling his in-laws’ stories of persecution and escape from the Nazis. This comes as a non-sequitur, at the end of a book about modern Middle Eastern politics, but it is clear that Bird thinks of it as a way of telling the Jewish side of the story. He means to express his empathy with the Jews and their desire for a state, even as he advocates a vision for Israel’s future that would strip it of its Jewish identity and turn it into what Bernard Avishai has called a “Hebrew republic.”

But to ground the right of Israel to exist on the experience of the Holocaust is a moral and political mistake, though a common one (President Obama made it in his Cairo speech last year). The only reason so many Holocaust survivors could find refuge in Israel is that, for 70 years before World War II, Jews had created a homeland there—driven by the same longing for independence and national dignity that Bird admires when it comes to the Egyptians. This fundamental hostility to Zionism is most striking when Bird writes that “Israel has become its own ghetto” and laments that Israel is becoming “less ‘Israeli’ and more ‘Jewish’ with each passing war.”

When Bird repeatedly endorses Arab figures, many of them violent foes of Israel, who claim to be fighting only for a secular, binational state in Palestine, it sounds soothingly cosmopolitan. But what he is actually saying is that the Jews, alone of the peoples of the Middle East, have no right to national self-determination. And it is strange that, in a book which so amply documents the violence and dysfunction of Arab politics, Bird is so sanguine about the prospect of “open borders, free trade, and a healthy, multicultural and economic interchange between all the peoples of ancient Palestine.” But then, as he writes at the end of the book, “I plead guilty” to being “naive.” His friends, he writes complaisantly, call him that “in a generous spirit”; by the end of Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, the reader may feel a little less generous.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.