The New York Times
Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978by Kai Bird
PULITZER PRIZE WINNER KAI BIRD’S fascinating memoir of his early years spent in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon provides an original and illuminating perspective into the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Weeks before the Suez War of 1956, four-year-old Kai Bird, son of a garrulous, charming American Foreign Service officer, moved to Jerusalem with
PULITZER PRIZE WINNER KAI BIRD’S fascinating memoir of his early years spent in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon provides an original and illuminating perspective into the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Weeks before the Suez War of 1956, four-year-old Kai Bird, son of a garrulous, charming American Foreign Service officer, moved to Jerusalem with his family. They settled in a small house, where young Kai could hear church bells and the Muslim call to prayer and watch as donkeys and camels competed with cars for space on the narrow streets. Each day on his way to school, Kai was driven through Mandelbaum Gate, where armed soldiers guarded the line separating Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem from Arab-controlled East. He had a front-seat view to both sides of a divided city—and the roots of the widening conflict between Arabs and Israelis.
Bird would spend much of his life crossing such lines—as a child in Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and later, as a young man in Lebanon. Crossing Mandelbaum Gate is his compelling personal history of growing up an American in the midst of three major wars and three turbulent decades in the Middle East. The Zelig-like Bird brings readers into such conflicts as the Suez War, the Six Day War of 1967, and the Black September hijackings in 1970 that triggered the Jordanian civil war. Bird vividly portrays such emblematic figures as the erudite George Antonius, author of The Arab Awakening; Jordan’s King Hussein; the Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled; Salem bin Laden, Osama’s older brother and a family friend; Saudi King Faisal; President Nasser of Egypt; and Hillel Kook, the forgotten rescuer of more than 100,000 Jews during World War II.
Bird, his parents sympathetic to Palestinian self-determination and his wife the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, has written a masterful and highly accessible book—at once a vivid chronicle of a life spent between cultures as well as a consummate history of a region in turmoil. It is an indispensable addition to the literature on the modern Middle East.
The New York Times
“Kai Bird has done the impossible, and written a wholly original book challenging both the conventional and unconventional wisdom about Israel, the Jews and the Middle East.” —Victor S. Navasky, author of Naming Names
“Kai Bird has stepped back from the dreaded Middle Eastern present to create a spellbinding portrait of an earlier time. He grew up on the seam between Arabs and Israelis, an American in the heyday of American innocence and power. He has not adorned that past, for he was there when the region’s current ordeal was hatched, but he has given a bittersweet rendition of a world now irretrievably gone. A beautiful memoir, and a supremely honest one.” —Professor Fouad Ajami, The School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University
“A wonderfully intimate account, which reminds us that the path to peace passes through the gate of personal narrative. We need not agree with Bird’s analysis to be moved by his story and allow it to help us walk through that gate.” —Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, author of You Don’t Have To Be Wrong for Me To Be Right
“A compelling hybrid of memoir and history… kaleidoscopic and captivating.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Bird’s acute and engaging memoir is a mournful recollection of a time when the single issue of Arab and Israeli, Muslim and Jew, was not the monotonously dominant theme that it has since become…. He is adroit, modest, ironic, and amusing… Bird puts me somewhat in mind of Edward Said’s memoir, Out of Place.”—Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic
“Illuminating . . . poignant . . . A fascinating book about a crucial period in the Middle East.”—Mike O’Connor, Washington Post
“The book rips along like a spy novel . . . [Bird] has succeeded in explaining the perspectives of two peoples who view the Middle East conflict through different lenses.”—Neil MacFarquhar, New York Times Book Review
“An extraordinarily rich and pleasurable memoir, a worthy addition to the literature of Middle Eastern ex-pats that ranges from Charles M. Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta to Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem . . . I simply could not put it down.”—Jonathan Kirsch, The Jewish Journal
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)
Read an Excerpt
On the eve of the Suez War in 1956, soon after we arrived, my father observed in a letter to his parents: “Once more we can cross freely through Mandelbaum Gate and once again every day we remark about the contrast between an energetically determined Israel and a stubborn, colorful and slowly progressing Jordan…. One side is willing and capable of doing the job. The other is still almost feudal, clannish and with a ‘baksheesh’ (personal charity approaching graft) mentality.”
My parents came to Jerusalem as blank slates.
My father and mother spent their formative years in Eugene, Oregon, a town of fewer than 20,000 people. Oddly enough, my father was named Eugene, although everyone called him “Bud.” The Great Depression hit his parents hard. My paternal grandparents had met in Montana, where they had laid claim to separate, neighboring tracts of land under the Homestead Act. For seven years they scratched out a living growing wheat, until its sinking market price forced them to sell the land and move to Oregon. During the Depression my grandfather worked for the local dairy in Eugene—owned by the family of the novelist Ken Kesey.
My father graduated from high school in 1943 and was lucky to be chosen by the Navy for officer training—and by the time he was commissioned, the war was over. He had known my mother, Jerine, in high school, but they didn’t start dating until after my mother’s fiancé died when his Navy ship was sunk in a Pacific typhoon. By then, Bud and Jerine were both enrolled at the University of Oregon.
My mother’s father, Chad Newhouse, had survived gassing in World War I, and spent his working life as an accountant and insurance salesman. His wife, Bernice Haines, worked for two decades at Quackenbushes, the local hardware-and-housewares store. I remember as a child marveling at the old-fashioned wire pulley contraption which the cashier used to send customers their change from a second-floor cage. Bernice—or “Bee,” as we called her—could remember a time when Indians on horseback still roamed the plains of eastern Washington where she grew up. Chad had a family Bible that had come across the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon.
They were all pretty ordinary, small-town Americans. They worked hard, and had very little money. My mother went to a Disciples of Christ church and sang in the choir. My father was raised a Christian Scientist. But in 1948 a Baptist minister married them in the Congregational church. After years of shopping around, they eventually became Episcopalians. I was born in Eugene on September 2, 1951. Father named me after Kai-Yu Hsu, a refugee from Communist China whom he had befriended at the University of Oregon. “Kai” means “mustard” in Mandarin Chinese, and “Kai-Yu” suggests someone who adds “spice” to life.
Father was boyishly handsome. When he grinned, he exposed his one physical flaw—the badly crooked teeth of an adolescent too poor to go to the orthodontist. In high school he had edited the school newspaper and joined a local chapter of the Sea Scouts, so he learned to sail on nearby lakes and up north in Puget Sound. When he began dating Jerine at the University of Oregon, he’d often take her out sailing—and bring along his best friend, Bob Naper, who later joined the CIA.
Jerine had that scrubbed, open-faced look of the 1940s, with wide, trusting eyes and brown curly locks. She had played the piano on the local Eugene radio station at the age of seven, and in her university days she regularly played the organ at her local church. She had lived in California as a young child, but that was the full extent of her travels until she married Bud—when he then took her to Stockholm on a year abroad for his graduate studies in history. My parents had nothing in their upbringing to prepare them for the Middle East.
After finishing his master’s in history at the University of Oregon in 1952, my father was awarded a Rockefeller Internship with the State Department. That autumn we moved to Washington, DC—and Father passed the Foreign Service exam. But by 1952 the Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy, had forced a hiring freeze at the State Department, charging that “pinkos” from Harvard and Yale had infiltrated the Foreign Service. Two years passed before Father was finally offered an appointment to the Foreign Service.
In the meantime, the Department had by sheer chance assigned him to serve his internship on the Israel-Jordan desk. He worked under a veteran Arabist, Donald Bergus. With fewer than 600 officers, the Foreign Service was an elite “old boy” institution, the civil service of the American foreign policy establishment. Most of Father’s colleagues were bluebloods from the East Coast: white, male and Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Many had been schooled at Phillips Exeter Academy or similar preparatory schools and had then attended an Ivy League college. And within this elite institution the area specialists, particularly those who specialized in difficult languages like Arabic, were a select group.
In the spring of 1956, Father was appointed vice-consul at the American consulate in the Jordanian-controlled part of Jerusalem. His job would be to handle visa and consular affairs for Americans visiting Jordan—and to report on the Jordanian monarchy’s activities in both Jerusalem and the West Bank. We would live among the Arabs of East Jerusalem. To his innocent eyes, Jerusalem was the Holy Land. He wrote home to his parents about the wonderment he felt walking the same streets where the historical Jesus had walked two thousand years earlier.
Father was young and filled with an innate optimism about the postwar world. Just before leaving for Jerusalem, he spent three days observing a meeting of the Security Council at the United Nations. After listening to the speeches with a headphone over his ears, he waxed philosophical in a letter home: “It seems to me the world is so closely linked together that there shouldn’t be any cause for war or even misunderstandings.” But then he saw evidence that this was not true: “Our little five-foot, mustachioed ambassador from Jordan refused to sit next to Israel’s ambassador, Abba Eban. He kept an empty seat between himself and the Jew at the conference table.”
At thirty-one, my father was garrulous and charmingly informal in manner. He was also very much a married man. “I know that I love you,” he wrote Jerine after his arrival in Jerusalem, “when there is a feeling of relief and a single sharp jab of joy when your letters are handed to me.” (He had gone ahead to find a house.) Mother hated to be separated from him, and her own letters could be equally passionate: “The love thoughts tumble out too quickly to capture with pen and paper. I can only say, I love you, lover.” In their few weeks of separation he complained about his “gay but monkish existence.” He was, in fact, a shameless extrovert. “This life is no place for one who does not thoroughly enjoy meeting people,” he warned my slightly more shy and sheltered mother. One evening after dinner at the Greek consul general’s home he played charades with a French newsman, a balding British diplomat and the widow of the man who earlier that spring had been hanged for the 1951 assassination of Jordan’s King Abdullah. “She is German,” Father wrote, “has adopted the Muslim religion, is thoroughly opportunistic, and apparently well liked…. She also is about the most seductive looking blonde one will encounter anywhere. I have placed on the shelf her kind offer to help me look for a house.” (Someone—presumably Mother—had underlined in pencil the words “on the shelf.”)
Even then, as a lowly vice-consul on his first posting, he took delight in crossing social boundaries. “The life here may seem hectic to you,” he warned Mother. “But if we can regulate ourselves to the slightly madcap atmosphere and refuse to be disturbed by rank consciousness—I am by far the best antidote against that this society has seen in a long while—nor by snippy old ladies and slinky young ones, it will be a charming existence.”
