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Kai Bird's 'Gate': One Foot In Israel, One In Palestine

Writer and historian Kai Bird has been accused of being "naive" when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict -- and he says he's OK with that -- perhaps because he has experienced it from both sides. Bird grew up with an Arab view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: His father was an American diplomat, a scholar of the Arab world whose work took the family to Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Now, Bird is married to a Jewish woman -- the daughter of Holocaust survivors -- and they have raised their son in the Jewish tradition.

Bird's latest book describes his experience "coming of age between the Arabs and Israelis." Part history, part memoir, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate is named for the checkpoint that separated Israeli West Jerusalem and Jordanian East Jerusalem when Bird was a child there. In Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, Bird tries to make sense of the juncture of the Shoah, the Holocaust of the Jews, and Nakba, the catastrophe, as Palestinians view the creation of the state of Israel.

As he learned more about the Holocaust from his in-laws, Bird says he realized that it is impossible to understand the Nakba for the Palestinians without understanding the Shoah for the Jews.

"These are two people who are filled with victimhood, and they don't understand each others' victimhood," Bird tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

Bird gradually came to appreciate this profound sense of victimization through his wife's family; his mother-in-law was orphaned during the Holocaust at 16, and went on to become a spy against the Germans in Italy -- putting herself in great danger. Decades later, living in New York City in the 1960s, she kept a fully packed suitcase in the closet -- just in case she needed to flee suddenly.

Arabs often dismiss citations of the Holocaust as something they had nothing to do with, while Israelis dismiss the Nakba as an injury that was slight compared to what Jews have endured.

Bird cites one Palestinian friend living in Ramallah who argues that "Palestinians should not be blamed for the Holocaust committed by Europeans." And yet, Bird says his friend "understands the fact that her neighbors are filled with a dreaded victimhood."

In the long term, Bird foresees a two-state solution for Israel.

"I don't think it's rocket science to understand what should happen and what eventually will happen between the Palestinians and the Israelis," he says. "It's a very small place ... Eventually these two people are going to have to live with each other."

But he is not optimistic that a solution to this "emotional hot button" will get sorted out anytime soon.

"There are very few reasonable people who are willing to cross the borders -- to cross Mandelbaum Gate," he explains. "It's just a terribly intractable problem."

In the long term, Bird has hope for the Nusseibeh-Ayalon Plan -- laid out by Sari Nusseibeh, president of Jerusalem's Al-Quds University, and Ami Ayalon, former head of the Israeli security agency. Both were Bird's childhood friends.

Bird explains: "They said, 'Let's share the land. Let's create a Palestinian state along the '67 green line borders and share Jerusalem.' It makes ultimate sense, and I think that's the way to go."

The current state of affairs is not encouraging, and Bird acknowledges that the country is many decades away from a two-state solution. Yet he says that looking at Sheikh Jarrah, his old East Jerusalem neighborhood, gives him hope: Every Friday in Sheikh Jarrah, hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis join together in nonviolent protest against the building of settlements in East Jerusalem.

"I know I've been accused of being naive, and I own up to it," Bird says. "But I think that at a time when the realists have all failed, we should be naive. We should go for a naive solution."

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