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Crossing Mandelbaum Gate

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

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Jerusalem


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 application

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