Mother arrived a few weeks later, bringing my little sister, Nancy, and me. The three of us flew from Washington, DC, to Beirut aboard a twenty-one-seat Pan American Airways DC-3, a propeller plane with a cruising speed of 180 miles per hour. After spending one night in Beirut, we boarded a smaller aircraft and flew into Jerusalem’s tiny Kalandia Airport. Every time a plane landed or took off, police had to stop the traffic on the road from Jerusalem to Kalandia because the runway crossed the road. Father met us with a consulate car and drove us to the American Colony Hostel, then a quaint bed-and-breakfast lodge in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Now it is a luxury boutique hotel and boasts the favored bar and restaurant for East Jerusalem’s expatriate community of diplomats and journalists.
The American Colony was our home that first summer of 1956 in Jerusalem. My earliest memories stem from this stone building and its rose garden. From that day to the present, the Colony has always been my Jerusalem. To live there was to partake of its history as a way station, a genteel expatriate haven in the midst of Arab Jerusalem. We had a two-bedroom suite with daily maid service and three meals a day delivered to our rooms—or we could eat in the Colony’s grand dining room. In the late afternoons and evenings dozens of expatriates and Palestinian intellectuals mingled in the “big salon,” sitting in overstuffed armchairs under an elaborate Damascene ceiling hand-painted with gold leaf. In the flagstone courtyard there was a water fountain surrounded by palm trees, potted plants, ivy geraniums and pungent jasmine.
This lovely courtyard remains one of the most serene spots in Jerusalem. A high rock wall stretched from Sheikh Jarrah all the way to Mandelbaum Gate, dividing the city. But from the second- and third-story windows of the American Colony one could gaze across an open field of no-man’s-land and into Israel. For some reason that summer the Israelis decided to clear a nearby minefield dating from the 1948 war. This meant blowing up as many as eighteen large antitank mines daily. On one occasion hot iron landed in the garden across the street.
The American Colony was run by Mrs. Bertha Spafford Vester, a seventy-eight-year-old American matriarch. The image of this formidable woman presiding over the Colony’s dinner table constitutes one of my earliest memories. Vester had come to Jerusalem in 1881, when she was three years old. Her father, Horatio Gates Spafford, a well-to-do lawyer from Chicago, had moved his family to Jerusalem, seeking a simple religious way of life. Together with sixteen other Americans and a handful of Swedish-American immigrants, the Spaffords founded what the local population came to call the American Colony. Their intent was to live a spare, austere life, sharing everything in common. They called themselves the Overcomers, and they believed the Second Coming of Christ was at hand. As evidence, they cited the increasing numbers of Jews then flocking to Palestine—in their view, a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy that the Jews would return to their land shortly before the Second Coming.
At that time, in the 1880s, the total population of Jerusalem was no more than 35,000, and nearly everyone lived inside the walled Old City, whose gates were closed at sunset and reopened at sunrise. By the turn of the century, the city had grown to about 50,000, of which a slight majority were Jews, with the remainder being evenly split between Christian and Muslim Arabs.
Though a Holy City to three major religions, Jerusalem was in reality a bleak, inhospitable stony landscape. Its harsh bright light reflected all that stone. When Herman Melville visited in 1857, he noted in his diary, “Stones to right and stones to left … stony tombs; stony hills & stony hearts.” In 1867 another visitor, Mark Twain, called Jerusalem “the knobbiest town in the world, except Constantinople.” Even the ancient olive trees, planted amid row after row of stone terraces, seem covered with limestone dust. Living conditions, moreover, were anything but pristine. Open sewers stank, garbage and filth lined the narrow stone streets, and most of the city’s residents lived in cramped and squalid quarters.
Still, at the beginning of the last century Jerusalem’s skyline must have been magnificent. Every rooftop appeared to have at least one and sometimes as many as a half-dozen dirty white plastered domes made of stone. Seen from the east, from atop Mount Scopus, the Old City gleamed not only with its gray-white city walls but also from the golden hue of the seventhcentury Dome of the Rock and the turquoise tiles of the shrine’s octagonal outer walls. Outside the city walls, in the valley of Gethsemane, sat a Russian Orthodox church with its distinctive onion-shaped domes. Elsewhere on the stony skyline stood Christian bell towers, Muslim minarets and the arched remnants of ancient Roman and Crusader ruins.
The Spaffords rented a large home just inside the Old City. They opened a butcher shop, a bakery, a metal shop and a photographic business. The Colony was run as a Protestant commune. By the turn of the century, it was home to more than 120 men, women and children. Eventually, the community bought a cluster of handsome stone houses at 26 Nablus Road, about a half mile north of Damascus Gate. A wealthy merchant, Rabah al-Husseini, had built the main property in the years 1865-1876. Husseini and his four wives occupied the two-story mansion until his death in the 1890s. The Husseini clan then leased, and later sold, the property to the Spaffords.
By then, the Spaffords and their American Colony had become an integral part of Jerusalem’s social and political life. It was neutral ground, the one place in the city where intellectuals and clerics of any creed might meet with other Christian sects or Palestinian Muslims or Jews. Over the decades the Colony organized numerous charitable ventures, including an orphanage and hospital in the Old City. In 1920 an American reporter described the colony as: “A noble band of American men and women [living in] a lonely outpost of American civilization in a strange far-off land …” The Spaffords’ daughter, Bertha, married another member of the Colony, Frederick Vester—a German-Swiss national born in Palestine.
In the 1920s Bertha Vester took control of the Colony and, distancing herself from her parents’ idiosyncratic religious views and the messianic outlook in which she had been raised, focused instead on “good deeds.” Bertha would wield enormous influence over Jerusalem society throughout the following decades.
In the early years, the Overcomers had strong and diverse ties to Jerusalem’s Jewish community. Indeed, their religious millennialism made them early promoters of the Zionist dream of a Jewish homecoming—though, of course, they also believed, like today’s Christian Zionists, that the Jews would have to convert to Christianity to be saved when Christ arrived. Horatio Spafford often visited the Western Wall (or “Wailing Wall”), and encouraged various rabbis to drop by the Colony’s “Big House” to discuss religion. One frequent nonrabbinical visitor was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the Jewish scholar who spent decades creating a lexicon for modern spoken Hebrew. But gradually the American Colony and its social milieu became critical of the Zionist project, objecting to its “self-segregation.” Why, the second-generation Vesters would ask, are the Zionists building hospitals, schools and welfare agencies to which only Jews are welcome?
By the end of World War I, the Vesters had converted part of the Colony into a refined “hostel” where distinguished visitors to the Holy Land sought lodging. T. E. Lawrence, Field Marshal Lord Allenby, Lowell Thomas, Gertrude Bell, John D. Rockefeller and many others spent time in the Colony. It only ceased to be a religious community in the early 1950s, and thereafter Bertha Spafford Vester ran it as an upscale boutique hotel, catering to wealthy American and European tourists.
I remember her as a kindly but formidable old woman. She had an unabashedly dominating personality—which perhaps explains why she appeared not once but twice on the television show This Is Your Life. She was a “brooch lady,” meaning her dresses were invariably adorned with intricate silver or gold brooches. She wore her stark white hair in a Victorian-style bun. Everyone deferred to her loud, striking voice. Bright, blue-eyed and a clever conversationalist, Mrs. Vester rarely hesitated to speak her mind. She liked my parents and frequently invited us to go swimming in an old sugarmill pond, a rock quarry-like structure that she owned near Jericho.
In 1948, just eight years before we arrived in Jerusalem, the road outside the American Colony had been the scene of a horrific massacre. Bertha Vester wrote about it in her possessively titled memoir, Our Jerusalem, published in 1950. Every expatriate living in Jerusalem in those years inevitably had a copy, and I know my parents read and admired the book. “After the Deir Yassin massacre [of April 9],” Mrs. Vester wrote, “the Arabs became frantic and on April 13 attacked a convoy going to the Hadassah Hospital. The road passes the American Colony and about one hundred and fifty insurgents, armed with weapons varying from blunderbusses and old flintlocks to modern Sten and Bren guns, took cover behind a cactus patch in the grounds of the American Colony. Their faces were distorted by hate and the lust for revenge. They were blind and deaf and fearless; only one obsession dominated them. I went out and faced them. I said the American Colony had served them for more than sixty years. Was this our reward? I told them…. ‘To fire from the shelter of the American Colony is the same as firing from a mosque or a church.’ … Some of the men listened for a minute and then threatened to shoot me if I did not go away. I said, ‘Shoot me if you want to, but I must protest against your using the grounds of the American Colony as a cover.’”
The insurgents turned their backs on Vester and resumed firing on the Jewish convoy. The ambush had begun at 9:30 a.m., when a convoy of two ambulances, two cars, several trucks carrying medical supplies and foodstuffs, and three buses inched their way through Sheikh Jarrah. The windows of the buses were covered with metal plates to deter sniper fire. Aboard were 112 doctors, nurses, professors and students bound for Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. Most were unarmed. As the convoy rolled past the villa owned by Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, a land mine exploded under the lead vehicle. Simultaneously, the convoy was hit by a hail of gunfire from both sides of the road. Grenades and Molotov cocktails were thrown. A few vehicles escaped, but most of the convoy was trapped. And even though British military forces were stationed just two hundred yards down the road, they did nothing to stop the slaughter. The Palestinian insurgents went on firing for six hours. Around 3:00 p.m. they succeeded in dousing two of the armored buses with gasoline; the buses caught fire, burning alive the few remaining survivors. Seventy-seven Jews were killed that day. Among them were prominent medical doctors, a physicist, a professor of psychology, a scholar of Jewish law and a well-known linguist. This murderous ambush of unarmed doctors and scholars would not be forgotten.
As a boy I was unaware of this tragedy that had taken place on my doorstep. When I was five to six years old, a similar convoy of Israeli armored buses and personnel carriers rolled past the American Colony every other Wednesday on its way to resupply Mount Scopus. The adults around me always stared nervously at the convoy; they knew what had happened on this road. I only remember feeling oddly frightened by the eyes of the drivers as they peered through the slits of their armored windows.
There was some sort of awful explanation for what the Palestinians had done that day. Only four days earlier, on the morning of April 9, 1948, a force of some 130 Jewish insurgents, members of two radically militant Zionist factions, the Stern Gang and the Irgun, had attacked the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, just three miles west of Jerusalem. Machine gunners from the Haganah provided cover fire as the Stern and Irgun forces stormed the village. According to Israeli accounts, “the conquest of the village was carried out with great cruelty. Whole families—women, old people, children—were killed, and there were piles of dead.” One Israeli intelligence officer, Mordechai Gichon, visited the village six hours later and reported the next day, “The adult males were taken to town in trucks and paraded in the city streets, then taken back to the site and killed with rifle and machinegun fire.” Scholars today estimate that over a hundred Palestinians were killed that day. But at the time, the figure of 254 killed was circulated by both Jewish and Arab sources. In any case, news of the massacre was publicized widely—and persuaded thousands of frightened Palestinians to flee their homes in succeeding weeks.
I grew up knowing that Deir Yassin was a rallying cry among Palestinians. And, of course, every Israeli schoolchild is taught to remember the massacre of the seventy-seven Jews killed in the convoy to Mount Scopus. A monument to the victims now stands just down the road from the American Colony.
After living in the American Colony for nearly two months, we shifted temporarily to a “dingy little apartment” in West Jerusalem, “furnished with frogs, cracked bowls and a Philco refrigerator.” Only on September 11, 1956, did we finally move to permanent quarters. Our new home was a half mile from the American Colony, in the Sheikh Jarrah district of East Jerusalem, on a hill overlooking the stretch of “no-man’s-land” that bordered Israelicontrolled Mount Scopus. (Sheikh Jarrah takes its name from a mosque named after Saladin’s surgeon.)
Ours was a small house, newly built of Jerusalem’s famous gleaming white limestone, hand-chipped into rough-hewn rectangular blocks. “Jerusalem is built in heaven,” so goes a medieval hymn, “of Living Stone.” And in fact, when the British arrived in 1917, they quickly mandated that all new housing had to be constructed of this chalky white stone, mined from a local quarry. Even in 1956 this law was still being observed on both sides of divided Jerusalem.
“We love our house,” Mother wrote home to Oregon. The front porch was glassed in, and both the small living room and the dining room had a fireplace. We had sea-shipped from the States virtually all of our furniture, including beds, bureaus, a sofa and a dining room table Father had built himself from two hollow plywood doors. Mother had bought a new refrigerator, a stove and a washing machine in Washington and added these appliances to the shipment. She had been forced to take out a loan from the State Department credit union to pay for them. Contrary to Father’s instructions, however, the sea shipment landed at Tel Aviv instead of Beirut, necessitating long negotiations with both the Israelis and the Jordanians on how to transport the goods to East Jerusalem. Normally, no large trucks were allowed to cross Mandelbaum Gate—the one heavily guarded passageway from Israelicontrolled West Jerusalem into Jordaniancontrolled East Jerusalem. After considerable delay, the Israelis agreed that the large wooden packing crate could be trucked to the Gate, where it was opened, and porters were allowed to carry its contents piece by piece into East Jerusalem.
Oddly, the house never had a phone. And during Jerusalem’s cold, damp winters it was heated by the fireplaces and by small portable kerosene space heaters that we moved from room to room. Mother bought cheap Damascus brocade in the Old City’s souk to make drapes for the house’s fourteen windows. She was delighted to learn that she could borrow a shiny black upright piano from the consulate. With a piano in the house, it felt to her truly like home.
My parents slept in the master bedroom, with its balcony that overlooked Mount Scopus. My sister, Nancy, and I shared the only other bedroom. From the roof terrace one could also see the Mount of Olives and the imposing tower of Augusta Victoria Hospice, a massive structure atop Mount Scopus, built by the German Kaiser at great expense from 1906 to 1910 and modeled after some picture-perfect medieval castle. In our back garden there was an ancient Roman cistern.
Mother was upbraided by other consular wives for refusing to have more than one servant (plus the part-time gardener who came with the house). Most diplomatic households were staffed with a cook, a maid, a gardener and a nanny. Mother thought such a bevy of servants was somehow un-American. Father reported to a friend, “My wife and one other American here have declared war on having servants or light conversation only at cocktail parties.”
At least part of the problem, truth to tell, was that Mother couldn’t afford servants on Father’s annual salary of $4,200 (about $33,000 a year in today’s dollars). But eventually she hired a cook named Youssef, who often slept on a cot under the back stairwell. Mother didn’t think much of his cooking, but he was honest and completely reliable. He did much of the shopping in the vegetable market in the Old City and helped with the laundry—though hanging the laundry out to dry was beneath his station. More importantly, he could be on duty in the evenings when my parents were often out on the cocktail and dinner-party circuit. We paid him 42 Jordanian dinars, or about $42, per month.
Scorpions were everywhere. One day my mother discovered a rather large, four-inch-long one in my bedroom. The gardener was called, and I remember watching with astonishment as this white-haired old man stomped on it with his callused bare foot. Thereafter, Mother placed tin cans filled with kerosene beneath the legs of each bed—to discourage scorpions from climbing into the beds. I learned to be always on the lookout for the little creatures. Each morning I knocked my shoes on the floor to make sure nothing had crawled inside.
Jerusalem in those years was a small town that echoed with the braying of donkeys, the ringing of church bells and the Muslim call to prayer. We awoke every morning to the sounds of roosters crowing and dogs barking. I gawked whenever camels strolled down the street, carrying loads of wood. Flocks of sheep and goats grazed on the surrounding brown hills. In the evenings, as the sunset’s last rays reflected off Mount Scopus, we could often glimpse a few armed Israelis patrolling the perimeters of Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital—built in 1938 and now abandoned. If we looked carefully, we could also make out the three domes atop the hospital’s entrance.
Our rented house was a stone’s throw from the 1949 armistice line, and Mount Scopus was but an island of Jewish property in a sea of Arab territory, patrolled by Israeli police under the nominal command of a United Nations chief of staff. But, in violation of the armistice, the Israelis refused to allow this U.N. official to inspect the grounds. Mount Scopus conveniently overlooked all the roads leading from Jordan into East Jerusalem, so the Israelis were eager to assert de facto sovereignty over the strategic hill. Much to the annoyance of both the Jordanians and the United Nations, the Israelis were constantly observed digging trenches, building sandbagged foxholes and smuggling in small arms.
On some nights I could hear the random, not-so-distant tapping of machine-gun fire. “War and rumors of war seem to be the habit around here,” my father wrote, “and waking up in the night to hear rifle fire is almost an every night occurrence.” That first summer several United Nations “blue helmet” observers were wounded by sniper fire—whether from Israeli or Jordanian shooters was unknown. My parents gave standing instructions to Youssef that in their absence—and in the event of heavy firing—he should place my little sister, Nancy, and me inside the bathtub.
One evening my parents arrived for dinner at the British consul general’s home just as a machine-gun battle erupted near Mandelbaum Gate. “I don’t know whether we should be coming or going,” stammered my mother. The consul general ushered them inside and then went to his telephone—the only open telephone line to West Jerusalem. “I say, old boy,” he said to his Israeli counterpart, “your chaps are shooting at our chaps over here. Could you call this off?” Remarkably, a few minutes later the firing ceased.
Some evenings my father would haul out his heavy night-vision Navy binoculars and peer up at Mount Scopus. Often he could see Israeli “police” digging trenches. Late at night he sometimes heard the drone of a small one-engine airplane flying overhead and soon afterwards would spot parachutes drifting down to the grounds of Hadassah Hospital. In violation of the armistice, the Israelis were resupplying their troops in the enclave.
Oddly enough, in these uncertain circumstances the Israelis maintained a small zoo up on Mount Scopus, which they called the Biblical Zoo, featuring animals mentioned in the Torah. Most of them had been relocated in 1948, but for some reason a lion was left behind. So the convoy to Mount Scopus always included food for him—the carcass of a mule. We knew when it was time for the convoy because from across the ravine in no-man’s-land we could hear the roar of a hungry lion.
Initially, my parents felt overwhelmed by Jerusalem society. “I think we are the most common clods,” he wrote to his former history professor at the University of Oregon, “to penetrate the stratums of Arab and Israeli society in some time.” But in time, they entertained or went out nearly every night. “I have never seen such a small big town before,” he wrote. “The eligible society is restricted to about 150 people of all shades, including some questionably fascinating ones. As one handsome young Greek advised me, ‘You must acquire a reputation, any reputation at all.’ “
Soon after arriving in Jerusalem, Father was introduced to Katy Antonius, a formidable woman and certainly one of East Jerusalem’s “eligible 150.” He described her as “something out of Eliot’s Cocktail Party…. she is gossipy, easy to charm and thoroughly affected.” A Greek Orthodox of Lebanese and Egyptian descent, Katy was the widow of George Antonius, a King’s College—educated intellectual and Arab nationalist whose 1938 book The Arab Awakening had seduced at least two generations of American diplomats. I was to read it when I was fifteen, and later use it as the primary inspiration for a high school senior-year essay on Palestine. It convinced me, as it had my father, that the Palestinian cause was just, legitimate—and terribly misunderstood in the West. The book and the author’s widow were to color our family’s outlook on the Middle East for years to come.
But before Father had even read the book, or had a chance to charm Katy, he committed a calculated faux pas. Seizing the occasion to “acquire a reputation,” he purposefully addressed Mrs. Antonius by her first name. Katy publicly reprimanded him, calling him “cheeky.”
Father’s boss advised him to write a formal letter of apology. He did so, but in his own way. “Cheeky may express it well,” he wrote Antonius. And then he related how in 1950 on his first trip to Europe, “I learned aboard ship about a Swedish social requirement that everyone be addressed by their formal titles and last names—until the oldest person asked the younger person’s first name. I was told this while playing bridge with another, older couple, and immediately inquired the first name of the lady. We all laughed and the story was worn threadbare by my wife … my sincerest apologies for being presumptuous. I could hardly wish to offend the widow of a man who has made such a major contribution to our understanding of Arabia.”
Katy must have been charmed, because soon she allowed him to call upon her at her home, where he “had a merry time apologizing to her. We drank tea and chatted for two-and-a-half hours and she is forever my friend.” Thereafter, we spent many hours in her home, part of which she later turned into an upscale restaurant-cum-salon. She called it the Katakeet—named after a gossip column that appeared under that title in a local newspaper. Everyone read Katakeet, and often Katy herself was both the source and the subject of the gossip. “Katy was naughty,” recalled another old Jerusalemite. “She was curious about everything. She would start gossip; she was always bringing people together, matching people up. In a small community of 60,000 she was known by reputation to everyone.”
Initially, Katy was unimpressed by my mother, and candidly told Father that she didn’t understand why he had married that “brown wren.” She changed her mind when Mother showed that she too had strong opinions. Katy became a frequent dinner guest and one of my parents’ best friends in Jerusalem. The daughter of Dr. Faris Nimr Pasha, a well-known Egyptian newspaper proprietor, she had been nurtured in Alexandria’s upper-class society. She spoke fluent French and English. “Katy Antonius was an intelligent, bright, and witty woman, full of humor and charm,” said another Jerusalemite, Anwar Nusseibeh. “[She was] always up-to-date on the intricacies of political events, pretty, good-hearted, and generous.” She had founded an orphanage in the Old City, called Dar al-Awlad (House of Boys), and she regularly invited some of these boys to her parties. Interestingly, one such boy was the then thirteen-year-old Awad Mubarak, who later became an American-trained child psychologist and an advocate of nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation. (He was deported by the Israelis in May 1988—six months after the start of the first Intifada, Arabic for “shaking off.”) Katy mentored young Mubarak as a boy, telling him that “people are people, and there is no reason to fear them or their rank.” Mubarak later recalled being astonished to hear Katy, as if to prove her point, loudly cursing Jordan’s King Hussein for his treatment of the Palestinians.
Katy was a character, part dragon-lady and part flirt. She was always smartly dressed in the latest fashions and often wore a string of pearls. Her black hair was cut fairly short and boasted a distinctive white streak.
Her parties were elaborate affairs. “Evening dress, Syrian food and drink, and dancing on the marble floor,” wrote the English writer and politician Richard Crossman after attending an Antonius dinner. “It is easy to see why the British prefer the Arab upper class to the Jews. This Arab intelligentsia has a French culture, amusing, civilized, tragic and gay. Compared with them the Jews seem tense, bourgeois, central European.”
As befitted the widow of George Antonius, Katy was a fierce partisan on behalf of her fellow Arabs, and she hated what the Jewish immigrants had done to her Palestine. In 1946–47, at a time when the British were trying to arrest and hang Jewish terrorists belonging to the Irgun and the Stern Gang, Katy’s lover was General Sir Evelyn Barker, whose job it was to stamp out these violent Zionist factions. He had fallen in love with Katy at one of her Jerusalem soirees. We know this today because Katy kept his voluminous love letters until one day in 1948 when Israeli soldiers stormed her house in West Jerusalem. Before blowing the house apart, the Israelis retrieved Barker’s letters and stored them in Israel’s state archives. They reveal a man deeply in love—but also one consumed with hatred for the Jews. “Katy, I love you so much, Katy,” Barker wrote. “Just think of all this life and money being wasted for these bloody Jews. Yes I loathe the lot—whether they be Zionists 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.”
Katy may not have shared Barker’s anti-Semitism, but she was beyond doubt bitterly anti-Zionist. “Before the Jewish state,” she later remarked, “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.”
Jerusalem was very much a divided city. A jarring series of ad hoc fences, walls and bails of barbed wire, running like an angry, jagged scar from north to south, separated East Jerusalem from West. Driving anywhere near the armistice line often meant running into signs in Hebrew, English and Arabic, reading, “STOP! DANGER! FRONTIER AHEAD!”
Often Father had to cross over to what we called “the other side.” And if he was delayed, there was no way he could phone my mother. The Birds socialized on both sides of the armistice line. Father commented on the “strange awkwardness of parties held first on one side among the Jews and then on the other among the Arabs.” And whichever side he was on, he had to be careful not to speak too freely of friends across the line. He also wrote home about the stereotypes: “The charm and eloquent sincerity of the Arab character, the quick intelligence and clever stratagems of the Israeli….”
As a five-year-old, I observed the events around me with innocent eyes. One evening we were invited to a dinner party at the American Colony, and I overheard an elderly American heiress announce that she would give a million dollars to anyone who could solve this Arab-Israeli conflict. I promptly tugged on my father’s sleeve and said, “Daddy, we have to win this prize.”
I was keenly aware of the conflict. Once in October 1956, my mother overheard me 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.” And around the same time Father wrote about me to a friend: “Outside of an occasional ‘Shalom’ instead of ‘Ma’assalama’ on this side, Kai seems to know these two peoples are somehow different. He told Raja Elissa at the party the other night that he ‘went to school on the other side’ with a big grin. Everyone roared.”
To get to West Jerusalem one had to cross no-man’s-land, passing through Mandelbaum Gate, the heavily guarded passageway from East to West Jerusalem. The “gate” took its name from a house that once stood on the spot, built by a family of Jewish immigrants from Byelorussia. I crossed through the Gate nearly every day, past the barbed wire and the cone-shaped antitank barriers. Men with guns stood guard. The skeletal remains of armored personnel carriers and rusting tanks lay about as constant reminders of lost lives and past conflicts. “Mandelbaum Gate” was a phrase I heard every day, but I knew nothing of its history.
Simchoh Mandelbaum and Esther Liba Mandelbaum came to Jerusalem in the late nineteenth century—and their story is emblematic of the Jewish experience in Palestine. Both Simchoh and Esther were the offspring of rabbis, and Simchoh spent much of his life studying the Torah. The couple had ten children, all born in the Old City. To support their large family the Mandelbaums opened a stocking shop; Esther worked the looms, weaving the stockings, while Simchoh colored them in several large wooden vats of dye. They became known as the “stockinged couple.”
Over the years, they outgrew their cramped house in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, and Simchoh decided to buy a plot of land on which to build a new home. One day he inspected a parcel of barren land outside the northern wall of the Old City. Seeing a metallic glint, he bent down and picked up an ancient coin. It was engraved with a cluster of grapes on one side, while on the other were inscribed the Hebrew words “For the liberation of Jerusalem.” A local curator told him the coin dated back to the time of the Second Jewish Revolt, when the messianic Jewish general Simon Bar-Kochba briefly reestablished a Jewish state in the years AD 132–135. Simchoh thought this a good omen. His friends, to be sure, were telling him he could make more money if he moved his stocking business to Jaffa Street in the growing New City. But according to family lore, Simchoh refused: “If I don’t buy it, non-Jews will come along and purchase the lot and build houses all along the road up to the hospital at Har Hatzofim, and will close in around Mea Shearim and Botei Ungarin [two Jewish districts in Jerusalem]. But if other people see that I bought a lot here, they will come too, and Jewish settlement will spread north.” Determined to perform what he considered a mitzvah (good deed) for his people, Simchoh built his three-story house out of white Jerusalem stone, and it became a visible landmark at the end of Shmuel Hanovi Street. The Mandelbaum household was soon filled with grandchildren, and the family stocking business branched out into the weaving of fine linens and blankets. But instead of attracting Jewish neighbors, Mandelbaum House became a sometimes embattled Jewish outpost. The local Waqf—a Muslim religious charity—owned much of the neighboring land and refused to sell any of it to Jews. By the late 1920s the tensions between the two communities were at a breaking point.
When, in August 1929, Arab rioters went on a rampage, Mandelbaum House was used by the Haganah Jewish militia to turn back the mob at what was becoming a dividing line between the New (Jewish) City and Arab Jerusalem. The American reporter Vincent Sheean wrote that he was shocked by “the ferocity of the Arab anger.” Over a period of three days some 133 Jews were killed throughout Palestine, 17 alone in Jerusalem. British police and Jews in turn killed 116 Arabs, many in self-defense.
The worst massacre occurred well outside of Jerusalem, in the West Bank town of Hebron, where an Arab mob formed after photographs were distributed supposedly showing the Dome of the Rock shrine in Jerusalem destroyed by a bomb. The photographs were fake. But the mob brutally murdered sixty-seven Hebron Jews, people whose families had lived there for generations. The sole British police officer in Hebron, Assistant District Superintendent Raymond Cafferata, witnessed an Arab cutting off the head of a Jewish child. He shot him in the groin. Cafferata later testified that he and his small Arab police force had fired their guns into the crowd, but the mob broke through their lines and began attacking the homes of Jews. The most horrific atrocity took place in the home of Eliezer Dan Slonim, the manager of the local English-Palestine bank. Slonim was also the sole Jewish member of the Hebron Municipal Council, and he had many friends in the Arab community. Often on a rainy winter evening, some of Hebron’s leading sheikhs had stopped by to play chess and drink coffee in the warmth of the Slonim home. Indeed, Slonim was so confident that the local Arab elders would protect him that the previous day he had refused the Haganah’s offer to store weapons in his home. When the mob broke through his door, Slonim was the first to die, butchered with knives. His wife, Hannah, and their son, Aaron, were also stabbed to death, along with nineteen other Jews who had sought refuge in Slonim’s home.
A day later a Dutch-born Canadian journalist, Pierre van Paassen, described the scene: “We found the twelve-foot-high ceiling splashed with blood. The rooms looked like a slaughterhouse … the blood stood in a huge pool on the slightly sagging stone floor of the house. Clocks, crockery, tables and windows had been smashed to smithereens. Of the unlooted articles, not a single item had been left intact except a large black-and-white photograph of Dr. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism. Around the picture’s frame the murderers had draped the blood-drenched underwear of a woman.”
Afterwards, the British forced the remaining Jewish community, numbering several hundred, to evacuate Hebron. They would not return permanently until 1967. The Hebron massacre made headlines around the world and severely traumatized the Yishuv—the Hebrew term for Israel’s pre-1948 Jewish settlements in Palestine.
Hebron was gruesome, undeniable evidence that Arab anger over the growing Yishuv posed a deep existential threat to the entire Zionist enterprise. The fact that one of the earliest victims was Slonim, a moderate Zionist who had believed in the possibility of Arab-Jewish dialogue, only strengthened the political hand of the hard-line Revisionist Zionists, who argued that Palestine would have to be conquered and the Arabs expelled.
Moderate voices were being silenced on both sides. The 1929 riots had begun in Jerusalem when wild rumors began circulating to the effect that a Jewish group was planning to take over the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount (the Haram al-Sharif). In fact, in mid-August several hundred members of a radical Zionist group calling itself the Committee for the Western Wall—together with members of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionist youth organization, Betar—staged a march on the Western Wall. Escorted by British police, the group arrived at this sacred site shouting “The Wall is ours” and singing “Hatikvah,” the Zionist anthem:
Our hope is not yet lost The hope of two thousand years.
To be a free people in our land The land of Zion and Jerusalem.
This demonstration provoked a counterdemonstration the next day sponsored by the Supreme Muslim Council. Jewish worshippers at the Wall were assaulted, and some prayer books were burned. The following day a Jewish boy was knifed and killed during an argument at a soccer field, and his funeral turned into a political demonstration. Tensions built until the following Friday when thousands of Arab youth from surrounding villages swarmed onto the Haram al-Sharif for Friday prayers. When rumors flew that two Arabs had been killed by Jews, the worshippers began picking up sticks and stones and proceeded to attack Jewish targets in the Old City. The ensuing riots established a predictable pattern: Arab anger at Jewish encroachments on their land—usually via quiet purchases of land from absentee landlords—would spark an incident on the Temple Mount, followed by another round of violence.
During a later Arab uprising in 1936–39, Mandelbaum House was once again used by the Haganah as a military outpost. By then Esther Mandelbaum was a widow, but she let the Haganah hide weapons in her linen closet. In the spring of 1948 Arab snipers, perched on rooftops in neighboring Sheikh Jarrah, routinely targeted the house. Esther was forced to flee, and the Haganah turned it into a frontline fortress.
On April 14, 1948, Jordanian Legionnaires mounted a major assault on the house. A tremendous explosion finally brought it down, killing thirty-five Haganah soldiers. “I remember that day well,” recounts Simchoh Mandelbaum, a grandson of Esther’s. “We had left just three days earlier, and since then the house had been captured by Legion forces and recaptured by us four times…. It was hard to absorb the fact that 35 Jews had met a terrible death there in the house where we had been born and lived a rich childhood.” Although most of the house was flattened, part of a stone archway—the front garden gate—and three walls with arched windows remained standing. For the next nineteen years this grim ruin served as a symbol of the divided city. Just days after East Jerusalem was conquered by Israeli troops in June 1967, Israeli bulldozers obliterated the site. The Israelis wanted nothing to remain of that symbol of division.
In 1956, Father’s office in the American consulate was but a stone’s throw from Mandelbaum Gate, so it was he who often drove me to school. The “gate” did not open until eight each morning, and since school began at eight, I was always a few minutes late. The few private cars with crossing privileges had to use license plates from someplace other than either Israel or Jordan—ours carried Oregon plates. The “gate” was not really a gate but rather two roadblocks manned by armed soldiers standing behind sandbags. These checkpoints were separated by a stretch of rough cobblestone, pockmarked by ugly cement cones that stood three feet high and served as tank traps. Rolls of barbed wire extended along the road for several hundred meters, separating Israelicontrolled West Jerusalem from Jordaniancontrolled East Jerusalem. The no-man’s-land between the two was like an ugly scar of abandoned streets and ruined buildings, dividing East from West, Israeli from Arab. Military engineers from both sides mined and periodically re-mined this gash running through the city.
Mandelbaum Gate was the chief focal point of “incidents.” It was where Palestinians often tried to cross the “Green Line”—the 1949 armistice line—and where Arabs, Israelis and U.N. observers were frequently wounded or killed. In the early years after the 1948 war the Green Line was porous and brittle. Trespassing was a daily occurrence. The Israeli historian Benny Morris estimates that from 1949 to 1954 there were 10,000 to 15,000 incidents annually. By 1956 this figure had fallen to 6,000–7,000 each year.
Initially at least, many incidents were minor. Although some infiltrators were thieves or smugglers, the majority were Palestinians trying to smuggle themselves back to their former homes and, most often, farmers attempting to harvest crops from their ancestral lands. The armistice line meandered quite arbitrarily through some 300 miles of fields and villages. Often the line cut off villagers from their olive groves or wheat fields, and Palestinian peasants were driven by sheer economic necessity to cross over and harvest their fields. A Palestinian would sneak across the Green Line at night, steal a cow from a kibbutz, and herd it back across the line. Invariably, the Israelis reacted with force. And so, as the years went by, some young men came armed with knives or guns, intent on killing the first Israeli they encountered. Some 200 Israeli civilians and scores of Israeli soldiers were killed in sporadic attacks, usually carried out by one or two infiltrators. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) always responded with retaliatory raids, which became increasingly bloody.
United Nations observers were authorized to investigate each incident, often an impossible task. One such observer, Commander E. H. Hutchison—a friend of my parents—wrote a small book recounting his growing frustrations. Hutchison tells the story of a young Israeli woman who was abducted and then found in a cave a mile from the Jordanian armistice line. She had been raped and murdered, and her face cruelly mutilated. The Israelis believed that one or more Palestinian infiltrators from the village of Beit Jalla were responsible. Several weeks later an Israeli commando team crossed the armistice line and attacked three houses in Beit Jalla with bombs, hand grenades and Sten guns. A young couple was killed in one house, a pregnant woman was shot in another (she survived, her fetus died) and in the third house a mother and her four children were killed by machine-gun fire and grenade fragments. The Israelis left behind rose-colored Arabic-language leaflets stating that “persons from Beit Jalla killed a young Jewish woman near Beit Vaghan after committing against her a crime that will never be expiated. What we have done here now is recompense for this horrendous crime—we can never remain silent when it comes to criminals. There will always be arrows in our quivers for the likes of these. Let those who would know, beware.” No one ever stood trial, either for the murder of the Israeli woman or for the murders in Beit Jalla.
I saw lots of guns on both sides of Mandelbaum Gate. One afternoon Youssef, the gardener at the consulate, took Father to visit his home in nearby Silwan. After serving him a Turkish coffee, Youssef proudly showed him his stash of rifles—rusty old English Enfields—“just in case,” he said, “something happens.”
Between 1949 and 1956, at least 2,700 Palestinian infiltrators—and perhaps as many as 5,000—were killed by the IDF. A majority of these were unarmed young men. Though the term was not then employed, this lowlevel conflict had some of the characteristics of what might be called today an intifada.
Aside from diplomats and United Nations personnel, only a few foreign dignitaries and religious leaders were allowed to cross the armistice lines. On rare occasions, the Jordanians reluctantly issued permits for tourists to cross Mandelbaum Gate—but only in one direction. No tourist could enter Jordan if they had an Israeli visa stamp in their passport. It was as if Israel were a figment of the imagination. Indeed, the code word for Israel among American diplomats in East Jerusalem was “Dixieland.” So Father would sometimes come home from work and casually say, “Oh, tomorrow I have to cross over to Dixieland.” The American consulate posted a sign on the Israeli side of Mandelbaum Gate, warning unwary tourists, “In crossing the lines from the Jewish-held section of Jerusalem to the Arab-held, you are advised to be close-mouthed and as non-committal as possible about what you’ve been doing in Israel. Also carry with you as few souvenirs of obvious Israeli origin as convenient. The Arab authorities do not appreciate any evidence of pro-Israel sympathy on your part. Remember, the Arabs and Israelis are still technically at war.”
Despite their proximity, the two peoples had virtually no interaction with each other. And oddly enough, though they were technically at war, each side demonstrated little curiosity about the other. After passing through the gate, few people questioned us about what life was like on the other side. Israelis lived as if they inhabited their own universe instead of a sliver of the Levant. One morning, while passing through Mandelbaum Gate, my father struck up a conversation with one of the Israeli guards. When he mentioned that the 1948 refugees lived in tents, the guard was incredulous: “They’re still living in tents?”
My daily journey to school required crossing through the checkpoints of Mandelbaum Gate, where a large blue-and-white United Nations flag flapped in the wind. The “gate” was monitored by U.N. soldiers, with their distinctive blue berets tilted on their heads. Crossing west, one came first to the Jordanian checkpoint. Armed with rifles, their muzzles pointed lazily in our direction, King Hussein’s men would inspect my father’s distinctive black diplomatic passport and then quickly scan the inside of the car and trunk. The Israeli checkpoint was always more difficult. The young Israeli soldiers were ever alert and bristled with nervous energy. There was nothing cursory about their inspection of our diplomatic passports or the car. This was the everyday routine, coming and going. Everyone was considered a potential threat.
One particular afternoon late in the summer of 1956, we passed the first checkpoint without incident, but as we approached the Israeli soldiers, I felt a sudden rush of panic. “Stop, Daddy, stop,” I shouted. My father turned to see his five-year-old son clutching his T-shirt, tugging at a button he had been given by a Palestinian playmate. My memory is that it was a button with an image of Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, an immensely popular figure in East Jerusalem at the time but an enemy of Israel. The Israelis would surely have ignored such a button pinned to the shirt of a small boy. But with the naive clarity of a five-year-old, I was sure that the button and its political message made me a target, as if I were a Palestinian infiltrator trying to slip by.
When there were “incidents,” Mandelbaum Gate might suddenly be closed by one side or the other. At one point in the autumn of 1956 I told our neighbor that I wasn’t going to school anymore—“unless we could talk the guards at the gate into letting us through.”
My earliest childhood playmate was a neighbor, Dani Bahar, a sandybrown-haired little boy with hazel eyes.* I played with Dani every day, and through the years we have remained friends. Dani’s father, Mahmoud Bahar, was the youngest son of a large Muslim Palestinian clan that had lived in Jerusalem for generations. Dani’s mother, Frieda, had been reared in an observant Jewish home in Gdansk and Berlin. Theirs was a most unusual marriage. But if rare, such interfaith marriages between Jews and Muslims were not unheard of prior to the creation of Israel. A number of prominent Palestinian families in Jerusalem—including the wealthy Nashashibi clan—had Jewish daughters-in-law. All of these relationships dated to a time when Jews still mingled in Palestinian society—a time when an Arab might see a Jewish doctor or shop in a Jewish grocery store, a time when Jewish children sat in the same classroom in the Old City alongside Christians and Muslims.
As a young man, Mahmoud—I knew him as Abu Dani, or “father of Dani”—had wanted to study architecture. Lacking the tuition for college, he instead enrolled in Jerusalem’s Schneller Vocational School. During World War II he worked for the British army in a metalworks factory. Mahmoud was the kind of man who easily made friends, and though he was Muslim many of his fellow craftsmen were Jewish. One day in the factory he was introduced to a young blond, blue-eyed Jewish woman from Germany.
Frieda had left Germany in 1934, just after graduating from high school. She was the eldest daughter of a linguist and scholar in Berlin who was also active in Agudat Yisrael, the political and social arm of the Haredi, or ultraorthodox, Jewish community, then and now. Like the fundamentalists of other faiths, Haredim believe literally in the divine inspiration of their sacred texts, and of the commandments and rules governing all spheres of life prescribed by those texts, which include first and foremost the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures—and the Talmud’s rabbinical commentaries preserved in the Mishna and the Gemorra. Dani’s devout grandfather did not live to see his daughter marry a Muslim. In the early 1940s, he and his wife were deported by the Nazis to the Lodz ghetto and were never heard from again.
By then, Frieda was living on a kibbutz in Palestine. Curiously, it was her father who had sent her to Palestine in 1934, when she was only nineteen. Perhaps she had rebelled against her father’s intense piety, or had simply become an ardent Zionist. In any case, she did not end up in a death camp. Instead, this young woman of Haredi background fell in love with Mahmoud Bahar. The couple was separated, however, during the 1948 war, when Mahmoud found himself stranded in East Jerusalem, across the armistice line from Frieda. For a time he managed to send messages to her through Mandelbaum Gate via United Nations personnel he had come to know. Eventually, in 1952, they managed to meet in Paris. Mahmoud proposed marriage; Frieda accepted. They were wed in a civil ceremony in Paris, and then Mahmoud took his bride back, via Amman, Jordan, to East Jerusalem. There, he opened a small business. By the mid-1950s, he had saved enough to start building a new home.
Dani was born in the early 1950s, and in the eyes of his father’s fellow Muslims he was a Palestinian Muslim. And yet, because in Judaism one’s identity is determined by the mother’s lineage, Jews could regard Dani as one of their own. He is an anomaly—a Palestinian with a Muslim father and a Jewish mother. Even today, Dani somehow defies any labels. He was educated at an Israeli university and speaks fluent Hebrew, Arabic and English. He loves classical music and the theatre. He is a secular intellectual. Even so, when his Jewish mother died in the late 1990s, he made sure she was buried in a Jewish cemetery with Orthodox rites. And on her gravestone he added the names of his grandparents and two uncles lost to the Shoah. But Dani considers himself a Palestinian, and he deplores what the Israelis have done to his Jerusalem. He has a Jerusalem identity card, but like the vast majority of Palestinians in the city he has refused to take Israeli citizenship.
Though very young, I was aware of Dani’s mixed heritage. I remember Frieda as a tense, high-strung woman who doted on her only son. In East Jerusalem at the time there were only a half-dozen other Jewish women married to Palestinians. Dani’s mother had few friends; but East Jerusalem was a small town in the 1950s and she was well known to shopkeepers. Dani remembers many a long afternoon trailing after her as she went from shop to shop. Not surprisingly, her life centered on her son and husband. “Poor woman,” my mother wrote, “she is so isolated, living here among the Arabs.”
Dani didn’t mean to do it, but one afternoon he killed my white Easter rabbit. The unfortunate animal was hiding at the time under a child’s rocking chair. Dani sat down and started rocking vigorously, unaware of either the rabbit or the fact that a long nail was sticking out from under the seat. The poor rabbit was stabbed to death. The only reason I remember this incident is that it inspired me to organize an elaborate Jerusalem-style funeral procession, complete with palm branches waving in the wind. After marching a couple of blocks down the street, Dani and I, and a few other neighborhood kids, buried the rabbit in a shoebox in a nearby field. I was obviously inspired by the religious processions I had seen in the narrow Old City alleys outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
My father’s job in the East Jerusalem consulate entailed a variety of duties, including the vetting of visa applicants. One such applicant was a twelve-year-old boy, Sirhan Sirhan, a Christian Palestinian who emigrated with his family to California in 1956. Twelve years later Sirhan assassinated Robert Kennedy. Afterwards, Father was informed by the State Department that his name graces Sirhan’s visa application. Father, who in his time had processed hundreds of such applications, had no memory of the Sirhans.
Vice-Consul Gene Bird worked on the ground floor of the consulate, just around the corner from Mandelbaum Gate. His office was large, drafty and stone-floored. Outside, mufti-uniformed Jordanian soldiers stood guard with heavy rifles. They wore oddly shaped pith helmets with a sharply polished spike protruding from the top. Just four months prior to Father’s arrival in 1956, these same Legionnaires had fired into a crowd of angry young Arab men protesting the Eisenhower Administration’s heavy-handed attempt to persuade King Hussein to join the newly formed Baghdad Pact, a military alliance of Britain, Iraq, Turkey and Pakistan designed to “contain” the Soviet Union’s influence in the Middle East. This was at the height of the Cold War, when America viewed the entire globe through its singular obsession with containing Communism and the Soviet Union. For Washington policy-makers small countries like Jordan were mere pawns in this great game. But in the Middle East itself, the Pact was a farce from the moment it was created. It served only to remind the Arab street that American priorities were not Arab priorities. Far from rallying Arab opinion against Communist propaganda, the Pact was immediately perceived as a Trojan horse for either old British colonial interests or America’s new imperial ambitions.
In January 1956, anti-Baghdad Pact protesters attempted to storm their way inside the U.S. consulate, and rifle fire from Jordanian Legionnaires killed six young men. My father’s predecessor as vice-consul, Slater Blackiston Jr., panicked and, displaying extraordinarily bad judgment, fired into the crowd with his own rifle. He was rumored to have wounded a young girl. Blackiston, a former Marine, claimed he was defending his family, who were living in an upper-story apartment in the consulate. When the crowds gathered in the street below, he hid his two young sons in a closet. If news of Blackiston’s involvement had spread, it could easily have created a major diplomatic incident. The State Department ordered his immediate evacuation. Back in Washington, however, the Foreign Service’s “old boy” network stepped in to save his career. Instead of a reprimand, Blackiston was given a medal. And to my father’s dismay, he was the one asked to write the citation that accompanied the medal. Several years later, Blackiston, with whom my father never got along, would become his boss in Cairo.
I was too young to know of such happenings at the time, but as I grew older the stories slowly tumbled out. I used to play in the lovely rose garden that surrounded the walled consulate—the very place where those six young men had been shot. Just around the corner, out in the street, was the spot where in 1948 the U.S. consul general, Tom Wasson, was shot dead one day—apparently by an Israeli sniper hidden in an abandoned building in no-man’s-land—as he was walking toward the consulate’s garden gate entrance. Well aware of the danger, Wasson was wearing a bulletproof vest, but the bullet struck him at the top of his shoulder, hit the vest from the inside and ricocheted back into his chest. He died three hours later.
Father had few opportunities to do much in the way of political reporting. He was assigned to report on the arcane politics of the Old City’s rapidly shrinking Christian religious hierarchy. To this end he had meetings with the various bishops and archbishops of the Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Anglican churches. These black-robed gentlemen were constantly feuding over church prerogatives, territory and money. “Jerusalem office hours are not too long,” Father wrote home in January 1958, “but visitors take up most of my time and then there have been parties, too many parties, during the past few weeks. I feel as if I need to get away for a day or two from this atmosphere of tension, suspicion and distrust, with its fine coating of smiling officials and well-dressed women. People are too diplomatic sometimes to be believable.”
Father was particularly popular with the Russian nuns who controlled the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene, located on the Mount of Olives, near the Garden of Gethsemane. On one of his first visits to this iconic church, built in 1886 by Czar Alexander III, he had let the nuns know that he had had something to do with the CIA slipping the nuns $80,000 for the repair of the church’s seven gold-leaf onion domes. Why, one might wonder, would the CIA have wanted to fund roof repairs at the Church of Mary Magdalene? Well, the Cold War was waged in Jerusalem just as ardently as in the back alleys of Berlin, also a divided city. In this instance, Father had convinced the CIA that if they didn’t fund the roof repairs, the Soviets might step into the breach.
The Soviets had been the first to recognize the new state of Israel, and so in the 1950s the Soviet ambassador to Israel was the “dean” of the diplomatic corps. Consequently, after 1948 the Israelis handed over the “Russian Compound” and all Russian Orthodox Church properties to the Moscowbased, Soviet-controlled church hierarchy.* A Soviet Ecclesiastical Mission operated in West Jerusalem, led at the time by a Russian “priest” who in reality was a Soviet KGB colonel whose previous assignment had been as an adviser to the North Koreans during the Korean War. But in East Jerusalem, Jordanian authorities had given control over Russian ecclesiastical properties to the anti-Communist Russian Orthodox Church headquartered in New York. Thus, there were two Russian Orthodox hierarchies in divided Jerusalem—and naturally, the CIA wanted all the world’s pilgrims to the city to see that the anti-Communist version was exercising good stewardship over such landmarks as the Church of Mary Magdalene.
The consulate had one CIA officer serving under diplomatic cover who arrived in Jerusalem about the same time as Father did—and this caused some locals to conclude that Father was the CIA man. Unfortunately, this agent persuaded Father to pass an unmarked envelope to a Palestinian gentleman who appeared once a week on his doorstep. Inside the envelope was a certain amount of cash: payment for information rendered. As a Foreign Service officer, Father shouldn’t have agreed to do something that might easily have compromised his diplomatic status. But, naively, he did. He stopped the arrangement only when a local Arabic-language newspaper reported, incorrectly, that Eugene Bird was the CIA’s representative.
Jerusalem then was a small town, but it attracted a colorful cast of characters. On their busy social circuit my parents met the mistress of a well-known religious leader, a prominent business leader known to be a homosexual, a “Communist who has also had close relations with people from the ‘other side’ and may be a spy,” a bachelor diplomat who came from his previous posting with a silver tray inscribed “To the night club attaché,” and a consul general who regularly stood on his head in order to relax.
Father loved his job. He loved meeting the local journalists. He easily won the trust of the businessmen, lawyers and landowners who constituted Jerusalem’s Palestinian aristocracy. And he brashly spoke his mind, even to those above him in rank. All of this made him slightly suspect to his superiors: “I am finding,” he wrote a friend back in Washington, “that in the present situation you may do yourself harm with the ‘ins,’ but there are always the ‘outs’ who applaud. The trick is a balanced understanding and a truthfulness about the internal politics which is bound in the long run to leave one who talks with you the impression that you are sincere and frank.” I can’t help thinking that while Father was seen as charming, cheeky and exuberant, he was also thought of as wildly naive. He would never make ambassadorial rank.
He liked to gently provoke people and challenge their preconceptions. In the early autumn of 1956, Father attended a reception at Orient House, a large stone mansion near the American Colony. Built in 1897 by the al-Husseini clan, Orient House later became for a time the PLO’s headquarters in Jerusalem. But in 1956 the al-Hussein’s were running it as a luxury hotel. Standing in the receiving line that evening was Anwar Nusseibeh, a prominent Palestinian lawyer and judge who had lost a leg during the 1948 battle for Jerusalem. As they were introduced, Father remarked that he had just visited one of Jerusalem’s sprawling refugee camps. Nusseibeh responded, “Mr. Bird, you must think we Palestinians are so primitive, still living in tents.” Father shot back that he thought the Palestinians were only about “thirty years behind America.” He then explained that as a boy he too had once “lived like a refugee” in a tent for a while in the midst of the Great Depression. A startled Nusseibeh would always remember the young viceconsul who had once lived in a tent. Father was exaggerating only slightly. His family had been extremely poor in those years, and they had indeed spent a few weeks one summer living in a tent in Oregon. What the aristocratic Nusseibeh did not know was that even then the vice-consul who stood before him was in debt and living from paycheck to paycheck. In July 1956 Father had a bank balance of only $300—of which Mother had budgeted $270 for day-to-day expenses.
Along with the al-Husseinis, the Nashashibis, and the Jarallahs, the Nusseibehs were one of Jerusalem’s four or five leading families. They were thoroughly Anglicized. Anwar Nusseibeh had obtained a law degree from Cambridge in 1936. While practicing law in the courts of British Mandate Palestine he wore the powdered white wig and black cloak of a British barrister. On weekends he played a very good game of tennis and went for long horseback rides in the desert. The Nusseibehs were our neighbors, living in a lovely stone house across the street from the American Colony. Father had them to dinner occasionally, and he often encountered Anwar in the course of his official and unofficial duties.
One of Anwar’s sons, Sari Nusseibeh, was just two years older than I. Like the children of many aristocratic families of Muslim heritage, young Sari attended a Christian English-language school, St. George’s School in East Jerusalem. His bedroom window gave him a view of no-man’s-land. “I could also look down on a shoot-to-kill zone that separated the Jews from the Arabs,” he wrote in his memoirs. “It was a good perch from which to spy on the other side.” He could see as well a slice of everyday life in Israel—he called it the “Zionist entity”—where strange black-clad men sporting long beards and dangling curly sidelocks walked about the narrow streets of the Jewish neighborhood of Me’a She’arim. “Sometimes the bearded creatures looked back at me,” Sari wrote. “It was almost like being in a dream.” Much later, he became a Cambridge-educated philosopher and president of al-Quds University in Jerusalem. In the late 1980s, during the first Intifada, Sari was the anonymous author of many of the weekly underground leaflets that directed the protests. Even today, he remains one of Jerusalem’s most articulate and decidedly independent intellects.
As a lowly vice-consul, Father didn’t normally deal with heads of government. But on one occasion he attended a small conference at the Jewish Agency and listened as Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, fielded some questions. “He has hair whiter than even his pictures show,” Father wrote, “somewhat a halo effect, and tiny blue eyes. He is extremely expressive with his face, his answers almost reflected in his expression before he gives them. He leaves the impression of deep intellectual and moral power, quick, and would be described as cunning by those who disliked him.”
Initially, my parents were decidedly neutral in their attitude towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In mid-July 1956, just two months after arriving in Jerusalem, Father wrote home, “Jerri and I are both completely objective still about the conflict. We can sympathize with the Arabs and their lost lands, but we think they should recognize that it is a lost cause and that life can and must go on within the context of the present armistice.” On the other hand, my mother observed that same week that “It is difficult not to become prejudiced on one side or the other. I find that most people are prejudiced for the side on which they live.”
Sometime during his two-year tour in Jerusalem, Father began to contemplate the notion of becoming an Arabist, a specialist in Arabic language, culture and politics. But back in the 1950s, after the founding of Israel, the term also came to mean a diplomat whose sympathies in the conflict lay with the Arabs. As the writer Robert Kaplan noted in his book The Arabists, the word was used by some critics of the State Department to describe someone “assumed to be politically naive, elitist, and too deferential to exotic cultures.” Even today it remains for some a pejorative, a cutting label applied to a Foreign Service officer who “intellectually sleeps with Arabs.” Francis Fukuyama once described the Arabists he encountered in the Reagan Administration’s State Department as “a sociological phenomenon, an elite within an elite, who have been more systematically wrong than any other area specialists in the diplomatic corps. This is because Arabists not only take on the cause of the Arabs, but also the Arabs’ tendency for self-delusion.”*
This seems overly harsh. But it is certainly true that my father and his fellow Arabists invariably developed a deep admiration for the language and the culture from which it comes. Arabic is a very hard language to learn. I remember, as a young boy, seeing my father sitting for hours on end with a headset over his ears listening to Arabic-language tapes on a large reel-to-reel tape recorder. Memorizing the vocabulary was hard enough, but getting the cadence just right was equally important. And to study classical Arabic means inevitably encountering texts steeped in the history, culture and religions of the Levant. Not surprisingly, those who invested thousands of hours in these studies often became strongly attached to the people and culture.
Father decided to become an Arabist after reading George Antonius—Katy’s late husband. In fact, it may well have been Katy who prompted him to read the book; she was very proud of it. When it was published in 1938, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, George Wadsworth, ordered extra copies for all members of his staff. Wadsworth gushed that the book contained “all that is known about the Arab world.” Another American diplomat wrote, “If you read the book of Antonius you will need nothing more to guide you in your work in the Near East.”
Why has this book held such appeal for American Arabists? Well, one reason is that they are flattered to learn from Antonius’s narrative that the “Arab Awakening” was catalyzed by Americans. Antonius argues that it was idealistic young American missionaries who first planted the seeds of what became modern Arab nationalism. He recounts how on December 3, 1866, Daniel Bliss, a New England Congregationalist, opened the doors of the Syrian Protestant College in the seaside town of Beirut. He had sixteen students, all from Greater Syria, then a province of the Ottoman Empire. Five years later Bliss bought a piece of land on a lovely escarpment in West Beirut, overlooking the Mediterranean. His college eventually was renamed the American University of Beirut, and it has provided an American-style liberal arts education to generations of Arabs from across the Middle East. Significantly, Bliss and his colleagues used Arabic as their language of instruction for the first seventeen years. As Antonius observed, “The educational activities of the American missionaries in that early period had, among many virtues, one outstanding merit: they gave the pride of place to Arabic, and, once they had committed themselves to teaching in it, they put their shoulders with vigor to the task of providing an adequate literature. In that, they were the pioneers; and because of that, the intellectual effervescence which marked the first stirrings of the Arab revival owes most to their labors.”
In 1875, five young graduates formed a secret society dedicated to the cause of Arab unity and nationalism. Antonius argues that the 1916 Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire emerged from these secret societies. His book then goes on to document how the British broke their promises to the Arabs for self-determination and majority rule in an independent Palestine.
If The Arab Awakening remains a classic history, at least in English, of the rise of Arab nationalism, I nevertheless today find the book less interesting than its author. Antonius’s life story personifies the enduring controversy over the question of Palestine. It is alluring, mysterious and ultimately tragic.
As a Greek Orthodox Christian of mixed Egyptian-Lebanese parentage, Antonius favored a secular, multicultural Arab society where Christians, Muslims, Druze and Jews would live together in a nonsectarian state. He was himself the product of a multicultural childhood, born in 1891 in Dayr al-Qamar, a small trading town in the Chouf mountains of central Lebanon. His father was a cotton trader. The people of Dayr al-Qamar were largely a mix of Druze and Christians. But through hundreds of years of intermarriage the Levantine culture of Greater Syria became a multireligious, multicultural hybrid. The people of the Levant were a potpourri of ethnic and religious heritages—including Christian Maronites, Druze, Sunnis and Shi’ite Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians. What all these people shared, however, was not religion but a common language. It was Arabic that united them culturally. On the whole, sectarian violence was relatively rare, but when it occurred, it could be brutal. During the civil war of 1859-60 more than 2,200 Christians were massacred in Dayr al-Qamar in a single day. But during the years of Antonius’s youth the Chouf was a peaceful reserve.
When Antonius was ten years old, his family settled in Alexandria, Egypt, another multicultural seaside city, where he attended the prestigious Victoria College. In 1910, he began his studies at Cambridge University, where he earned a degree in engineering. He spent the years of World War I back in Alexandria, where he befriended E. M. Forster and helped the future author of A Passage to India to write a guidebook on Alexandria. In the early 1920s he settled in Jerusalem, obtained Palestinian citizenship and went to work for the British Mandate government. The British valued this suave Arab intellectual, a man fluent in both Arabic and French—and who spoke his English with a refined Cambridge accent. “No one that I have ever met … so admirably combines the passion of the Syrian patriot,” wrote one British official, “with the lucidity of the Cambridge don in stating his patriotic beliefs.” When he visited London for a few months in late 1920 and early 1921, Antonius had the opportunity to spend several hours with T. E. Lawrence. He was singularly unimpressed and came away with the feeling that this British officer had no comprehension of how egregiously London had reneged on its wartime promises of independence for the Arabs.
Back in Jerusalem, Antonius chafed in the bureaucracy; he was eager to play a role in shaping the political future of Palestine. In 1930 he persuaded an American think tank, the Institute of Current World Affairs, to appoint him a fellow with a generous stipend and an assignment to write regular reports on Middle East politics.
In 1927 Antonius married Katy Nimr. The couple initially lived in a spacious, high-ceilinged apartment in Jerusalem’s Austrian Hospice. They lived as Palestinian aristocrats. Their living room was lined with bookshelves, and Persian carpets were strewn about on the walls and stone floors. (Over the years of their marriage they acquired a personal library of 12,000 books.)
In the early 1930s they rented a beautiful old white stone house in the Sheikh Jarrah district. The house was owned by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the controversial Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a position created by the British mandatory authorities in 1921. As Grand Mufti, Husseini was nominally in charge of Jerusalem’s Islamic sites, but the position gave him a prominent political status. Husseini was a mercurial, charismatic leader—but he would also prove himself a demagogue. When the American journalist Vincent Sheean encountered him in 1929, he found the Mufti “an extremely level-headed, deliberate man, mild-mannered and thoughtful.” But even then, Sheean noted, “Nothing but death could have kept him from opposing Zionism by every means in his power.” Husseini once wrote of Jews, “They have no pity and are known for their hatred, rivalry and hardness, as Allah described them in the Koran.” During World War II he would flee to Nazi Germany, where he met with Adolf Hitler and urged the Nazi leader to prevent Jewish emigration to Palestine.
Husseini was always a fanatical Palestinian nationalist, and exactly the wrong man at the wrong time to lead the Palestinians. But during the prewar years Antonius became his friend and informal adviser. The well-known British travel writer Freya Stark later wrote that Husseini “had bewitched George Antonius as securely as ever a siren did her mariner, leading him through his slippery realms with sealed eyes so that George—whom I was fond of—would talk to me without a flicker about the Mufti’s ‘single-hearted goodness.’” George was a naive man, at heart a romantic intellectual.
Sheean visited Jerusalem in 1929, armed with a letter of introduction to Antonius from E. M. Forster. He quickly became an ardent admirer of his new acquaintance: “His intelligence never seemed to be altogether harnessed to one subject, as was the case with everybody else I met in that part of the world…. Antonius was remarkable in many ways, but most remarkable because he kept an even keel, and remembered his obligation as an intelligent and cultivated human being not to lose his head.”
Surrounded by piles of archival documents and deep-red Bokhara carpets, Antonius began writing what was to become his Arab manifesto—while his sharp-tongued wife quickly became Jerusalem’s most sought-after hostess. Antonius thought of himself as “a bridge between two different cultures and an agent in the interpretation of one to the other.”
In Palestine, his chosen homeland, he believed there was room for a thriving Jewish community—but no room for an exclusively Jewish state. As early as 1929, he told Sheean that he “believed the Zionist programme was unfair to the Arabs without offering any solution to the Jewish problem; he [Antonius] was convinced it would lead to serious, recurring troubles.” Nevertheless, under British rule Jewish refugees from Europe were smuggling themselves into the region in rising numbers. In 1918 the population of the Palestinian Yishuv numbered around 57,000, or only 8 percent of the total population. By 1929 there were probably 750,000 Arabs and 150,000 Jews. But in 1935 alone some 62,000 Jews arrived in Palestine. Most of these immigrants were seeking refuge from Hitler’s Germany, and Palestine’s gates were still at least partially open. America, by contrast, was accepting very few Jewish refugees. By 1939 there may have been as many as 1,070,000 Arabs and about 460,000 Jews in Palestine. As a consequence, the Zionist leadership believed they were gradually but methodically capturing Palestine, “goat by goat, dunum by dunum.”
As early as 1923, Ze’ev Jabotinsky had spelled out the inevitable consequences: “Thus we conclude that we cannot promise anything to the Arabs of the Land of Israel or the Arab countries. Their voluntary agreement [to Jewish immigration] is out of the question. Hence those who hold that an agreement with the natives is an essential condition for Zionism can now say ‘no’ and depart from Zionism. Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population. This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population—an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs. To formulate it any other way would only be hypocrisy.” Jabotinsky’s iron wall was essential to the Zionist enterprise. Without it, there would be no Jewish state. The leading mainstream Zionist leader, David Ben-Gurion, was no less uncompromising: “There is a fundamental conflict. We and they want the same thing. We both want Palestine. Were I an Arab … I would rise up against immigration liable sometimes in the future to hand the country … over to Jewish rule.” In 1936 Ben-Gurion made his intentions even more explicit in a private letter to his son: “We will expel the Arabs and take their place.”
That same year the Palestinians rose up, first with a general strike organized by the Arab Higher Committee, an elite group of six notables led by the Grand Mufti. Initially, their protests were entirely nonviolent. They demanded free elections, based on majority rule, to create a national assembly. Zionist leaders rejected this proposal, citing the Balfour Declaration, which promised a Jewish homeland. The British rebuffed the Arab Higher Committee. Obviously, if elections had been held, any such assembly would have voted to restrict Jewish immigration.
As the months rolled by, strikes and peaceful demonstrations gave way to escalating violence. A British official was assassinated in the Galilee, and the British foolishly responded by banning the Arab Higher Committee, whose members were exiled without trial to the Seychelles. The Grand Mufti managed to escape abroad disguised as a woman, dressed in an abaya. Deprived of their traditional leaders, Palestinian peasants and villagers took to waging guerrilla warfare against the British and the Jews. Over the next three years the British brutally repressed the rebellion, killing as many as 6,000 Palestinians and incarcerating another 6,000.
Antonius was horrified by the British response to the rebellion. “Their policy has turned Palestine,” he wrote, “into a shambles, they show no indication of a return to sanity, that is to say to the principles of ordinary common sense and justice which are held in such high honor in England.” When the Arab general strike first took hold in April 1936, Antonius met three times with Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, to explore the possibilities, if any, for a peaceful solution. The Palestinian peasantry, Antonius explained, saw themselves being displaced from the land they had tilled for generations. “… in the entire 18 years of British rule,” he complained, “not a single step had been taken by the Jews that gave the Arabs the impression that the Jews were interested in their goodwill.” Ben-Gurion insisted that a Zionist state would not “dominate” the Palestinians. To the contrary, he told Antonius, they would be liberated by being exposed to the Zionist example of “women’s equality under the law and hard work.” Antonius ignored this patronizing remark and replied that it was quite evident that the Zionist goal was to create a state where “all of this country would be handed over to Jewish rule, with the Arab merely tolerated; the state would be sovereign and separate, and none of the Arabs would have any share in it.” The two men understood each other all too well.
Antonius published his book in late 1938, just after Kristallnacht—Nazi Germany’s infamous general pogrom against its Jewish population—and a decade before the establishment of the state of Israel. It quickly became a manifesto for the Arab nationalist cause. He took his title from a line in a poem by the nineteenth-century Lebanese poet Ibrahim Yazeji, “Arise, ye Arabs, and awake.”
On the critical question of Palestine, Antonius was blunt and passionate. He condemned Arab violence against Jews and Jewish violence against Arabs. He invoked “common sense and justice” and concluded, “There is no room for a second nation in a country which is already inhabited, and inhabited by a people whose national consciousness is fully awakened and whose affection for their homes and countryside is obviously unconquerable…. Once the fact is faced that the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, or a national home based on territorial sovereignty, cannot be accomplished without forcibly displacing the Arabs, the way to a solution becomes clearer.” Palestine should become an independent Arab state, he wrote, “in which as many Jews as the country can hold without prejudice to its political and economic freedom would live in peace, security and dignity, and enjoy full rights of citizenship.” Such a multinational, secular state, Antonius argued, “would enable the Jews to have a national home in the spiritual and cultural sense, in which Jewish values could flourish and the Jewish genius have the freest play to seek inspiration in the land of its ancient connection…. No other solution seems practical, except possibly at the cost of an unpredictable holocaust of Arab, Jewish and British lives.”
The Arab Awakening was widely praised by reviewers in both Britain and America. The New York Times reviewer called Antonius “an eloquent advocate” of Arab nationalism. Antonius did not write as an “Orientalist” but rather as a critic of the Western imperial adventure in the Middle East. In 1938 such criticism was quite unusual. The book nevertheless was cited for decades by historians in the West and did much to shape visiting journalists’ explanations of the rising tide of Arab nationalism in the postwar era. Its influence was on American and British policy-makers and observers—and Arab intellectuals—but not the Arab masses.
Although Antonius opposed the creation of an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine, in the late 1930s he was by no means insensitive to the plight of the Jewish people in Fascist Europe. “The treatment meted out to the Jews in Germany and other European countries is a disgrace to its authors and to modern civilization,” he wrote. “But posterity will not exonerate any country that fails to bear its proper share of the sacrifices needed to alleviate Jewish suffering and distress. To place the brunt of the burden upon Arab Palestine is a miserable evasion of the duty that lies upon the whole of the civilized world…. No code of morals can justify the persecution of one people in an attempt to relieve the persecution of another. The cure for the eviction of Jews from Germany is not to be sought in the eviction of the Arabs from their homeland.”
Antonius wanted to create a democratic, multiethnic state in which the Jewish minority would assume “the rights of ordinary citizens” within a pluralistic civil society. “All the elements in Palestine should work together, the only divisions being those of party alignment working in the common interest and not on a sectional or communal basis.”
On the eve of World War II, Antonius found his life unraveling. In 1939, his friend and mentor at the Institute of Current World Affairs, Charles Crane, died. Antonius himself fell into bouts of ill-health. He had expected his book to sell more widely than it did; depressed, he fell behind on his work for the Institute, and in late 1941 the Institute terminated his contract. To his distress, he was left without even a pension. His personal life was also falling apart. He and Katy had always had somewhat of an open marriage, but now Katy demanded an end to it. By then Antonius was hospitalized in Jerusalem with a perforated duodenal ulcer. It may have been cancerous, but in any case, he died suddenly on May 21, 1942. He was only fifty years old. A week or two earlier, Katy had obtained a divorce. She kept the house in West Jerusalem.
Antonius was buried in the Greek Orthodox cemetery on Mount Zion. His name is engraved in both English and Arabic on a simple gravestone. The brief epitaph was the line he quoted in his book: “Arise, ye Arabs, and awake.”
Antonius died far too young. And his Arabs did not awaken, at least not in the manner he would have desired. Had he lived, would his cultured voice and reasoned arguments have persuaded the Arabs and Jews of Palestine to take a different direction than war? Probably not. But perhaps the world outside Palestine would have seen the conflict from a different perspective. Without Antonius there were few Arab intellectuals capable of explaining the case for a multicultural Palestine to the West. Furthermore, Antonius died just three months after the 1942 Wannsee conference in which Hitler’s top aides fashioned a plan for “the complete annihilation of the Jews.” When the horrors of the Holocaust became fully known in 1945 the fate of the six million would persuade many that the Zionist cause in Palestine was not only just but necessary.
Albert Hourani, a future Oxford don, was disheartened when he learned of his friend’s sudden death. “Antonius died at the moment when he was most needed—at the moment for which his whole life had been a preparation.” Visiting Jerusalem shortly afterwards, Hourani could see that the two peoples were on a collision course and that there were few men capable of changing the internal dynamics of the conflict. Antonius might have been one such man. He might have been the bridge.
*“Dani” is an alias—he is highly reluctant to be named, so I’ve changed some details of his story to protect his identity. I have also used pseudonyms for other members of his family.
*A building in the Russian Compound later became the Moskobiya Detention Center, where to this day Palestinian detainees are interrogated by the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence bureau.
*Elite or not, the State Department trained very few Arabists. Between World War I and World War II the Department had only six qualified Arabists. Interestingly, in the spring of 2002, right after 9/11 and about a year before the Iraq War of 2003, the Department still had only six officers proficient in Arabic.
© 2010 Kai Bird
Meet the Author
Kai Bird is the co-author with Martin J. Sherwin of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005), which also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography. His other books include The Chairman: John J. McCloy, the Making of the American Establishment (1992) and The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy & William Bundy, Brothers in Arms (1998). Bird’s many honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the German Marshall Fund, and the Rockefeller Foundation. A contributing editor of The Nation, he lives in Kathmandu, Nepal, with his wife and son.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
This is a very interesting historical book, primarily about the Middle East and Kai Bird's memories of his growing up there. It is very informative and a good read for anyone interested in understanding why things happened the way they did and why there is never-ending conflict in the area. International Intervention causes changes to occur, but they don't bring peace. It was of special interest to me, because I knew his family at the time.